Emotional attachment: Developing lasting relationships with our belongings

These days, a product’s physical longevity will not prevent it from being thrown away if the owner no longer wants it.

These days, a product’s physical longevity will not prevent it from being thrown away if the owner no longer wants it. To avoid unnecessary waste of otherwise useful goods, is it time we should start to form emotional bonds with them?

Denim jeans have supported emotionally durable relationships for decades. all photos: katherine anne rose © 2005 Click here to enlarge image

Landfills around the globe are overloaded with fully functional appliances - freezers that still freeze and toasters that still toast - their only crime being a failure to sustain an emotional attachment to their users. Waste of this nature can thus be seen as a symptom of a failed relationship, split by one single yet profoundly universal inconsistency - consumer desires relentlessly grow and flex while material possessions remain relatively frozen in time. This incapacity for mutual evolution renders most products incapable of sustaining a durable relationship with their users. The mountain of electronic and electrical waste this single inconsistency generates is unsustainably large, and comes at increasing cost to both the natural world and manufacturers who fail to meet the forthcoming legislative demands of the European WEEE Directive.

The conventional model of durability and waste

Few would contest that the principal endeavour of durability is to optimize objects’ functional lives. As a result it is natural for most designers to focus on the object’s survival in their design methodologies. In these somewhat superficial scenarios, durability is distinguished purely by a product’s physical endurance, whether cherished or discarded; engineers triumphantly celebrate as fully functioning hairdryers emerge from a five-year landfill hiatus. Is this durable product design, or simply the designing of durable waste? Landfills bloat with strata upon strata of durable goods, slowly living out their tough robust existences beneath ten thousand tonnes of like-minded scrap. It therefore appears clear that there is little point designing physical durability into consumer goods, if the consumer has no desire to keep them. In addition, product failure is essentially characterized by blown circuits, stress fractures and a host of other technical and physical glitches; in attending solely to physical ageing, invaluable alternative renderings of durability are overlooked.

If we are to develop new ways of working in compliance with WEEE legislation, we must begin by breaking away from the physical model of durability and product longevity, to develop greater understanding of the sustainability of empathy, meaning, desire and other metaphysical factors that influence the duration of product life.

Sustainable design is symptom-focused

In the last 40 years, countless strategic approaches to sustainable design, from the bizarre to the banal, have circulated the more progressive creative ponds. Many of these approaches focus purely on specific stages of the product life-cycle; these are generically referred to as Design for X (DfX) strategies. These DfX strategies - including design for disassembly, design for recycling and design for reuse - are increasingly deployed by the white goods, electronics and automotive sectors where legislative demand for waste minimization such as WEEE is mounting fast. Other popular strategies include alternative energies, from solar to human power, sourcing local materials and processes, collapsible objects to conserve landfill space, supply chain management, zero emissions, compostable products and a growing interest in edible packaging - to name but a small handful. Despite their apparent diversity, in their current guise sustainable design methodologies lack philosophical depth, adopting a symptom-focused approach comparable to that of western medicine.

Many healthcare professionals candidly admit that western medical practice is frequently more concerned with the suppression of undesirable symptoms than with the actual restoration of health per se. If a patient has a headache for example, a western doctor will most likely prescribe drugs to mask the pain, with little regard to what may be causing the discomfort. However, experienced Chinese medical practitioners state that over 50% of headaches are caused by the body’s inability to detoxify as a result of mild dehydration, and are thus curable by simply drinking a large glass of water. For decades the consumer machine has raged forth practically unchanged, leaving designers to attend the periphery, healing mere symptoms of what is in essence a fundamentally flawed system.

Amidst the frantic scramble to comply with forthcoming demands of legislation such as WEEE, the root causes of the ecological crisis we face are often overlooked; meanwhile consumers continue wastefully on, but now they do so with recycled materials instead of virgin ones. Indeed, sustainable design has developed a tendency to focus on the symptoms of the ecological crisis rather than the actual causes. In consequence, deeper strategic possibilities are overlooked which, if developed, might build further value into existing waste-minimizing methodologies. By failing to understand the actual drivers underpinning the human consumption and waste of goods, sustainable design resigns itself to being a peripheral activity, rather than the central pioneer of positive social change that it potentially could be.

Emotionally durable design

Products with emotionally durable characteristics already exist, and in surprising numbers. For example, jeans may be described as emotionally durable; purchased like blank canvases, jeans are worked on, sculpted and personified over time. Like a second skin they are lived in, faded and bulged by our experiences. Jeans are like familiar old friends; the character they acquire provides reflection of one’s own experiences, taking the relationship beyond user-and-used to creator-and-creature. To intensify the sense of creation further, people rip their jeans, cut them with knives, scrub them with a yard brush, bleach them and throw paint over them. One woman in New Jersey takes the notion of customization a step further by driving a pick-up truck over her pair, all to intensify and personalize the accumulation of patina.

On a more technological note, the fast-growing industry of domestic robotics is all too aware of the crucial role that emotional durability plays in the nurturing of lasting subject/object relationships; global giants like Sony, Honda and Samsung invest substantial capital into the research and development of digital products that users are likely to nurture durable emotional attachments to.

Launched on-line in 1999, Aibo (Artificial Intelligence roBOt) comes with six basic emotions - happiness, anger, sadness, dislike, fear and surprise - and four basic urges - to love, explore, move and be recharged - that begin lightly to scratch the complex surface of human behavioural ambiguity, though its emotional capabilities are still quite primitive. Several product generations later in 2001, the Aibo ERS-220 popped its head out of the Sony kennel, bringing with it a 75-word vocabulary and an onboard camera with which to take its own photographs. It also uses a combination of lights with which it communicates its moods and also expresses itself quite strongly to the owner. It can also learn tricks and react to complex voice commands, and has numerous sensors enabling appropriate feedback in response to petting (or lack of petting in the more neglectful cases). Furthermore, the nature of interaction that occurs between an ERS-220 and its owner shapes the growth of its character and temperament. To make things even more interesting, it cannot be reset and so must be lovingly raised from a naive pooch to a wise old hound. This places a certain parental responsibility on the owner’s shoulders, coercing them to tread carefully and treat their new companion well in order to avoid ending up with an adolescent rogue instead of the subservient robo-pup so fondly dreamt of.

WEEE and the economics of product life extension

The steady increase in legislation such as the WEEE Directive continues to turn up the heat on designers and manufacturers, the pressure to be ecologically accountable is increasing fast. However, when set against the commercial backdrop of continually newer and shinier things, a discussion on product life extension and desirable ageing strategies appears somewhat impromptu; when considering the future extension of product longevity, the underlying question might still therefore be: how can the economy survive if we only sell one unit per consumer?

This would seem at first to be a valid question. To suggest that consumers should keep what they have - and for longer - grates harshly against the current model of global capitalism. Yet in allowing consumers to develop a degree of empathy with the products they own, you automatically nurture a visceral empathy with that particular brand. The felt sense of empathy resonates deeply within consumers’ perceptions of a particular corporation’s core values, and this is vigorously influential over both the intensity and longevity of relationships that consumers establish with a particular brand.

Turnover can still be generated long after an product has been sold - through upgrade, repair and servicing, for example - and for this reason those at boardroom level should cease to recoil in terror at the very thought of extending product lifespans; on the contrary, if revenue can be generated long after a product has been sold - without the need for further costly manufacturing, resource extraction, energy consumption, atmospheric pollution and waste - it can only be regarded as a more lucrative destiny for corporate visionaries to pursue. Furthermore, this period of engagement between subject and object may be reframed as the greatest means for businesses to generate further turnover, while also reducing the unnecessary volumes of production, consumption and waste that have become so characteristic of the modern world.

Legislation such as the WEEE Directive is beginning to engage industry in re-evaluating the importance of product life considerations. At present, products designed for take-back are generally geared toward economical disassembly and recycling/reuse, but this has proven to come at a significant cost to producers. Largely as a result of the WEEE Directive, waste will become an economically detrimental practice for business; failure to accommodate the demands of the WEEE Directive and other waste-minimizing legislation in future concepts will incur added costs, making these forthcoming policies dangerous things to ignore.

It is therefore imperative that we pioneer new ways of working that empower industry to act with the degree of freedom that it has become so accustomed to, while avoiding the costly breach of environmental legislation.

Jonathan Chapman is Senior Lecturer at University of Brighton, UK.

e-mail: J.A.Chapman@brighton.ac.uk

Extending product life reduces waste and can be an economically sound move for businesses Click here to enlarge image

This article is based on the author’s book Emotionally Durable Design, published by Earthscan, June 2005. His forthcoming book: Designers, Visionaries and Other Stories will be published in summer 2007. Visit: www.earthscan.co.uk

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Click here to enlarge image