Are you paying for clutter?

The easiest way to save resources and energy and to cut down on waste is to use less. This statement is so simple as to sound banal, yet it can serve as a guide to action. Also implied is the idea of consuming less, buying less, making do with what we have already — even at times ridding ourselves of all the unnecessary gadgets and duplicates that so hideously clutter up our lives. All this is just plain common sense, yet it is an approach to living that seems to be fairly rare at the moment.

US green design guru Victor Papanek says there are 10 crucial question you should ask yourself shopping.

1 Do I really need it?

Before making a purchasing decision, the first — yet frequently unasked— question should be: Do I really need it? Have I been persuaded to but it because it offers some real advantages over what I use now, or because it will actually help me in my learning, working, leisure?
Will it in some way bring greater enchantment to my life and those dear to me? Or will it — under the guise of offering greater convenience — make living more complicated or become a placebo for the stresses we all experience?

Yet even if we can honestly say that we do need the object, and are sure that we are not buying it in the forlorn hope that it will make us more powerful, wiser, or more attractive, nor prompted by some temporary whim or the seductive whisperings of the advertisers, we face many further decisions.

  • Will something else serve the same purpose, possibly something I already own?
  • Can I use a different method to accomplish the same task?
  • Do I understand the device, or do I have a friend who can explain the advantages or disadvantages?
  • Is it well made and made to last?
  • Can faults be readily diagnosed?
  • Can it be repaired and will spare parts be available?
  • Does it have extra features that may be unnecessary, yet add to the number of things that could go wrong?
  • Could it atrophy some of my skills?
When these questions have been answered, we are ready to turn to a whole new area of considerations.
2 Can I buy it secondhand?
As a working product designer I must point out that the producers really “don’t make things the way they used to any more”.
There are shops run by charity organisations in most large towns. Frequently many of the things they sell are in fact brand new.
In many towns in the United States, for example, graduating student, leaving their flats and houses for good at the end of the academic year, frequently abandon new clothing, small appliances, furniture and books.

At one university after the students had left, building services found more than a thousand shirts, scores of dresses and suits, as well as enough cosmetics to satisfy a small town, all still in the original wrappings.

3 Can I buy it at a discount?

There may be an item that you really do have to buy and where a fairly new technology is involved. If the technology is electronic and therefore difficult to examine for malfunctions — a CD-player, for instance — then it is always possible to buy a leftover of the previous year or a discontinued model through a discount shop.
Many technical devices can also be obtained factory-reconditioned from dealers, often with a warranty. These are the high-tech equivalents of “factory seconds” of crockery, cookware or cutlery that bear faint imperfections in finish or colour, or discontinued or overstocked styles.

These and so-called “remaindered” books can all usually be bought at shops that specialize in such goods.

4 Can I borrow it?

If the object you need will only be used infrequently, or just once or twice, can it be borrowed? Personal experience has shown me that most people are only too pleased to be asked to help share their expertise and some specialised tool or apparatus that they own.
Most of my neighbours in Lawrence have furnished their basements with a lavish collection of small electric drills, orbital sanders, circular saws, shapers and band saws, as well as an abundance of hand tools.

Most of these tools are only needed for small repairs around the house, and their proud owners are happy to lend them out and see them used.

5 Can I rent it?

Renting is one step further from outright ownership. We routinely rent certain things when buying them would pose inconveniences quite apart from the cash spent on them.
On a business trip we rent a car at the airport to get to our final destination. We use the local library to catch up on our reading and listening. Whilst on holiday we frequently rent a video camera, or a bicycle to get around, or a tent, beach umbrella and deckchairs.
In most towns there are shops devoted to hiring out equpiment for working on the car, building a garage or sundeck, or for gardening.

Some places specialize in renting out furniture and major electrical appliances to students or other temporary residents; some shops rent drinking glasses, cutlery and table settings for parties and receptions.

6 Can I lease it?

Leasing is essentially a long-term rental contract. In many countries telephones are leased rather than owned maintenance, repair, insurance and replacement are then no longer the individual’s concern.
Cars are leased by companies and, increasingly, by individual owner who recognize that in their real world they never really own their car at all since they tend to trade it in for a new model just after — or slightly before — making the last of their payments.

With the ever more rapid technological changes in personal computers, and the obsolescence of entire hardware systems within years rather than decades, it is obvious that leasing a home-computer is a better idea than buying.

7 Can I share it?

Assume the existence of a neighbourhood or community centre. Here one could share items that could be communally-owned.
There might be sewing machines; computers and computer printers; a large area of wall-mounted lockers, each of which is one household’s bulk frozen-food storage.
There could also be workshop and gardening tools — possibly even a small crafts workshop — and it might also be feasible to share cameras, camcorders, slide projectors and even bicycles, shopping carts and some types of sports equipment.
Such a “Sharing Library” could also stock goods that folk in the neighbourhood have discarded as no longer suited to their needs, or left behind when moving away.

There is no question that this place would also serve as the local recycling centre.

8  Can we own it as a group?

Sharing to cut down on waste, to make things more affordable or just to reduce the amount of raw materials locked up in goods can operate on many different levels.
I was favourably impressed to notice that in Denmark designers and architects often share subscriptions to expensive international professional magazines.
A copy of, say, Domus or Bau-Biologie will have a list of 10 or 12 participating members of the reading circle clipped to it, and it is forwarded in turn to each on the list, finally ending up in the local library for the public at large.
Clearly this not only reduces subscription costs for each individual by nine-tenths or more, but — which is even more important — it cuts down on the wastefulness of paper and printing inks as well as transport.
Many people in the Scandinavian countries subscribe to ordinary consumer magazines in the same way.

It is obvious that this example could serve as a template for sharing in many other fields.

9 Can I build it myself?

The so-called average person, anywhere in the world, is better informed and more aware of his or her needs than any designer or architect.
It is therefore plain that the design needs of most people can best be served by the users themselves working in close collaboration with a designer.
The next step is to suggest that people should be empowered to design their own solutions to their own specific requirements.
Throughout many centuries end-users would work directly with a local builder or craftsman to add rooms to a house, have a desk made, build a carriage or have a cool-space dug for food storage.

This cultivates a close relationship between using and making, being and becoming.

10 Can I buy a kit?

With this in mind, I would like to turn to an additional group of options. On the most basic level, we are all becoming used to the fact that many of the goods we buy now come to us in somewhat unfinished form.
Mail order catalogues frequently carry the phrase, “Some self-assembly required” in small print at the bottom of the page. We realize that the wine-rack or bookshelf we buy will be delivered as a flat package.
The bicycle we buy for our child, even the pram for the baby, will not arrive ready for use. The reason for making the users into — frequently unwilling — participants in completing the construction lies in the saving the manufacturer makes in shipping charges.
Generally the costs reflect bulk more than weight.
This new assumption on the part of manufacturers, that people will finish the assembly of a product themselves, has beneficial side-effects.
When building things from a kit, there is a good learning experience for the customer. It becomes simpler to understand how and why the gadget works.
More importantly to my mind, the design of objects that must be completed by the customer is beginning to influence how goods look.

If self-assembly were to be combined with Design for Disassembly, the aesthetic results would be radical and fresh.

(Extracted from The Green Imperative by Victor Papanek)