Electrical waste (e-waste) continues to be a growing problem globally and is estimated to increase by at least 2 million tonnes per year, to reach 120 million tonnes by 2050 if both manufactures and consumers fail to take action.
In July 2021, the UK Government put into force a new ecodesign requirement for electrical products sold in Great Britain. Known as the Right to Repair Regulation, it mirrors EU regulations with the aim to facilitate progress towards a more circular economy. The regulation asserts the responsibility of manufacturers to reduce energy usage and electrical waste, make spare parts and technical information available for professional repairers, and enable consumers to identify the most energy efficient products on the market.
As we approach the 2-years mark since the regulation was enforced, we take a closer look at the role of design as an enabler of more sustainable production and consumption behaviours to benefit both people and planet.
Embracing change for the greater good
Right to repair is without doubt a complex area for consumer brands to navigate. It requires a shift from existing business models, portfolio, design, and manufacturing strategies that are largely built on planned obsolescence, towards models that embrace product longevity, repairability and recyclability.
Before embarking on this journey, brands must first gain a broader understanding of how consumers interact with a product and the instances where that product may become damaged. These insights will inform not just early concepts, but also validate design decisions along the development process.
Observational research techniques such as contextual enquiry are an effective first step to build a clear picture of user’s behaviour with a product in context, enabling brands to pinpoint breakpoints in the user experience where misuse, hacking, or accidents can result in product damage.
Good design that builds on consumer and contextual insights should of course mitigate the risk of accidental damage possible. However, by expanding that understanding to the end-of-life of a product, we can unveil vital insights into how consumers react when their product is broken and what they will do next.
Raising perceived value to create behaviour change
So, how do consumers feel and act when something they own breaks? What range of emotions do they go through – do they feel annoyed, angry, sad? And how do these emotions influence behaviour?
The level of financial, functional, and emotional investment in a product will often determine a consumer’s next action and relates directly to perceived . So, an initial step in design for repair should be to ensure that the consumer considers the product worth repairing in the first place. This can be achieved not only through good functionality, but also through superior usability and well-considered design and materiality – regardless of price point.
Another dimension that is now coming into play for consumers is the sustainability value of a product; to what extent does this product enable me to engage in more sustainable behaviours? As the impact of climate change becomes more immediate and tangible through its direct effect on health and finances, the motivation to change one’s own behaviour becomes stronger. As a result, consumers are demanding that brands help them achieve their own sustainable living goals, no matter how small, through the products they purchase and use.
Creating new value through product relove
It’s worth taking a moment to pause and consider how different cultures think about and approach repairability. Take for instance Kintsugi (meaning “joining with gold”), the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. As part of a wider philosophy of embracing the beauty of human flaws, it celebrates breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.
Similarly, Sashiko is a form of decorative reinforcement stitching (or functional embroidery) to reinforce points of wear, or to repair worn areas or tears with patches. Japanese apparel brand UNIQLO offers this service in collaboration with Studio Masachuka in many of its larger stores and through online repair tutorials, as a means of encourage consumers to make creative and sustainable decisions to add to the piece.
These are great examples of how a change to the narrative and fresh perception around a product that is broken or worn can create a new value and sense of relove for consumers; and while the consumer electronics and appliance sectors are vastly different from ceramics and apparel in many ways, brands should explore how they can take these core principles and translate into their own product range as part of a wider sustainability strategy.
Putting repair at the heart of the product experience
While the Right to Repair regulation focuses on the role and responsibility of manufacturers to move to more sustainable behaviours, we are also seeing momentum gather in the home repairer movement through the uptake of a number of websites, online communities and repair events aimed at educating consumers on how to repair everyday products at home. A good example is iFixit, whose global community of fixers and repair-seekers are helping to keep e-waste from entering landfill by extending the life of seemingly broken products.
iFixit offers free visual step-by-step instructions for a whole range of consumer products – from phones and IT, through to games consoles, home appliances and smart home devices; with the option for consumers to purchase precision tools and replacement parts if needed.
Recently, Nokia released its first low-cost smartphone with repairability at its core. Initially set to be sold in select global markets including Europe, the design of the G22 phone allows components to be easily unscrewed and replaced including the battery, screen and charging port. Nokia worked in collaboration with iFixit to offer consumers step-by-step repair guides and affordable parts for the G22, including a screen assembly replacement with all the necessary tools for under £50.
This is certainly a step in the right direction and one that brands need to take notice of. To make positive and lasting change, brands need to look beyond the obvious material and packaging choices when considering sustainable design; going to the heart of the product experience to shift consumption behaviours away from the throwaway culture we have all become so accustomed to.
The role of design in creating more sustainable behaviours
To align and adapt existing business models and product portfolios to design for repair, brands need to adopt a more holistic approach to product development – with research and design for sustainability at its core from the start of the process. To drive more sustainable behaviours, here are some initial design considerations for brands to explore.
Protect and delight
By leveraging a deep understanding of user behaviour through tools such as contextual enquiry and experiencing mapping, brands can integrate clever design features to mitigate accidental damage of a product in the first place. Think back to Apple’s Magsafe power adaptor for their MacBooks, initially introduced in 2006 for the MacBook Air. While this feature provided a quick and easy means to connect the laptop to a power source, it also functioned as a quick release if a user were to accidently pull or trip on the charging wire, preventing the laptop form crashing to the floor and potentially becoming damaged. As a brand, what clever design features can you conceive to overcome some of the accidental moments experienced by users, and make them smile instead?
Changing the narrative
Reimaging product architecture to allow for repair, requires greater focus on the disassembly of the product and modularity of core components. Brands will need to carefully weigh up the trade-offs that come with this approach, notably around the size of devices. Years of technical development have gone into size and weight reduction of many consumer electronics such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops; resulting in some components being glued into place to hit these seemingly desirable targets and thus forgoing the ability to be repaired. A new narrative is required that shifts the focus away from the thinnest or smallest as the most desirable option, to one that put focus on longevity and responsible behaviours. As a brand, what compelling stories can you tell your consumers about how the form of your product is driven by responsible choices?
Looking ahead there are many ways for brands to implement more sustainable solutions, from incremental innovations to revolutionary ones that can bring not only commercial success, but also lead the way for the industry. The key is to take those initial steps in driving sustainable production and consumption behaviours, designing for product-relove rather than end-of-life.
If you would like to know more about how PDD can help you explore design for sustainability, please get in touch.