Making products by mining for raw materials, manufacturing these into a product, using the product till it wears out, then disposing of it to landfill is non-sustainable, so says Walter Stahal, in his recent book, the Circular Economy. He promotes extending the life of products by maintenance and repair and utilising their components when worn out to make further goods. Three quarters of the energy required to make a product go into making the basic materials and steel while three quarters of the labour input goes into producing the goods. It makes sense therefore from a resource point of view to the preserve the product’s materials as feedstock for further manufactures.
While product manufacture is increasingly being done in low wage countries, by extending their life through refurbishment and repair, jobs can be brought back to the consuming countries. We must go from owner-ship to user-ship. Product manufacturing companies must embrace extended producer liability, either through leasing products or taking them back when they cease to work or become obsolete. It is essential to decouple wealth and welfare creation from resource consumption.
While what Stahal says is valid, all the material, energy and labour costs, fuel subsidies and government regulations that have led to our throw-away society are still in place. Only government action on extended producer responsibility and reform of the cheap fuel policy will change how companies make, and take responsibility, for their products. Enlightened companies may show us possible futures, but for real change government must act.