Confessions of a man who destroys pens

James Murray argues that without more demanding product standards lazy consumers will continue to undermine the "circular economy" vision

07 Feb 2013, 00:05

I eat pens. Literally eat them.

As you'd expect a pen and pad are the basic tools of my particular vocation, and as a result I always have them to hand. But at the same time I have a fidgety tendency to chew on said pen at every opportunity. I might like to think this particular idiosyncrasy makes me look pensive, but in truth I look like a stressed smoker who is increasingly desperate for a nicotine hit.

The problem, as my fellow pen chewers will tell you, is that if you gnaw on a biro for any length of time they break. I'm lucky if a pen purloined from the office stationary cupboard lasts a week. If I'm having a busy few days a standard ballpoint pen can be destroyed within a matter of hours. My desk typically looks like a plastic and ink war zone.

Every few months, however, I break this cycle. I'll be rushing to a press conference or interview and will realise that I do not have a pen on me. Bereft of anything to write with I am forced to duck into the nearest newsagents and buy a pen, and it is at this point that I always eschew the cheapest option that's available and buy myself a slightly nicer pen. Not a fancy and expensive fountain pen, just a more durable version of the cheap as chips plastic pens I tend to destroy so quickly. The net result is not only that my notes immediately improve (short hand is a lot easier with a decent pen) but the pen will last. Not forever, I continue to chew on it and it gives up the ghost eventually, but certainly a month or so.

With just a fraction more thought I could make my life easier, save my employer a few pennies on its office expenses, and of course reduce the environmental impact of my very own desk-based plastic landfill crisis. But I am that unique modern combination of lazy and busy, so when my sturdy pen eventually breaks I head back to the stationary cupboard and pick up a new cheap and cheerful generic ballpoint pen that is destined to be reduced to shards of plastic within a few short days.

All of which begs the question why is anyone allowed to make such rubbish pens, why do people continue to buy them, and why do they continue to uncomplainingly use them? They are awful, horrible things, they are rubbish in every sense of the word.

If it sometimes appears that they designed to break easily, a cynic might suggest that is because they are. It is possible to make significantly more durable pens that are only fractionally more expensive than their pathetically weak cousins, but countless offices around the world are locked into the false economy of purchasing cheap and disposable pens, which are then unsurprisingly thrown out in double quick time. As a result the manufacturers have a perverse incentive to continue to produce a rubbish product, safe in the knowledge that its inherent weakness will result in a continuing stream of new orders as people break their pens well ahead of the end of their intended lifespan.

Obviously, breaking this dysfunctional and illogical cycle would only deliver fractional emission and resource savings. But the problem is that it is replicated by thousands, if not millions, of different products. Shoddy and inefficient designs are everywhere you look. For all the countless examples of innovative design genius, there is plenty more evidence that entrenched irrational thinking dominates the worlds of product development and consumer purchasing.

From the in-built obsolescence of the gadget industry to the plastic cutlery brutally ridiculed by one of the best environmental posters of all time (you know the one, the image of a plastic spoon above the text: "It's pretty amazing that our society has reached a point where the effort necessary to extract oil from the ground/ship it to refinery/turn it into plastic/ shape it appropriately/truck it to a store/buy it and bring it home/is considered to be less effort than what it takes to just wash the spoon when you're done with it) staggering resource inefficiency and crap design is all-encompassing.

It is hard to know what the answer is to a problem that is in danger of sleepwalking the global economy into a resource crunch. It would nice to think that more desirable green products and more informed consumers would result in more people taking product efficiency and durability into account when making purchasing decisions. It certainly helps, but let's not overstate the potential of this consumer-led approach. After all, I can't even be bothered to spend a couple of quid on a decent pen.

More transformative models, such as the fledgling collaborative consumption, product rental approach touted by the likes of B&Q and Zipcar or the circular economy promoted by Ellen MacArthur, are fascinating and have huge potential. But the sad reality is that many incumbent businesses will fight tooth and nail to protect flawed consumption models that favour the bulk shipping of fragile, disposable, and obsolescent products. The emergence of a circular economy will become inevitable as resource constraints worsen, but it is a long way off.

The approach touted by the new Friends of the Earth Make It Better campaign offers a potentially interesting avenue that attempts to bring public and potentially legislative pressure to bear on manufacturers and designers to quite simply deliver better products. For obvious publicity reasons the NGO has kicked off the campaign by focusing on the well-documented environmental problems associated with the materials used to make smartphones, but there is a complementary push for better and potentially binding product standards to tackle unsustainable designs and processes.

It is an idea whose time has come that has the potential to build support from across the political spectrum. You do not need to be a current affairs junkie to have noticed that there is mounting public hostility towards corporations that provide flawed products and services. From burgers tainted with horsemeat to online service providers who lose your passwords and banks that mis-sell you financial products, there is huge frustration with companies that short-change their customers. The case for more demanding product standards and tighter consumer protection has never been stronger, and politicians on both sides of the political divide are edging in that direction, be it through Ed Miliband's calls for better and more responsible corporate behaviour or the "pro-consumer Conservatism" touted by modernising Tories such as Laura Sandys.   

Do we really want to see regulators ban products for no greater sin than their being a terrible use of resources? Do we really want to raise the ire of those libertarian types who regard any restrictions on a free market as the work of satan? Well, it would certainly be better to accelerate sustainable design through consumer pressure and astute executives who recognise the long-term benefits of resource efficiency. But as climate change impacts worsen and resource crunches become more common the likelihood of regulators taking a dim view of wilfully crap products grows ever greater.

The past decade has seen a steady cranking up of binding and non-binding environmental and efficiency product standards for the automotive industry, the electronics industry, and the white goods industry on both sides of the Atlantic and powerful emerging markets like China. It is a trend that is only going to accelerate and intelligent manufacturers and designers will want to be pre-empting these standards rather than playing catch-up. And, yes, that includes manufacturers of crappy breakable pens.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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