Why beauty wards off obsolescence

“We just want to make great products,” declared Steve Jobs in 2008. Two years earlier, however, he told NBC News, “If you always want the latest and greatest, then you have to buy a new iPod at least once a year.” Greatness, it seems, has a short shelf life.

Every year, Americans get rid of more than 300 million computers and electronics -- and recycle almost none. Ultimately, recycling doesn’t completely solve the environmental problem, anyway. When a computer is recovered, typically only the basic materials are salvaged, while the precious metals in the energy-intensive circuitry are destroyed. So the challenge has less to do with the efficiency of production than it does with the frequency of it -- not how we produce things, but how many things we produce, and how often.

“Nokia is making 13 phones every second,” boasted executive Tero Ojanpera on the cover of Fast Company in late 2009. By the time you finish reading this article, they could spit out a thousand more. The resources consumed are astronomical.

Making a 2-gram memory chip requires 1,300 grams of fossil fuels and materials -- 650 times the resources. Nokia estimates that more than 74 percent of a product’s total energy is used during production -- getting the materials, making the components, completing the assembly, and shipping to stores -- while charging the batteries takes up only 25 percent. This assumes a two-year life span, though the average is actually 18 months, which increases production-related energy to over 80 percent.

If you’re the average person, every year-and-a-half you replace your phone, and during your life you will have owned three dozen. The market encourages us to buy lots of stuff but replace it almost immediately, because the economy thrives on how much we buy, not on how much we use or enjoy the things we buy.

Nokia estimates that prolonging the life expectancy of a phone by a year could cut its total energy consumption by more than 40 percent. According to electronics expert Eric Williams, continuing to use a computer can mean 20 times greater energy savings than recycling it. If this is true for electronic gadgets, consider the implications for everything else. Most consumer goods are inert, expending resources only during manufacturing and shipping, so for everything from bottles to bicycles and tables to tennis rackets, the conclusion is simple: The shorter the life span, the more wasteful the product.

“How can we lengthen and enhance the relationship between user and device?” asks designer Julius Tarng. His Modai concept phone -- seen in the accompanying photo -- allows the interior module to be easily detached and upgraded without replacing the whole device. And with its razor-thin edging and generous screen size, it’s more interface than object -- hardware whose image is determined almost exclusively by software. Its playful graphics adapt to the user’s habits and customize its “look” to suit the owner’s tastes. Could you ever tire of a thing whose appearance regularly changes to suit your pleasure?

Illustration of Modai concept phone courtesy of Julius Tarng.

Next page: The three flavors of obsolescence