Does technology define humanity?

Design & Technology

Does technology define humanity? I was asked this question the other day and my instant response was yes. I am very wary of the influence technology is having over the way we behave. However when I thought about it a bit more I started to question my initial response. Yes technology has a great impact on how we live our lives, but I wouldn’t say it defines our humanity. Humanity is on a much deeper level that technology has been able to reach. I wouldn’t rule out this changing in years to come though. I feel we are on a dangerous path that may lead technology controlling us rather than us controlling technology.

I am not alone in this concern. There have been many predictions on how technological advancements will impact how we behave in the future. What I find fascinating is the predications that have been made in the past about the future we live in now, particularly in films. Blade Runner (1982) is a great example of this as the film is based in a dystopian Los Angeles in the seemingly distant future of 2019. Now don’t get me wrong, some of the predictions are a little off, as far as I’m aware there aren’t any synthetic humans wandering the streets… However the film did get some things right. Video calling makes an appearance which plays a big part in the way we communicate today. Digital billboards have a big visual impact in the film and certainly reflect the aesthetic of our modern cities.

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Blade Runner had a very pessimistic way of predicting how technology was going to impact us. It presents LA as this dark, gloomy place that is only lit by the harsh lighting from the digital billboards. I think it’s interesting that the film has taken a dystopian view of the future rather than a utopian one. We are often promised that technology will lead us to a future of paradise and prosperity. However I am sceptical of this, I think technology is not all positive. The constant presence of technology in our lives is having a detrimental impact on the way we behave and interact with each other and I can only see this getting worse.

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The biggest cause of this is the mobile phone. If you ever stop and look around, at any given moment, there will be a sea of eyes glued to the screens of their phones. I feel this problem has crept up on us. I couldn’t pin point when this started to become such a common sight. Having these devices on our bodies at all times are causing them to almost become part of us and this is where I worry about technology having an impact on humanity itself. 

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Until the end of the world (1991) is another film that predicted the way technology would evolve and in particular our addiction to a handheld device. In the film there is a device that can record people’s dreams and one of the main characters, Claire, is drawn in by this. There is a scene at the end of the film which I feel has a hauntingly accurate vision of the way things are heading. Claire is found sitting in a cave manically staring at the screen of the dream device. When the device runs out of batteries and she is refused any replacements she has a complete meltdown.

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I think this is, although maybe slightly dramatised, a scarily accurate prediction of how dependent we are becoming on our mobile phones. The addiction Claire has to the device has resulted in her losing her sanity. Watching this did make me further question the impact technology has on our humanity. At this stage I would not yet say it defines us but if we continue to rely on technology the way we are now I think it could reach a point where it is so integrated into human life that it is hard to determine where the human ends and the technology begins.

 

Handmade Products

Design & Technology

Traditionally, before the industrial revolution, everything was handmade. Nowadays, especially with the introduction of mass production, it is rare to come across solely hand crafted products. I think this is such a loss as objects made by hand have an individuality that could never be reproduced by machinery. Every handmade product is different and has its own story which is represented in the maker’s marks. Mass production has resulted in generic, identical products being churned out with very little care or consideration.

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I strongly believe that every object should be treated with respect and be well cared for to ensure it lasts as long as possible. In order to encourage this respect, it’s important that the user has an emotional connection to the product. A product that has been carefully crafted by hand naturally offers this emotional connection as it is linked to the maker and their manufacture process. It is a natural instinct for someone to take care of something that they know has been made by an actual person. A good example is that handmade Christmas decoration you made as a child that still appears on the tree every year. It’s probably outlived many characterless, factory made decorations that have been bought over the years. Humans are emotionally lead and this really reflects on how we interact with different products.

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From an environmental point of view, I think handmade products are a much better than their mass produced equivalent. Firstly, handmade products are usually built to last and will often come with a lifetime guarantee. This is the approach we need to be taking to move away from our current throwaway culture. Handmade workshops are small-scale in comparison to huge machinery factories. Therefore they don’t require as much energy since they are powering a human rather than a machine, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint. They also only produce the quantity of goods that are in demand rather than over-producing and then using methods such as planned obsolescence and manipulative marketing to convince people that they need to buy into their products.

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A big selling point for hand crafted goods is the social aspect. When making a custom, handmade product, the maker will often build a relationship with the customer in order to make the product fit their specific needs. This relationship between the maker and customer is unique to the handmade industry, you don’t see people making friends with machines. Interacting with the person behind the product adds a social element to what is normally considered to be a materialistic based experience. I think that is something that has been lost in the expansive shopping centres and online stores we often find ourselves in where there is little to no human interaction.

There is not only benefits for the customer when it comes handmade products. The actual process of making the goods can have an amazing impact on the mental health of the maker. The skills involved in hand crafts are often considered to have therapeutic qualities. There’s something about making an object with your own hands that brings pride and satisfaction.

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Unsurprisingly, the main reason for the demise of handmade products in todays market is down to money. The cost of a hand crafted product, especially a custom made one, is extortionate in comparison to one that is machine made. Handmade products are often unaffordable. This is tricky because the price is due to factors such as the quality of material, the skill of the maker and the time required for manufacture. Time is the biggest influence here, for example it takes much longer to hand stitch leather than machine stitch it. I think it is so important to pay a maker fairly for their work which is why I find myself in such a dilemma about the fact that handmade products are often unaffordable. We need to find a balance that makes handmade products more available to the general population while still ensuring the maker is able to make a living.

Stylistic Obsolescence

Design & Technology, Planned Obsolescence

When shopping for a new household appliance, the aesthetics of the product is often the deciding factor. For example, a modern, sleek looking microwave will  give us the impression that it is more technologically advanced than the more basic model sitting beside it on the shelf. However if you actually opened up both the products, you will often find very little or even no difference in the actual functional capabilities. This illusion is the result of stylistic obsolescence.

 

This approach to product design has been used since the early 1920s, however it was first applied to the household appliance industry in 1934 by French-American designer Raymond Loewy. Loewy is often considered to be the creator of western consumer culture. He was one of the first designers to become a ‘celebrity’, often featuring on the cover of Life magazine. His design of the Coldspot refrigerator is a great example of style over substance, a distinguishing feature of the stylistic obsolescence approach.

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The fridge has a very futuristic appearance, enticing consumers to buy into the idea of the newest, on trend product. The design prioritised appealing to emotions over the actual ergonomics and function of the product. Each new version of the refrigerator gave the impression of a completely transformed model from the last, however the technology inside often remained the same. The outer shell was constantly changed to keep up to date with the current trends and as a result people felt the need to keep buying a new fridge in order to stay cool.

 

The Coldspot refrigerator was the first household appliance that soled solely on its appearance rather than its function and this continues to be a strong selling point today. This idea of using appearance to trick consumers into thinking they need to buy the newest version of a product really annoys me. Modern aesthetics make the consumer think that they are buying something that has the newest technology and will therefore operate better than their current appliance. In many cases this is not true. 

You may be wondering why the idea of stylistic obsolescence formed in the first place. The Great Depression was the main reason why designers decided to start to design products to deliberately go out of style. In order to boost the economy, it was important that consumers bought more stuff. Therefore they were encouraged to buy products that they didn’t necessarily need. Obviously this would be a hard selling point so they needed to trick consumers into thinking that they actually did need these products. This is where stylistic obsolescence came into play. People were convinced that they needed to keep buying the newest version of a product and as a result the economy started to recover.

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So if you look at to from a financial perspective, stylistic obsolescence is a great thing, especially for ensuring continuous profits for a business. However, I would argue that the disadvantages seriously outweigh the benefits in this case. Firstly I believe this approach is unethical as it manipulates consumers into spending their well earned money unnecessarily for the financial gain of big corporations. My biggest concern however, is the detrimental impact it is having on the environment. Have we considered what happens to the old, rejected products that are discarded when we buy new ones? That was something that was seriously over-looked when stylistic obsolescence was introduced. The problem is when this ideology was developed, people were very naive about the strain we were putting on our environment. There was little to no concern over how our actions would impact the climate. That is no excuse though, we are now well aware of the current climate disaster we have on our hands. Now that we are more informed we need to change our approach to consumerism entirely. We cannot continue living in this consumer culture built on stylistic obsolescence, it’s simply not sustainable.

 

The Air Travel Dilemma

Design & Technology

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So the other day I was asked to calculate how many square kilometres of woodland would be required to provide enough biofuel to run an Airbus A380 plane for 24hrs. Obviously some assumptions/estimations had to be made but it worked out to be one square kilometre per plane. It may not seem like that much but considering there are an average of 93,000 flights a day, you would need an area of woodland larger than the whole of Scotland to fuel all the planes in the world for just one day. Doing this calculation really highlighted to me the excessive amount of fuel that is used to power our flight industry. Just one return flight from London to New York produces a greater carbon footprint than a whole year’s personal allowance needed to keep the climate safe. That is terrifying. 

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The detrimental impact planes are having on our climate makes air travel seem like something one should avoid at all costs. In terms of emissions this is true and as someone who is very environmentally conscious I should never even consider flying. However, I’m going to be honest with you, I often find myself on a flight, I was on 8 last year alone. This is because unfortunately my other passion of travelling can conflict with my environmental views. I am not against flights as I believe they have lead to us having a more connected world. It is so easy now a days for people to travel across the world. I think that is something amazing and it should be celebrated. We are able to experience different cultures at the click of a button by simply booking flights online. The world is literally at our fingertips. 

This accessibility brings so many benefits including helping to build our global community on both a social and political level. Affordable flights also give people the opportunity to escape from their everyday lives to see a new place and experience a different climate. This can be really good for mental health, especially when living in Scotland where it can be dark and grey for months. 

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The key thing here, as with many things, is moderation. I don’t think we should be overwhelmed by guilt simply because we want to escape to the sun for a wee holiday now and then. The two main sources of unnecessary flights, in my opinion, are business and domestic flights. Business men and women can find themselves going on flights weekly or, in some extreme cases, even daily. This is excessive to say the least. Thankfully alternative approaches like Skype meetings are becoming increasingly popular. I am hoping business flights will reduce over time as it saves the company expenses if they don’t have to pay to fly out their employees to meetings. 

Domestic flights on the other hand are in increasing popularity. The main reason for this is that ‘greener’ methods of transport like trains are often more expensive than flying. I find this so frustrating. A classic example is Glasgow to London. I have had to make that journey a number of times and have often discovered that flying is significantly cheaper than getting the train. Obviously people are going to choose the cheapest option and as a result people are taking short flights all around the UK. If train/ferry/bus travel isn’t made cheaper then I worry in the future we are going to look at flying as the preferred travel method. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research says we need to cut emissions by 90% by 2050 in order to keep our climate safe. If the flight industry continues to grow we have no chance of achieving this.

So I guess my view on flights is rather mixed. I wouldn’t say I am totally against flying, but when you are next planning a trip, have a look to see if there is an alternative way to travel to your destination.

Blood in the Mobile

Design & Technology

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Mobile phones have become an essential part of modern living. You will most likely own one, along with a range of other electronic devices. Maybe I’m naive but I would not expect my phone to be directly linked to war and conflict. I would have assumed that humanity wouldn’t have allowed for such a popular product to be responsible for the rape and deaths of millions of people. Unfortunately I was wrong. After watching the documentary ‘Blood in the Mobile’, I struggled to pick up my phone without feeling like there was blood on my hands.

Some of the precious metals that our phones rely on to function are only available in the Congo. The popularity of these metals has played a big part in funding the bloody conflict there. Armed groups are running mines hidden deep in the jungle that can only be described as hellish. Children as young as 12 are working 100 metres underground in horrendous conditions to source the metals we require for our phones. Since when did being able to scroll down our facebook feeds become more important than the wellbeing of a child. Something has gone horribly wrong. I won’t go into too much detail into the situation in the Congo as I highly recommend you watch the documentary yourself. I’m going to warn you, it’s not a pleasant watch but I think it’s very important that we are all aware of what is going on. It’s shocking how little media coverage this situation has.

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What frustrated me the most when watching the documentary was how poorly the mobile industry came across. Nokia, a company that publicly advocates social responsibility, was contacted numerous times to ask if they used any ‘blood’ minerals in their mobiles. It was insane how hard it was to communicate with them, constant excuses were given before eventually they spoke. It’s worth mentioning now that the documentary was made in 2011. The situation in the Congo had been known for a decade at this point, yet Nokia had no proof that they had made any progress in tackling the issue. 

The shots of the Nokia headquarters, filled with corporate suited men and women was a sharp contrast to the previous shots of children working in dark mines. The Nokia employees were in an entirely different world. When they spoke with apparent sincerity about their concerns over the issue and how they were taking it very seriously, it was hard to not think that they were so ignorant about the reality of what was happening. I’m sure they did feel bad about the story they were told of the young boy that was working in the mines, but it was as if they weren’t actually taking into account he was as human as they were.

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Obviously I am aware that ensuring there is no trace of blood minerals in Nokia’s phones was very tricky. There are so many different parties involved and the supply chain is confusing and hard to keep track of. However, a progressive step that was suggested to Nokia was to publish all of their supply chains. Making their supply chains transparent would assist in identifying where their materials were coming from. Nokia’s response to this suggestions is what left me in complete despair after watching the documentary. Basically they refused to publish this information because their competitors would see it and may catch on to their new technology development. I was honestly at a loss when I heard this. Consumerism has gone way too far. What has happened to compassion, how can a company be so cold hearted. Releasing this documentation would save so many lives, I don’t understand how that has just been put aside, money being a much higher priority than human lives.

When the documentary finished I honestly didn’t know what to say. I was so deeply saddened by what I had seen. I honestly had less faith in humanity. However after I’d had enough time to let it sink in, I did start to think about how there must be a way to help this situation. The documentary has a rather negative view, leaving you thinking the whole thing is a lost cause. I refused to believe that there is no way to stop blood minerals from always being in our mobiles. I am not willing to just accept it. 

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Big corporations like Nokia are very powerful and have the potential to have a huge influence on situations like what is happening in the Congo. But if they aren’t taking action then what do we do? How do we, as consumers, make a difference? The answer is simple. Consumers must demand change. The true power is in the consumer, we are who buy their products and if we refused to buy blood minerals then phone companies would be forced to make the necessary changes so that they can offer us conflict free products. 

However, the sad fact is people aren’t going to stop buying electronic devices in protest about blood minerals. As much as I’d like to say I would, we live in a society where we are way too reliant on our phones and laptops to make that sacrifice. This makes me really sad, I wish it wasn’t the case. I do believe that most people do care about the wellbeing of others and that’s why I think it is so important to raise awareness of this situation. The documentary was made 8 years ago, yet I saw it for the first time the other day. I’m sure I’m not the only one in this position. I think raising awareness is an easy step that can be taken without having to tackle our consumerism based society which in my view is what is preventing any real progress being made.

Some improvements in awareness have be made. In 2012, the SEC issued a rule requiring that companies disclose whether their products contain conflict minerals that are “necessary to the functionality or production” of their products. There are flaws in this, for example supply chains are always changing to an extent that it’s impossible to keep track to ensure that they remain conflict free. However, it’s a step in the right direction. We just need to be taking much bigger steps! 

Less, but Better

Design & Technology, Planned Obsolescence

Dieter Rams’ ten principles of good design are like the ten commandments of the design world. They have influenced the work of many young designers and are still as relevant as they were 50 years ago. The 10th principle arguably represents Rams’ design philosophy the most. “Good design is as little design as possible”. Unobtrusive design is something that Rams’ believes is very important. A product should simply disappear into the background and only have the necessary components for it to serve its purpose. Some people have described Rams’ work as ‘no design’ and although that may seem offensive, Rams takes pride in it. His products have an aesthetic sensibility that makes them very easy to understand. If you look at the Braun RT20 radio, designed by Rams in the 1960s, you can tell what the function of the product is instantly. You often don’t need to look at an instructions manual to be able to operate one of these products. I think this approach to design is brilliant as it leads to universal products that everyone can use. 

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The idea of ‘no design’ is a hard concept to comprehend as a designer. Although Rams’ pushes forward this idea of as little design as possible, this doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a lot of hard work and consideration into each of his products. Rams’ is the definition of a perfectionist and every detail in his designs has been meticulously studied and adjusted until they are ‘just right’. It is a well known fact that it is much more difficult to take away from design that to add to it. So the simple, minimalist designs that Rams’ has created may look effortless but in reality they are the results of endless hours of tenuous work.

Following his 10th principle, Dieter Rams often uses the phrase “less, but better” to describe his design philosophy. This ideology can be seen in the 606 universal shelving system he designed for Vitsoe. He described this system as “good english butter”, it’s always available but not intrusive. The idea of creating products that are reliable and long lasting but happily sit in the background just serving their function is something Rams strives for in his designs. This “no fuss” attitude has lead to his designs being timeless as the era that they were designed in have not managed to make a mark on his products.

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I have mixed views on this minimalist approach. I feel that Rams designs can lack personality and have quite a utilitarian aesthetic. Some products should be unobtrusive and belong in the background, but I would argue that it is also important to have products that have a story to them and celebrate their history. However from an environmental point of view, the timeless aesthetic of Rams’ designs has its benefits. The constant changes in styles and trends don’t have an effect on his designs and this prevents people from throwing away his products as they never go out out fashion.

Beyond Rams’ simple aesthetic choices, I couldn’t agree more with his design philosophy, especially when it comes to his views on sustainability. He is very passionate about designing products to last a lifetime and this is very clearly put across in Vitsoe. Although the price tag associated with his work can be exceptionally high, these products are intended to be passed on through generations. They are all designed to be easily repaired and individual parts can be replaced if they wear out.

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As I said before, Dieter Rams has had a huge influence over the design industry. Apple is arguably the biggest impact Rams’ aesthetic style has had in the modern day. There is an undeniable similarity in the aesthetic between Rams’ work and Apple products, especially their earlier work. For example, the iPod is clearly inspired from the 1958 T3 radio Rams’ designed at Braun. Jony Ive, the chief design officer at Apple, has been very open about Dieter Rams being his inspiration for many design decisions. What’s interesting is although Rams’ has said he takes this influence as a compliment, there is an unspoken tension. As a modern technology company, Apple has built its success on the reliance of planned obsolescence. This fundamentally contradicts Rams’ principles of good design. This could be considered rather controversial as Ram has unintentionally encouraged a company to use his aesthetic choices to make a huge profit, solely based on their products not being long-lasting.

Rams makes his thoughts on consumerism very clear. He recently declared that “”If I had to do it over again, I would not want to be a designer.” I think Rams is fearing that his initial intentions have been lost in our consumerism based society. He worries that he has indirectly inspired this materialistic approach and lack of consideration for sustainability. This is a concern I often have myself as a young designer. I don’t want to get caught into this idea of designing products to break in order to make money. I really do sympathise with Rams’ dilemma, he didn’t intend to encourage consumerism. It is very difficult to be a designer today without being tainted by the profit driven industry that has been established.

Mass Production

Design & Technology, Planned Obsolescence

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During the war, countless factories were built, and with advancing technologies, war machinery was able to be mass produced. Once the war had ended, these factories were quickly snatched up and converted to serve the consumer community. Products could now be mass produced and this was something that sparked the interest of a lot of designers, including the husband and wife team, Charles and Ray Eames. The couple had set up the Eames office in 1943 with the intention of working with a new material (plywood) to build chairs, but due to the war they started designing plywood leg splints instead. When the war had ended they could continue to develop their chairs, designing them to be easily mass produced. “We want to make the best for the most for the least.” was their mission statement and the result was their iconic chair design, something that has had a great influence over modern design for many decades, even to this day.

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The Eames chair was one of the first designer pieces of furniture that was affordable to the general population. This was because mass production allowed products to be produced cheaply which meant they could be sold at a lower price. This was a game-changer for designers as they now had the opportunity to make more of their products which could reach a much wider audience than before. Unfortunately this is not the only motivation for mass production. A big incentive was the amount of profit that could be made due to lower manufacturing costs.

The iconic Eames chair is a positive outcome from introduction of mass production, with the general population being able to access products that were originally unaffordable. Unfortunately the low cost of mass production was exploited by manufacturers and low quality, cheap throw away products started to fill the shelves.

The overall economy in America grew by 37% and the ‘make do and mend’ culture during the war was abandoned, replaced by a need for ‘new’ products and gadgets. People were making more money and as a result buying more things. This was great for the economy at first, the consumer was playing ball, buying into all the great (or not so great) products that were being released and promoted through advertisements. However eventually the amount of products being produced grew beyond the consumer demand leading to overproduction and an economic crisis. It was at this point that the method of planned obsolescence was put in place. This involved designing things with a limited lifetime which allowed manufacturers to manipulate the way the consumers were spending, making them replace or upgrade the same type of product frequently.

Obviously at this point I can’t help point out how bad an idea this was. The concept of designing to fail really triggers me. The birth of planned obsolescence after world war 2 has led to the throw away culture we have today. And I’m sure you are aware of the environmental issues associated with that. 

Mass production is something that most designers rely on today. It definitely has its benefits, as seen in the Eames case, as it is much easier to make mass produced products affordable. However, unfortunately it has also caught the eye of greedy manufacturers, who have seen the opportunity to make more and more money by forcing large quantities of unnecessary, short-lived products on the consumer. With an environmental crisis on our hands, maybe it’s time we reconsidered our throwaway culture. It isn’t environmentally or financially sound for us to be investing our money in products that are designed to fail.

 

Patagonia

Design & Technology, Planned Obsolescence

The desire for well made products has grown as we realise that our current lifestyle, built on consumerism, is not sustainable and is having a detrimental impact on our environment.  Modern businesses promote the concept of a product being designed to be durable as if this is a new approach and you will often find yourself paying a premium for a ‘lifetime’ product. Ironically, in the past it would have been considered absurd to develop a product with any intention other than to make it last as long as possible.

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It is surprising how few companies actually run their business with the intent to create these ‘lifetime’ products. Patagonia is a great example, creating high quality products using sustainable materials and manufacturing techniques. The founder, Yvon Chouinard, set up the company in 1974 with the mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Patagonia was considered to embrace the green movement well before it was considered of great importance to most other businesses. The company has 4 core values: Quality, Integrity, Environmentalism and Not Bound by Convention. I think the fact they have managed to stick to these core values over the years is responsible for Patagonia’s great success.

Patagonia are involved in a number of environmental initiatives. One of their biggest initiatives is supporting the organisation called 1% for the Planet where they donate 1% of their revenue to environmental causes. Patagonia really push for product repair and recycling. Their Common Threads initiative was inspired by their determination to close the loop on the lifecycle of their products and embrace the cradle to cradle ideology. They offer to repair any clothing at a fair price and actively encourage their customers to sell or donate their clothing if it is no longer needed. If the product is worn beyond repair then Patagonia will recycle the clothing for you.

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It is often considered that making more environmentally conscious business decisions can have a negative affect on the financial success of a company. Patagonia have proven that to be an incorrect assumption. The clothing brand is thriving while maintaining its integrity and often breaking convention from a marketing point of view. Patagonia’s anti-consumerism, anti-growth and anti-materialistic views have resulted in some unusual business moves in the past. For example, their “Don’t buy this jacket” advertisement in 2011 consisted of an image of their best selling, R2 fleece sweater and the environmental cost of making it. This was a very risky move, they were asking consumers to think twice before buying their products. One would assume this would have a negative impact on sales but in contrary the ad had the opposite effect and sales increased dramatically. Some say this is because the ad attracted an environmentally conscious target market who were happy to support this anti-consumerism approach.

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The success of the ad in 2011 leads us on to the debate about growth and how the expansion of Patagonia as a business may contradict their fundamental beliefs. Although the individual environmental impact of each product is minimised, the overall footprint of the company is increasing as they grow. This is a serious dilemma that Patagonia faces. However it can be argued that although there are some negative environmental implications associated with the expansion of a business, a new wider audience can be reached to pass on their environmental message and inspire consumers to think about what they are buying.

If you are environmentally conscious and have been enticed by Patagonia’s core values for their brand, you may find yourself on their website with the intention of purchasing one of these lifetime products. However it quickly becomes apparent that you need to have access to a large amount of money. These quality products don’t come cheap, a standard coat comes at around £200, with some of the more luxurious coats reaching £750. This raises the issue that your income can prevent you from making environmentally conscious choices when purchasing a product.

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Patagonia follows some great core values and as a result has blossomed into an ethical, environmentally conscious business where many people would choose to shop to access high quality, eco-friendly products that could last generations. However, their wholesome intentions are potentially being tainted by their reliance on making a profit. This could put them at risk of losing sight of the initial beliefs that the business was built on. It is disappointing that many common people are unable to join this sustainable approach to consumerism simply because they cannot afford to do so.