Playing for keeps: Is designing emotional durability the key to a circular economy?

Playing for keeps: Is designing emotional durability the key to a circular economy?

Clothing falling in front of a scale
ShutterstockGreenBiz Collage

This article is drawn from the Circular Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Fridays.

We all have a favorite thing that stands the test of time. For me, it’s the perfectly cozy flannel shirt that I bought on sale in high school. Despite frayed sleeves and missing buttons, I’ve repaired and re-sewn it more times than I can count. As author and decluttering expert Marie Kondo puts it, the flannel most certainly sparks joy.

Consumerism in a more circular system will require a shift from consumption to conscious use, keeping products at their highest and best state through repair, refurbishment, upgrade and reuse. The challenge? Actually getting people to value existing things over new ones, then to take the steps necessary to keep them in usable condition.

One piece of this equation is the physical durability of an item: Is it built to last or planned for obsolescence? Is it cheaper to fix than buying new? Can it be refurbished at all? (And is it even legal to do so?)

There’s also a less tangible, personal side to our relationship with things. It’s called "emotional durability."

Simply put, emotional durability is the idea of designing products that people want to keep. Where physical durability resists wear and damage, emotional durability resists our natural tendency to want the next new thing.

"We are consumers of meaning, not matter," says Jonathan Chapman, who coined the term and authored a book on the subject. And it’s not just about the distinct sentimentality of your first car or the unforgettable memory associated with an old concert T-shirt, he says. Designers and marketers can engineer emotional durability into their products and brands.

"The whole marketing approach needs to start with helping people see that we already view material things in this way," said Chapman, now a professor and director of doctoral studies at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design, in a recent interview. "We are capable of forming attachments, repairing things and keeping stuff. We do it every day."

Consider Patagonia’s approach to durability: In addition to offering free product repairs, the outdoor gear company features customer stories and photos on its Worn Wear (a re-branding of "used") site. In Patagonia’s world, garments embody experience, wear becomes a status symbol and the brand reinforces the connection its customers have to their purchases. Your worn fleece becomes "better than new," according to its marketing campaign.

Emotional durability also can come from the sense that our stuff is special or one of a kind. Whether it’s a tailor-made item of clothing or a beautifully crafted piece of furniture, items that feel unique, age well and endure ephemeral trends can contribute to their longevity. Fashion software company Unmade works with brands to offer "curated customization" of products, engaging consumers in the design process while maintaining design control. "Brands have control but the consumer feels more involved and engaged in the experience and product," Unmade explains on its website.

Emotional durability isn’t the end goal; it’s a means to keep the things we want and need longer. Many items — consumer electronics, cars, some apparel and more — will be rented or leased and are best suited for consumer detachment. Accordingly, a more circular approach to most tangible items will require a shift from ownership to experience, supporting the pivot towards products as a service. But if successful, emotional durability could become an extension of brand loyalty as well.

And that makes it another business opportunity in a circular world.