I recently read a book about the whole concept of ‘nudging’ people towards doing what’s best for them and for society from a policy point of view. The book I read was titled ‘Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes can make a big difference’ by David Halpern and was based on the seminal book ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness’ by University of Chicago economist Richard H. Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass R. Sunstein.
It was a fascinating read but one concept mentioned in the book really resonated with me from a sustainability point of view. Being sustainable isn’t easy, it often means forgoing things and typically demands a greater investment of time and money. Why is this?
Well the answer partly lies in the clever use of friction by some companies. Western societies are heavily reliant on consumerism and free-market capitalism. You’ll hear it reinforced regularly in the media; “markets are up”, “the economy is growing”, “we’re increasing our market share”, “car sales are on the increase”. We’re all trained to be positive disposed towards economic growth and that always seems to be inextricable linked to consumerism, i.e. buying more stuff!
Now what hinders this growth? People not spending! So what must governments / companies do? Encourage us to spend by reducing VAT rates, giving us more take home pay or funding companies to spread the consumerism by helping them find ‘new markets’ abroad.
Another way to safeguard consumer spending is to make it very hard for consumers to conserve money. This can be done in a number of ways. Firstly by making us feel bad about our current possessions so that we ‘decide’ to upgrade / replace what we have. This is called planned obsolescence. Secondly by ensuring that products we buy break and need replacing as frequently as the customer will bear . This is called a shortened life-span. And thirdly by making purchasing as frictionless as possible while simultaneously piling on as much friction as possible on the process of returning or repairing an item. What do I mean by friction?
Well I want you to imagine that you’ve a pair of shoes with a crack in the sole. You love these shoes, you’ve only had them 6 months, the uppers look fine and you’d like to repair them. Also you know that shoes can’t be fully recycled in Ireland so you know that if they’re done the only place for them is landfill / incineration.
You bring them to a cobbler, no joy, the crack can’t be sealed and it isn’t possible to resole this type of sole. You start googling ‘how to repair a cracked rubber sole’ and start reading. After a few nights research you learn that you need a clamp and shoe glue, so you start googling ‘shoe glue’ and ‘shoe clamp’.
This is turn into a mammoth task but then while researching an ad pops up, you’re favourite shoe store is having a sale, and the ad features a pair of shoes just like yours. Maybe you could buy a new pair if your repair doesn’t work, but the sale is over in 48 hours! To hell with it, the cost of the shoe glue and clamp will probably be more than a new pair. You click, you select, you pay, all in a matter of minutes you’re now the proud owner of a new pair of shoes.
That my friends is the power of friction! Fixing most things in Ireland is tremendously difficult while replacing them with new things is completely seamless. Until such time as government policy, or the market (ha, won’t hold my breath) reduces the friction involved in repairing items consumerism is as safe as houses.