The importance of electronic equipment in our lives is growing rapidly. They become smarter and smaller, but the problems around material usage, production and e-waste continue to grow. It’s a problem that is of concern to all of us. Product innovation and a transition to a circular economic model are paramount. Will we as consumers wait until the ideal product comes to market, or can we all start making this transition today?
The bond we form with electronic devices becomes more and more intimate. Ultra mobile smartphones, tablets and laptops take over the place of more traditional equipment such as radio, television, landlines,… The advanced mobility enables us to take professional tools out of the office, into our private lives. We can even carry a lot of these tools in one of our most intimate spaces: our pockets. We trust these devices, they improve our productivity and help to stay in touch with each other. The need for them has become universal, we get isolated from modern society if we don’t use them. But these equipment are by their design and in paradox to their universal need, becoming more and more gadgets i.e., small ingenious device.
The electronics industry bring beautiful and seductive little stories, but the real story behind these gadgets is far less civilised. The Giai Foundation published a report on the life-cycle of e-gadgets highlighting the problems in production, usage and disposal. Remarkable about this report was the way the story was told. If these gadgets are children of the earth, then their lives can be described in three phases: ‘bloody birth; life ever shorter; and killed by roadside’.
In the long-term, a transition to a responsible market of e-gadgets is paramount. But can we, consumers and industry, make this transition quick and organically, without governmental interventions. The model of diffusion of innovation can provide a framework for discussion. This model describes that a new product gets gradually adopted by a society. Think for example back when you bought your first laptop, mobile-phone or tablet and when you started using Facebook or Twitter. Where there many user already and why did you buy the product at that point?
The model describes five distinct categories of consumers. Innovators are a small group of people who are the first to adopt a new innovation. Early adopters are a group of change agents that show a high degree of leadership. Their opinion is important for a further breakthrough. Early Majority still look for new features, but are slower to adopt an innovation. It is a larger group and the innovation breaks through if they start to adopt it. Late Majority are more sceptical towards innovation and often have less financial means. Laggards have an aversion towards change and are the last to adopt an innovation.
At the moment big players are not bringing Cradle to Cradle or other responsible product innovations onto the market. Real innovations come from small agile players. Fairphone, Phoneblocks and similarly the Bloom Laptop are early, but promising concepts.
Phoneblocks is designed from the intention to reduce e-waste to 10% and can potentially revolutionise the market in favour of small producers, secondhand sellers and direct recyclers. If it comes to the market, its success in terms of its intentions will depend on the conscious use of the adopters. It could also result in more updates, fashion fads and exponentially more waste. To avoid this, it is important that we don’t wait for the innovators, but already create a society wide mentality shift that welcomes ethical purchasing, repair and reuse.
Fairphone had 25 000 buyers before it was even produced! The company focusses on ethical aspects in the production and also seeks business growth by looking into creating a circular economic business model. A real breakthrough will depend upon many factors, but the key in this will be the positive stories that Fairphone, Innovators and Early Adopters will have to bring towards the wider society.
Opposite to cars, reuse of relatively new or used electronics is not really popular. Relatively new products that get reintroduces to the market via a refurbishing scheme can be a good deal for the Early Majority. The Late Majority could do deals by buying slightly older products on secondhand markets. However, we see that these markets are not very popular and instead discounters please the Late Majority. A possible explanation for this is that the critical the Late Majority want quality warranties, discounters can offer this, secondhand markets fail to be clear on this. Refurbishing schemes offer full warranty, but are often kept internal, limited in supply and not widely know by the public.
If you want to build strong relationships, you don’t just dump one by the first problem. If your product fails, don’t let retailers persuade you to buy a new product, but stand up for your EU consumer rights that cover your product with a two-year warranty. Smaller products are possible by new techniques, such as gluing parts together, but compromise reparability. Designers will continue to make gadgets smaler if consumers don’t value the importance of repair. You can also protect your gadgets better or even hack it with Sugru. Repair cafes are social events where people share their skill to repair products. It can be an option to repair small problems with older electronic equipment (that is out of warranty). If we share our stories about repairing, we as consumers can push designers to make our next products more repairable!
The offline trend
Laggards defend traditional values and resist innovation. Amish people for example choose not to adopt certain new technologies because they weaken the local community. There is a growing trend, not to the extreme to ban technology, but builds on traditional values by not using gadgets at certain moments. We see that using gadgets gets more and more discouraged to improve the quality of childhood, gastronomy and real holidays.
To make an organic transition to a circular economy with responsible e-gadgets we need a culture of responsible consumption. It is possible, but consumers and producers will have to work very hard. New products are coming up, but to create success stories we need more than just ethical product, we need more reuse, repair and allow each other to be offline once in a while. You value ethical issues and were an Early or Late Majority for your previous products? What’s holding your back to become an Early Adopter this time! Are you on a tight budget? You can get good deals by reusing a product! Do you like the new stuff? Take good care of it so you can give it a second life and some cash in return! Are you a designer? Listen to the need from consumers to improve reparability! Are you an entrepreneur? Grab your chance to get into under developed markets of reuse or offline pleasure! The majority isn’t pulling much at responsible innovations and the circular economy, but momentum emerges because the Innovators, Early Adopters and Lagards are pushing!