Product Life, Customer Service and Sustainability

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Over the last few months I’ve been considering the world of sustainability, predominantly as part of our plans for later this year to cover the subject more, but it’s something that sits in the back of my head, comfortably nestled in the box marked “Things you need to learn more about, monkey nuts“.

The more I think about the subject, the more I read (and read I have, a great deal), the less I feel I know. There are myriad subjects to discover, new avenues of exploration, new terminology and of course, new acronyms to decode. It’s an emergent field (and arguably has been for two decades) and one that’s not fixed or defined in any way, shape or form.

One thing I’m super-curious about and a huge advocate of, could sit comfortably under the banner Design for Product Life. Can we reduce the amount of waste involved in the development and manufacture of a product by increasing the length of time it’s useful for? Can it be re-manufactured, can it be recycled effectively and without barriers? Can designers derive a competitive advantage by building a product that lasts longer? All this alongside the age old questions of craft and design, such as whether products are appealing enough for us to want to have around for longer than the average.

Here’s the thing. I’ve become more than a little strict of late about the crap I have around me. I’m a hoarder by nature and, I suspect, genetic disposition. A peep into my parent’s house, full of “collections” of things (including stuffed owls) shows the lineage I’m at odds with. But I’m trying to buy and consume less as a conscious decision.

But here’s the thing.
We tend towards consumerism – it seems to be an inescapable fact of life for the majority in the western world. New shiny things sometimes can’t be resisted. So when I do buy “things” it would be nice if they lasted. And when I say last, a good point of reference is my office chair. Hand crafted nearly two centuries ago, it has been dragged around the globe by various ancestors and now sits supporting my hefty frame – as it will for another 100 years I suspect. Let’s be frank, this thing will outlast any of the crap you’ll buy at Ikea.

Contrast this to the monitor I ended up with in September 2009. A 24″ HD Iiyama E2407HDS. Wonderful thing, dirt cheap (Seriously. 179 quid) and it has been on pretty much since I bought it – or at least when I’m in the same room. The wonderful thing about today’s portable hardware is that while you get a pretty decent display for road working, when you’re static, it’s easy to plug in an extra screen and get better clarity. The Iiyama has worked wonderfully since I’ve had it. Not a single glitch. But then, when arriving back from Texas last week, I switched on the power in the office – nothing. Checked the cables, checked the fuses. Nothing. Dead as a doornail.



First thought was “Ok, let’s get a new one ordered.” For some reason I was curious about how long it had lasted; turns out just over 18 months. In today’s electronic products world, that seems about average. But curiosity brought me to Iiyama’s website where I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the company has a 3 year on-site warranty across the board. A quick phone call, a divulging of my details and a new monitor is on its way (and will probably be here already by the time I actually finish this post).

Of course, I then wanted to know what was happening to the returned and faulty unit. Turns out that they’re stripped down and reused where appropriate. According to Steve Kilroy, UK senior account manager at Iiyama’s Dutch headquarters, “The returned units are used for refurbished warranty stock, or recycled if they are too badly damaged. As a rule, we return units to the customer ‘As New’ . So if there are any scuff marks or scratches on the plastics, we generally dispose of them to be recycled, and put new plastics on the refurbished LCD Screen. All other components in the screen are refurbished to be used in replacement products, or again recycled if they are faulty.”

Of course, LCDs themselves are pretty nasty when it comes down to environmental impact. There are all manner of hazardous substances in there, from nitrogen trifluoride to mercury. Yes, they save energy in terms of energy consumption to operate (particularly with the new LED lit models) compared to old school cathode ray based displays – they certainly contain much less lead than CRTs. But LCDs are renowned for taking huge amounts of energy to manufacture.

So how does this relate to Design for Product Life. A display is never going to last like my office chair. It’s a display after all, not an oak chair. In the ideal world, I’d buy the best monitor I could, it would last 10 years and it would bio-degrade when its useful life was over. That’s not realistic.

What is realistic is this.

Iiyama have excellent products – at least in my experience. They offer a long term warranty that’s impressive and if your device malfunctions, they’ll swap it out. The returned unit is then remanufactured or recycled. To my mind, that’s preferable to many of the brands that just offer a year’s warranty and you’re done. Skip it, recycle it or whatever, it’s still a new monitor any time after a scant twelve months. I’d recommend Iiyama any day of the week for that reason alone. But the most curious thing about all this is the question I find I’m left with.

That question is not “When the warranty has expired, which model will I choose next?”

That question is “Will I really need a new monitor at all?”

That’s progress for me, but it raises an interesting question for iiyama. Don’t you think?