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Restart Podcast Ep 33: The lives of products during our lifetime, with Tim Cooper

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In this week’s episode, we interview Tim Cooper, professor of Sustainable Design and Consumption at Nottingham Trent University. We discuss the public’s frustration about our throwaway culture, and the role of businesses and regulation in making our products last longer.

First, we discuss Cooper’s path into academia. Since the late 1970s up to 1994, he was very active in the Green Party, and stood for parliament in three occasions. Searching for alternative ways to make an impact, Cooper pursued research with a strong policy orientation, starting at then-new thinktank the New Economics Foundation.

In the early 1990s, much of the academic work on sustainability was focused on promoting recycling rather than incineration. Less work dealt with the ‘waste hierarchy’ – optimising our use of things and minimising waste, instead of just disposing or recycling. Cooper’s 1994 report ‘Beyond Recycling’ (link below) gained national publicity in this context. After that, Cooper moved to university research, where he joined other academics in the study of product lifetimes, and of how we can make products last longer.

Cooper talks about what influences our decision-making when buying, and his research on consumer magazines, which have focused more on product features like shape, colour or size than durability. Also, once shamed, some manufacturers come up with unconvincing excuses for short product lifetimes. In light of this, consumer organisations should put pressure on government to increase public awareness of how long products will – and should – last. He also suggests measures like lifespan labelling or repairability indexes, as ways to inform consumers on repairabilty and durability.

Now, are people familiar with the concept of throwaway culture? Of course!

We play some clips from Restart Parties, where many attendees feel frustrated about their faulty devices, and about the wastefulness of today’s consumption. People are generally interested in how long things last, and in getting value for money. Now Cooper argues that with devices getting cheaper and cheaper, many people lose interest in recycling or repairing – they stop ‘treating things with respect’. However, Cooper is wary of the notion that individuals should simply change their behaviours to solve the problem. He says businesses and governments have a significant role in making products last longer, and there is a need to shift what we seek to achieve as societies, beyond GDP, and look at other measures including well-being and the planet.


[Featured image”Sea of phones” by saschapohflepp is licensed under CC BY 2.0.]

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