How to Design for a Post-Consumption Economy

By Eric Wilmot
Published September 30, 2009
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Tags: Bio-based Products, Business Operations, More… Bio-based Products, Business Operations, Consumer Products, Design & Innovation, Energy & Climate, Life-Cycle Management, Packaging, Resource Efficiency, Supply Chain

We are all consumers.

As we continue to gain a deeper understanding of the impacts of global growth, it has become clear that our consumption-centric lifestyle has challenged our planet’s ability to support us.

Recent market meltdowns, regulatory limitations on off-shore manufacturing, and the social and environmental impacts of a consumption-oriented economic model has given rise to a challenge — does our economy need to be focused solely on spurring consumption in order to survive?

The answer is a resounding no.

The Shift from Human-Centered to Resource-Centered Design

Ironically, the modern green response to these new environmental and social pressures attempt to make things better through new or altered methods of consumption. We’ve seen an explosion of everything from recycled paper to hybrid cars to green cleaning products to energy efficient electronics as purported solutions.

This, unfortunately, is flawed logic — digging slower won’t stop a hole from getting deeper. There is incredible economic opportunity if we learn to reframe problems, seize opportunities and design solutions by looking beyond the consumption-oriented economic model.

Within the context of our day-to-day lives, we encounter dozens, if not hundreds, of interactions with various products, services, and environments relative to our lifestyles. Although it may come as a surprise to some, a very high percentage of these interactions are the focus of somebody’s business. These interactions are anticipated, researched, designed, and re-evaluated for improvements. We purchase these products. We use them. We throw them away. We go buy more. And the money exchanged forms the basis of our economy.

But just as we emerged from the dark ages to a new era of social and artistic enlightenment, we are now entering the post-industrial age with the realization that the well being of our economy is not separate from the health of our natural resources.

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Globalization took hold after World War II, with the goal of integrating global powers for shared economic security. The running theory was that if nations became economically interdependent, no one nation would willingly disrupt this chain, encouraging postwar peace. In hindsight, this experiment has produced new challenges steeped in social and environmental unrest.

So, while business circles slowly recognize the need to adopt environmental and social issues into their corporate statements, the solutions continue to be framed through the lens of consumption. Ironically, we’re placing our bets for new solutions to be borne from the same practices that created these massive ecological problems in the first place.

In the spirit of progress and “triple bottom line” (i.e., economic, social, environmental) development, how might we start to discover new opportunities that generate wealth without destroying our planet? How might we challenge our existing approach of framing problems to provide more holistically responsible solutions that continue to drive economic growth?

To Err Is Human-Centered

To understand where we need to go, it’s important to understand how we got here. Contemporary design and marketing practices have emphasized “human-centeredness.” Human-centered has become synonymous with “user-centered,” which historically relates to the designed interactions between technology and humans. Microsoft Windows was a user-centered solution to the then-classic DOS operating systems.

However, the current interpretation of human-centered has expanded to indulge human desires at the expense of other equally critical considerations. This is a dangerous interpretation that has become default for many leading academic and professional creative practices. Don Norman explains the main concern of such unquestioning adoption of human centered approaches: “The focus upon individual people (or groups) might improve things for them at the cost of making it worse for others.”

In reality, our human-centeredness has driven us to the brink of unsustainable lifestyle through the strain our over-consumption is putting on our natural resources, and may represent the largest self-inflicted problem a species has ever created for itself short of Easter Island.

Ironically, and perhaps controversially, our current overload of media is in many ways widening the gap between our habits, actions, and understanding of the consequences of our lifestyle choices. A recent study showed that children could identify on average, over a 1000 brand logos, but could identify less than 12 native plants and food types.

The inertia of mass adoption of ever-changing technologies makes it a component of our evolutionary history. Period. But a question we must now ask is, “Where are we going with all of this?” Our contemporary world has been shaped from an engineering and capabilities point of view. We make things because we can.

Case in point. We now find ourselves immersed in exploding social media platforms, and are hanging on just to keep up. But in all the promise of “better experiences” and seamless access to virtually any information — in whatever form you might want it in — we are, at the same time, recognizing a continuing rift between the trajectories of our human development, and the capacity of our natural system to support it.

The rise of the Internet didn’t make things lighter but in fact spurred easier, and more rapid, consumption debunking the idea that we’re somehow enabling a “product-less” world. Similarly, a look at media’s proximity to our current definition of “social” begs the question if anyone sees the light at the end of this newest technology tunnel. If Facebook, for example, does in fact achieve success in connecting everyone in the world, well, what is the true impact beyond server farms sucking up enough energy to power small cities?