Will Anderson: The Green House

Recycling televisions and toasters is great - but why can't we just build them to last?
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The Independent Online

Imagine what would happen if the sale of new televisions were banned for a year (beyond mass rioting and the torching of Westminster). The price of second-hand televisions would immediately rocket, all sorts of old boxes would be dragged out of attics and basements, the TV repair business would boom and the considerable energy and resources required to manufacture our favourite electronic appliance would instantly be saved.

It's interesting to reflect that although such a policy would be universally opposed, its effects would actually be very minor because we are quite capable of making things last longer if we don't have the choice of replacing them. Lots of the things that we buy to improve our lives end up in landfill even though they are still in good working order simply because a newer model seems to offer us just a little bit more. Such is our throwaway culture, driven by markets that must create ever more demand in order to survive.

This is all a bit of an environmental disaster. It helps, of course, if products are designed to be recycled rather than simply thrown away but the best products are always the ones that last. Durability is as central to the environmental profile of a product as its materials, energy efficiency and recycling potential.

Durability is not, however, just a matter of robustness. Although robustness is obviously necessary to ensure that a product lasts - it's all too easy to buy goods that break as soon as your back is turned - it is not a sufficient condition. Products will only thrive in our homes if they also retain our love. In practice many cherished products survive in kitchens, living rooms and wardrobes even when they are long past their best.

This is quite a challenge for designers. As Jonathan Chapman stresses in his book Emotionally Durable Design, only when the relationship between user and product is as durable as the object itself is can the wheelie bin (or recycle bin) be avoided before the product is well and truly clapped out. Unfortunately our desires and interests tend to change but the things we surround ourselves with generally do not, so it's all too easy for these relationships to break. To prevent this, designers must create things which have a deeper beauty than their immediate function and we, as consumers, must view our potential purchases thinking not merely of immediate gratification but also of a long life in their company.

It would be wonderful if everything we filled our lives with were too beautiful to throw away. In practice this is hard to achieve without serious cash as it is often the high-end taps, toasters and televisions that offer both practical and emotional durability. Yet durable beauty is not the preserve of the cash-rich, who are best placed to rip everything out and start again whenever the mood suits. The key issue is perspective rather than liquid assets. If you buy things that you are confident will last for many years, you will save money over repeated purchases of low-cost short-life products. Yet it still takes an effort of imagination to sustain this vision at the till.

Get into the habit of holding on to your cash, buying higher-quality products less often and repairing things when they go wrong. Look for brands which offer long guarantees and good repair services. You will then be a member of the international slow movement, committed to slowing down the human, economic and resource use cycles of modern life. If you like the idea of "slow food" which is grown, harvested, prepared and eaten with care and pleasure, apply the same philosophy to other aspects of your consuming behaviour. Get to know your purchases, be confident that you want to live with them for ever, then carry them off into the sunset with a guaranteed higher quality of life.

w.anderson@independent.co.uk

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For ideas from the slow world see www.slowfood.com, www.cittaslow.org.uk, www.slowlab.net and www.slowmovement.com

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