Burns B.P.
Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

Keywords: obsolescence; nature; value; life cycle analysis; biomimicry.

Abstract: All the life forms on our planet adopt a variety of means to be successful and to survive, yet the human species seems to be powerful enough and persistent enough to possibly cause its own demise. Humans create persistent ‘stuff’ as a means to undertake the myriad of activities that are part of their diverse daily lives; from the energy and resources required to create the ‘products’, to the infrastructure to facilitate their use and distribution, and finally to the means to cope with the impact on their obsolescence and ultimate demise. It is these ‘products’ that is a central concern to this conference as we move from the infinite world thinking that created the core of our current economic planning, to our relatively recently realized concerns over the potential for sustainable growth on our planet.

This paper is a development from the work on obsolescence previously undertaken by the author, which identified viable causes of obsolescence, which would help in the appropriate planning for its ultimate reality. The intent here is to extrapolate from the causes of obsolescence and reflect the findings against the nature of human activities and their associated paraphernalia. The aim is to offer the foundations of a metric that could provide a more viable sense of value to the judgments and methodologies associated with our economic, technical and social activities, particularly when conducting studies in Life Cycle Analysis. Ultimately the author hopes that this work could help establish appropriate lives and lifetimes for the products we create.


The primary concern behind the perceived need for Longer Lasting Products is one of dissatisfaction; be it for personal, economic, environmental or social reasons. Interestingly it is reasonably easy to explain and justify such concerns. When people feel dissatisfied that something they own could not continue to function, as a consequence of whatever mode of obsolescence (Technological, Aesthetic, Economic, or Social) there are all manner of reasons to explain it, which may or may not be acceptable (Cooper, 2010). Perhaps the technology was no longer supported, or it broke and the parts are no longer available, or it would be too costly to repair, or even that it was never designed to be repaired at all. Often products look worn out before the end of their expected functional life. Quite frequently people no longer want to do things that way anymore, for whatever reason, and the product is now unusable. The software or the technology has changed, or perhaps the Rubik’s cube isn’t as popular as it was. The result is dissatisfaction and frustration.

But these conditions are not solely the concern of the user. For the manufacturer there is a real need to be economically viable while technologies, say in electronic communication for example, may be changing almost daily. In contrast, for some products the aesthetics of the day are changing faster than the viable functional life of the product, leading to premature obsolescence or discard; say when a kitchen is renovated leaving functional built-in appliances often to be discarded. We see sofas sitting by the side of the road, too expensive to re-cover, while in many homes and restaurants there are increasing numbers of ashtrays that are no longer used; at least for their original intended purpose.

To help us regulate such activities we often look to Standards for help. However, Standards, such ISO (International Standards Organisation), as with all standards, act passively, responding to events and practices as they unfold, finding it difficult to prevent danger and disaster even in cases resulting from nuclear waste. For the standards governing the life of products there would need to be a dynamic response that would realistically only be possible for the most mature of products; those products that have not changed, and are not expected to change, into the foreseeable future. The stainless steel western dining fork, for example. Here multi- year guarantees can be offered and justified. The material can be guaranteed, and the user, knowing that they are likely to need dining forks long into the future can buy such long life cutlery. But here a significant cause for concern becomes apparent. A fork that looks like a fork, made of reasonably effective stainless steel may also bend and distort unacceptably. Even when there is well founded product logic with a sensible product life, products exist that fail to fulfill a clearly identifiable role. In the case of domestic cutlery, we can encounter all manner of alternatives, ranging from so-called disposable or throwaway cutlery, to lower cost items that are all we think we can afford at the time, or items that are good enough to use but either not valuable enough to steal, say from a cafeteria, or not a great cost if they are. All these alternatives exist alongside long-life, well designed and well-made items that in the worst case are made of single identifiable materials that are easily recyclable should society decide, at some point in the distant future, that we no longer want to eat our food using forks.

Clearly the key to rationalizing product life is not simply to make all products last forever. Antique shops thrive on those objects that are still useful, and where their function is still valued, but with aesthetics that are no longer considered old-fashioned, but timeless; as is the case for many pieces of wood furniture. Less successful, however, are the items that are no longer socially viable; wash boards, carpet beaters, and perhaps in the future, decorative ashtrays; however, for the antique dealer, the rarer the item the higher the price. A price solely dependent on what the public is prepared to pay.

Objects have value because we think they have value and for no other reason. The products we surround ourselves with reflect our activities, our values, and our lifestyles. Clearly we need standards and codes of practice that work in harmony with the needs of industry and the consuming public, but how this is achieved is not simply a matter of making products last arbitrarily say twenty years, or even forever. For the vast majority of products there has to be an appropriate life span. Where there is fast changing technology there will be fast changing products that reflect it. Where there is fashion, then products will become appropriately out of fashion. Where there is a complex infrastructural product, even the domestic kitchen, there will be influences on the life expectancies of its contents. When safety codes change, there will be the need for upgrades or planning for a products acceptance for a number of years.

From personal research it would appear that, in hindsight, the appropriate lifetime of any product can be determined relatively easily. However, the modes of obsolescence identified previously, also make the predictability of the likely life expectancy and its appropriateness of any new product equally possible. This paper will explore how such lifetimes can be predicted and planned for into the future, and the means for identifying critical concerns.

Our environmental awareness

Perhaps it was seeing photographs of the Earth from space in late 1960s, or the oil crisis of 1973, but since that time, just over 40 years, there has been a growing realisation that we live on a finite planet a long way from anything similar, and that from the Industrial Revolution onwards we have had a fairly negative impact on the planet and the precious resources we have taken advantage of for centuries. We now commonly talk of ‘Cradle to Cradle’ thinking rather than the ‘Cradle to Grave’ thinking that still lies behind much of our economic thinking (Braungart and McDonough, 2002). We are currently exploring the means to understand and make judgments on the environmental impacts made during a product’s lifetime. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is considered the logical vehicle of choice in this case, by bringing together all of the impacts involved in the existence of any product. This is not an easy road to build, with many companies using LCA as a tool to justify whatever product they want to put on the market by narrowing the scope or boundaries of their analysis; but this is an on- going struggle. Hopefully soon, LCA will carry with it the means to evaluate accurately the impacts and benefits of all our design and manufacturing activities, and the products that result; and this offers a great opportunity.

In the infinite planet that we thought we lived on up to the 1970s, though some would argue that we still think this, any socio-economic equations regarding the validity of any product would be open ended, based on a notion that waste was of little consequence, and that there would always be new sources of energy and resources to find; additionally our Gross National Product (GNP or GDP) was based on activity rather than efficiency.

Now we are increasingly made aware of the limitations of our finite planet, even if too many are not convinced that such concerns are valid. But as we move closer and closer to comprehending and understanding the limitations we have on our resource use and manufacturing activities we need to change the way we go about product planning. In essence we are fast moving to a time when all our equations relating to the valuation of our design, manufacture, use and discard activities will no longer be open-ended. All the factors can now be known, and the social, economic and environmental impacts can be determined. Around the world LCA practitioners are bringing us closer and closer to codes and data that can be more readily integrated into sound international standards and hence approaches to design and development.

This is real progress, however there is one difficult factor still worthy of exploration, and that relates to the determination of our notions of Value.

Value and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Bruce Archer, formerly of the Royal College of Art in London, was well known for reminding us that things have value because we think they have value, and for no other reason (Cross, 1984). Every antique program on television carries with it the question of ‘how much is it worth?’ which simply relates to the question of ‘how much could I sell it for?’ Our valuations are in fact quite variable. Rarity is a common reason for monetary value, but even in the world of antiques we can be fickle. Some antiques can even go out of fashion or even become worth- less as more are discovered. This was the case with the British ‘Penny Black’ stamp. The value of what was thought to be a very rare stamp has diminished over time as more were found (Holyoake, 2013), while the world of stamp collecting continues to lose its appeal as fewer and fewer people actually post letters.

If we are going to be able to utilize LCA appropriately, then we will have to find ways of evaluating not just the environmental and economic impacts, we must also look to the value of our social activities and the products we use to support them.

Abraham Maslow created a well-known hierarchy of needs associated with how we live our lives (Maslow, 1943) His work indicated the importance of fundamental needs (food, water, shelter etc) and progressively to those needs that allowed us the luxury of self-actualisation. In principle he offered an awareness of the aspects of our lives that we must all struggle to deal with.

We are fortunate in the western world that many of our basic needs are relatively affordable to many, and so we are able live through most steps in his hierarchy. Interestingly we have been so successful that some researchers have taken Maslow’s work further, by exploring a more detailed breakdown of our self- actualisation.

This paper postulates that an evaluation of the value, worth and benefit of such needs and attributes is worthy of investigation.

Biomimicry and Rachel Carson

In the 1950s Rachel Carson (1951, 2002) warned of the impact of toxic chemistry on fish and our waterways. There have always been concerns for pollution and cleaning up our mess, but Rachel Carson was warning of damage that was permanently changing life forms and the chemistry of our precious aquifers. Perhaps this was the first time that our wildlife was seen in the larger context, as barometers of the impacts of our industrial activities. Slowly we have taken up the gauntlet thrown down by Rachel Carson, and most recently, the work of Elaine Benyus (1997) has offered us the notion of Biomimicry. The means by which we can learn from, copy, or mimic the sustainable activities found in all parts of Nature, as a means or even basis for all our activities. Recent competitions have identified features of plants and animals that could offer benefits to us all. From the initial realization that spiders produce materials at room temperature using water and other dead insects that are stronger, pound for pound, than Kevlar, and far more environmentally friendlier to dispose of at the end of the web’s life.

For the purpose of this paper, Benyus’ book offers a hierarchy or guideline adapted from her observations of how Nature works, to help us re-evaluate our activities. Her work suggests:

  • that waste should be a resource
  • that we should diversify and cooperate to fully use our habitat
  • that we should gather and use energy efficiently
  • that we should optimize rather than maximize
  • that we should use materials sparingly
  • that we shouldn’t foul our nests
  • that we should not draw down on our resources
  • that we should remain in balance with the biosphere
  • that we should run on information.
  • that we should shop locally

This list could now be considered to be a fairly self-evident backdrop to how we should live on our finite planet. It would also seem important to see how this list relates to the work of Maslow, where the suggestions for how we should go about or select our activities, and the products needed to carry them out, could be compared or related to our hierarchy of needs. In simple terms, it would appear to make sense that we should attempt to enable our fundamental needs to be achieved in the most eco-sustainable, natural, way possible. Interestingly, it is in the area of self- actualisation that the comparison could become more beneficial to the challenge of identifying appropriate lives and conditions for our products.

We should remind ourselves that just as things have value because we think they have value, products exist as facilitators of social activities. We need electric drills because we need accurate easily created tubular holes etc etc. Products are a means to an end, and it is the ends that need to be evaluated if we are going to be able to bring to bear any appropriate judgment as to the appropriate, desired and viable expectation of any products life, and, at some initial point, its right to exist at all.

Hierarchy of value of human activities

Over many years the author has attempted to create a hierarchy related to the activities we indulge in on a daily basis in relation to the work of Maslow and Benyus.

This hierarchy begins with similar fundamental concepts and works its way towards the vehicles of self-actualisation and beyond. It begins with the same fundamentals:

  • Essential for Survival
  • Safety
  • Usability
  • Convenience
  • Comfort
  • Luxury
  • Decadence
  • Dangerous
  • Disastrous

It is reasonably obvious that the needs of survival related to healthy air and water, for example, deserve paramount attention. As a next step, having those resources be safe and usable would also seem something of a priority. Moving to ensure that such resources would be convenient would be the next step, and for air and water, the case is easily made. Moving to comfort is a more costly activity, but would be a measure of a successful society.

The issue of luxury is far more difficult. The British chef, Jamie Oliver, considers french fries, or chips, to be a luxury, or better, a treat; very nice to have occasionally, but not healthy or necessarily affordable on a daily basis (Oliver, 2010). So, to add to this list of luxuries, the author offers Champagne; on special occasions it would seem a good idea to celebrate with champagne. And on a larger scale. Every four years it seems to be a good idea to let the best athletes of the world compete against each other. Hence we have the Olympic Games or Football’s World Cup. Hopefully not too excessively, but a healthy treat or luxury.

When we go beyond luxury we encounter the notion of decadence, reflecting decay, where activities have profound environmental impacts beyond their benefit. At this point the reader might be interested in seeing how any human activity might be fit into this hierarchy; Fishing, Education, Shopping, Fashion, Heating Products, Domestic Appliances as examples. The author worked with students and found it interesting to see how such activities or needs either, can be related to the hierarchy, or could be related; appropriately or not.

The final steps in the hierarchy are likely self- evident – danger and disaster – and our participation in such activities should be far more difficult to justify. Nuclear weapons, or even resource exploration are obvious areas for further work.

Maslow, nature, and the values of human activity

Rather than attempt a complex definition of Nature, the author looks to use Nature as a reflector of the health of ourselves and our activities on the planet. Simply put, if the natural processes, identified by Benyus, that gave rise to the relatively stable planet that we evolved on are respected and continuous, then we are healthy and good-natured. If we are destructive, unable to clean up our messes, and endangering our eco-systems, biodiversity and the opportunity to live healthily into the future, then we are bad-natured. In this sense the author offers the following parallels in the study of the previously identified hierarchies.

In this brief paper these parallels are not offered as absolutes, but the suggested parallels offer some ‘food for thought’, as we attempt to plot the relative merits of our activities against the eco-sustainability of our shared environment:

  • At the primary level Maslow (1967) lists our biological and physical needs; air, food, drink, sex, sleep, and shelter. Nature also looks to survive, and our own activities reflect the similar objectives.
  • For Maslow, Nature and our own activities, safety is a next objective.
  • Maslow then moves to the challenge of belonging; being part of a family or system that we understand. Nature too looks to the ready availability of what is needed including being part of a family or group or even a supportive location or micro- environment. Human Activities too offer us usability and utility in the products that support our lifestyle goals and activities.
  • Maslow then looks to esteem, while Nature looks to stability and the easiness of survival and to flourish, while our human
    activities move to the needs of convenience and comfort for our products and surroundings.
  • Here we then move to what Maslow terms Self-Actualisation. Where Nature tries, and succeeds to be established, even to take- over or dominate, and human activities reflect comfort and luxury (our treats).
  • More recently others have started to break down the next steps in Maslow’s self- actualisation, (Schacter et al., 2011). Here Nature can try to take over and change the local habitat for ever. On such occasions it is forced to move into pastures new or even reduce its own population; in some instances becoming threatening and causing endangerment to other species. In parallel, our human activities move towards Decadence (perhaps the option of the very rich and powerful), and on towards danger and disaster.

This brief exploration has not been undertaken here in any great detail. Hopefully the reader
can make their own parallels. However, it is postulated that if we are to examine how the products reflected by our human activities should be appropriately related to appropriate lifetimes, then we should perhaps first consider the activities that they are part of.

If we are to consider the validity and appropriate lifetime for any product as part of any activity, then we should link it to a hierarchy related to its impacts; taking us from our basic needs through to healthy survival, and on to the dangers of decadence and beyond.

Doing healthy things in healthy ways

While we would like to think that civilized human behaviour should result in us making healthy decisions about how we live and the products we evolve to help us do so. However, this is clearly not the case, or this conference would not be needed. To help us on the path to the finite world thinking that we need to evolve, we need the development of guidelines, knowledge, education, standards and laws. When we are faced with the many examples of products whose lifetimes dissatisfy us we have two choices. First we can attempt to learn from our mistakes and move forward by telling others the lessons we have learned. The second choice lies in the establishment of laws, standards and practices, and here we must reflect on the nature of our human activities.

In Longer Lasting Products (Cooper, 2010) the author described four useful modes of obsolescence that are identifiable and largely predictable. As was mentioned previously, where there is fast changing technology there will be fast changing products, and predictable technological obsolescence. When long lasting products are predictably discarded due to their short life aesthetics we create an inappropriate in-balance. In a sense the modes of obsolescence described can be seen as identifiers of predictable change, of opportunities, and of potential problems. In such a way, issues such as the availability of replacement parts or upgrades after the cessation of production could be established by law, practice or standards.

However, the nature of the product reflects the nature of the human activity. A simple maxim could be that our goal in living prosperously on our finite planet is simply to adopt a strategy of doing ‘healthy things in healthy ways’. As such, undertaking an environmentally unhealthy activity cannot be justified by offering environmentally healthy products to help us do it, and vice versa. In essence, we must explore the causes of our dissatisfaction against a larger backdrop. A backdrop that includes the establishment of rules backed by dynamic equations and models that reflect changing technologies and lifestyles, and establish appropriate lifetimes for the products that support them. Some products will have short lives, and others much longer ones, but all of them should optimize resource use and not contaminate our aquifers and our land when discarded. In Nature, waste is generally food. We must develop somewhat similar practices, where the products that we manufacture should be seen to be part of the same philosophy; as comfortable, safe and convenient as possible, occasionally luxurious, but never decadent, dangerous or disastrous.


While the author considers that the four modes of obsolescence identified in Longer Lasting Products are appropriate in the evaluation of the longevity of a product, research undertaken since the publication of the book has identified a further useful mode of obsolescence; that of ‘Use’. Some products wear out, others break down, and some offer particles and contaminants that can adversely infiltrate the environment. Examples include chewing gum, toothpaste, tyres, clothing fibres, and cosmetics. While the focus of this conference can be explored using the original four modes, any appropriate planning considering the impacts of the products of our lifestyles should take into consideration this fifth mode of obsolescence to help to establish how we can continue into the future ‘doing healthy things in healthy ways’.


The author is grateful for the work undertaken by Prof. Tim Cooper, The Design Research Unit at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and the many practitioners of Life Cycle Analysis around the world who are doing so much to help us learn how we can live healthily, long into the future.


Benyus J., (1997), Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, New York: Harper Perennial.

Braungart M. and McDonough W., (2002), Cradle to Cradle: Remaking How We Make Things, MacMillan North Point Press.

Carson R.L. (1951), The Sea Around Us., New York: Oxford University Press.

Carson R.L., (2002) Silent Spring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Cooper T., (2010) Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to a Throwaway Society., UK: Gower.

Cross N (Ed.), (1984) Developments in Design Methodology, UK: Wiley.

Holyoake A., (2013) The World’s First Postage Stamp, London: Royal Philatelic Society.

Maslow A.H., (1943) A Theory of Human Motivation, New York: Psychological Review Vol 5 #4.

Maslow A.H., (1967) A Theory of Metamotivation: The Biological Rooting of the Value-Life, New York: Journal of Humanistic Psychology Vol 7 (2).

Oliver J.,(2010), Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution: French Fries are vegetables!, Episode 3, USA: ABC TV.

Schacter D.L., Gilbert D.T., and Wegner D.M., (2011) Human Needs and Self-Actualisation, Psychology: Second Edition, New York: Worth Inc.

Sign up for plate updates