Product designers are trained to be a step ahead. For them, what's next is second nature. But when my longtime collaborator chemist Michael Braungart and I ask "What's next?" we're thinking not only about improving the quality and performance of a particular product, but also about recovering the value of products after we're done using them.
What do designers think about when they make the products that fill our lives? We believe that they should be thinking differently now and we have worked with innovative companies to take account of what's next—not the next product, but what is next for that product. What are the use periods it will pass through?
Some of our work has involved what we call "products of service," paired with a leasing concept. Obviously, leasing works great with many goods—cars, houses, land.
More than 25 years ago, we suggested expanding the idea to lease other goods as products of service, items such as large appliances, lighting or carpeting. The manufacturer effectively retains ownership; a customer pays for the use of the product rather than the product itself, which can later be reused in the industry as a technical nutrient—food for new carpets, for example.
When a customer finishes with the product, the manufacturer/vendor retrieves its technical nutrition; and the customer gets a new one, most likely from that very same manufacturer. The advantages are threefold: no "waste" of valuable technical nutrients for industry; the actual retrieval of materials by that industry; and a long and profitable relationship between a customer and a manufacturer.
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The plan has worked extremely well for a window manufacturer that essentially leases its windows as products of service. When the company has a better window available, the customer can trade up, and the company reuses the old window materials.
Solar services work well with this model too, in a relationship of constant improvement between company and customer.
Carpeting, it turns out, can benefit from a different approach to products of service. In the first attempts at implementing the idea, some carpet companies leased the carpet and retained ownership.
But this arrangement left them technically liable for the carpet—if someone tripped on its edge and fell, the carpet company could be sued. It then had to pay insurance on the carpeting, which it had not had to do before.
An additional worry about maintenance arose; for example, some carpet-cleaning products degrade the fabric's quality or contain volatile compounds, which would make the returned materials less useful. These issues made the product of service and leasing concepts complicated as transactions for the manufacturer and its customers.
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A more optimal solution exists, however.
In Poland, for example, ownership is almost a religion, so the "product of service" is purchased outright, along with a deposit that is refundable when the product is returned "unharmed" to the manufacturer at the end of the use period.
We have also developed a model where the manufacturer may choose to repurchase the product and its materials at an effective price in the future. The result is the same: The manufacturer gets back the useful technical nutrients, the product doesn't end up in a landfill and the relationship between customer and manufacturer is maintained.
Our point is when preexisting systems and local needs are taken into account and sensitively interpreted, the product of service model becomes optimized. We might begin to characterize some products, such as chairs, for example, as products of disassembly whose component parts feed intelligent material pools.