Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Do We Need All this Stuff? It’s Now Quality over Quantity

By Sandy Skees on March 27, 2009

As sustainable design takes hold, there is increased focus on life cycle issues and growing demand that design become a change agent for transforming cultural and business systems. Daniel Pink’s book, The Whole New Mind, does a brilliant job of explaining how design has become one of the six senses that will thrive in the new world.

But it seems to me, and recent research bears this out, that the first question a designer must ask is, do we need this?

I was chatting the other day with a technology analyst seeking to understand how sustainability will impact the Web 2.0 start-up mentality prevalent in Silicon Valley. I suggested that the first question to ask any entrepreneur or inventor should be, “Does this heal or hurt the world?” Because when you can marry a beautifully-designed, innovative device or service that ALSO adds to the quality of life, then the market will respond favorably. Rethinking our approach might mean not making that new thing you were thinking of making!

The proof that this trend is real comes from a disparate set of indicators:

  • In March 2009, the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) released its annual trends report for 2009 and the overarching theme was “Recalibration.” The report details consumer attitudes and their attempts to reengineer their lives to reflect "comfort, safety, sustainability and moderation."
  • Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue upon whom Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wear Prada,” was reportedly based, had this to say in an article in the Wall Street Journal, “…to be honest there's been too much product, too much copy-catting, and, probably too much consumerism. I think a sense of clarity, a sense of leveling off and a sense of reality is needed.” When the diva of fashion is suggesting that less is more and quality is the new fashion dictum, something is happening.
  • The Story of Stuff is a remarkable 20-minute video, written and produced by Annie Leonard, that describes how manufacturing and production, now seen as a linear process, must be recast as an interdependent cycle. Her premise -- that we cannot keep using third world assets and people to provide cheap goods -- is clearly communicated. It’s interesting to see how this has translated into a movement – in just three months, the audience for The Story of Stuff doubled to 5.5 million views.
  • In the Sunday Chicago Tribune, an article on clearing clutter and reducing consumption profiles Tamme Winsinki. Her change in purchasing habits typifies what I think is a major trend. She lost her job in January and is now downsizing, de-cluttering and rethinking her consumption habits. She states that even when reemployed, she has no intention of going back to her old buying habits.
  • Numerous trend watchers and researchers have studied this emerging mindset. Benjamin Barber, author of Consumed, declares that selling and buying unnecessary stuff is unsustainable. Retail stores are closing, planned expansion of locations have been halted. Retail sales are off.
  • The rec(depr)ession is a reaction to an over-heated, over-spending, over-consuming culture. People are shifting toward “under consumption” -- the slow food movement, cocooning as entertaining, localvores, farmer’s markets, the greening of everything, ecological fashion, and others.

Now we know that we don’t need – or want – all this stuff.