Slowing down our consumption of materials
Whenever this is raised it causes some concerns from an economic perspective. We are used to demanding economic growth and for the past hundred years or so that economic growth has been inextricably linked to consumption. Can we generate economic growth with reduced levels of consumption of raw materials and energy?
Let’s simplify the economics: economic activity occurs when we provide a product or service that someone purchases. The cost of the product or service reflects the complexity and duration of the tasks during creation and scarcity of resources used (both material and human resources). Increased economic activity could arise through a greater number of products and services purchased or crucially through the purchase of more complex and work-intensive products and services.
If we wanted to slow down the use of raw materials we would have to build products that last longer and/or use more recycled content. This is analogous to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Products (or services) that last longer would be firmly in the Reduce category. Products with multiple uses or those that could be re-purposed after our use of them would be in the Reuse category. Finally products that source their materials either from waste or previously broken products would be in the Recycle category.
It would be great if a product that lasted twice as long were the same price as the cheapest on the market, but it might be expected that as we select products that are built to last we would pay more for them at point of purchase. Crudely, economic activity should be unaffected if we purchase a product which has taken twice as much effort to make but which will last twice as long. The only thing we’ve effectively done is reduce the waste stream by 50%.
How can we satisfy the desires of ever-increasing economic growth at the same time as slowing down our use of raw materials and energy? The first thing one might say is that maybe our desire for ever-increasing economic growth is wrong: should not our real societal target be happiness rather than money? The second thing is that economic growth could come without the need for an exponential rise in the use of raw materials: we would need to value instead human creativity. Products and services with more human inventiveness, skill and effort. Better and smarter and designed to last.
If we really want to see a change towards longer-lasting items, we as consumers would need to see beyond the initial price tag. It would be helpful for reviewers to make more of the durability or expected life when rating products and services. We would need to be more comfortable with seeing cost per year, rather than upfront cost. And to go with that it would make sense to allow the purchase cost to be spread out over time. If a product or service is truly going to last much longer (resulting in a lower cost per year) then it is only fair that this choice can be accessed by people on a tight budget too.
The ability to repair products would also help in the journey to longer-lasting items. Repairability should be designed into the product. The right to repair movement is becoming more visible in 2021. A combination of more durable and more repairable products should really help reduce our consumption of materials.