Quality as a Means to Sustainability

I am just wrapping up with reading Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouninard, and I have to admit that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the book.  Mr. Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company that has been talking the talk and walking the walk about sustainable practices.

There was one particular topic in this book that caught my interest that I don’t think gets enough credit when people discuss the attributes of sustainability, and that’s the concept of Quality.  Our American way of life is predicated on an endless loop of consuming and disposing of goods.  People make things, people buy things, people throw away things, and then people make more things for people to buy.  This loop has created many jobs and services related to those things, as well as jobs related for promoting those things and making people believe they need them.  These goods were designed to be disposed, because if they were made to last then why would people buy more of them?  If you’re car came with life-time tires would you ever need to buy another set of tires again?  If you’re computer could easily be upgraded as required for new technologies would you ever buy a new computer?

There’s a great line from the book that states the poor can’t afford to buy cheap goods.  In the short term someone could obviously save money by going with a cheaper item, but more than likely that cheaper item is cheap because the durability of it is sub par and the item will surely have a short life span.  Essentially this statement about the poor means that we can no longer afford to buy crap.  And despite the marketing campaigns for the people who create crap, more of crap is still crap (that’s why the word ‘crap’ is both singular and plural).

So how do we know Quality when we see it?  Mr. Chouinard laid out a few questions about how to define Quality.  This list was originally created to define Quality for Patagonia clothing, but this list easily translates to architecture.

Is it functional? Designing from the foundation of filling a functional need focuses the design process and ultimately makes for a superior finish product.  If people don’t need it they will most likely not purchase the item, thus it becomes unused and discarded (or recycled into something else, which requires more energy and resources to turn it into something else).

Is it multi-functional? This is a great point about designing something that serves more than one purpose.  If it can be used for something other than its intended purpose it will most likely survive longer.

Is it durable? This goes back to the point about the poor not being able to afford cheap goods.  Part of this question is obvious – the longer a product lasts the longer it will be used.  But there’s another part of the question that relates to viewing each part of that product.  What good will it do if most of the product is designed and constructed to last decades, yet one of the vital parts of the product will endure for only a few years?  The idea is that all of the parts wear out at roughly the same time and last for a very long time.

Does it fit our customer? How will the design meet the needs of the customer?  If there is no need for your product then there will most likely be no customers to purchase your product.

Is it as simple as possible? Good design is as little design as possible.  This question reminded me of a car show I went to quite a few years ago.  There were cars where their design was simple, soulful, and in a way sexy.  You could feel your heart race a little just by looking at them.  And then there was a car that had every piece of plastic add-on possible.  The design looked like someone ordered every single item in the catalog and glued it on.  Simplicity implies reduced waste.

Simple has two sides – one side being utilitarian (function), and the other side being beauty (form).  Sustainable design involves integrating both form and function.

Is the product line simple? This is more about managing and simplifying the number of choices a customer has to make.  This concept creates efficiencies that save energy and resources in the long run.

Is it innovation or invention? Innovation is the improvement of an existing product or service, and invention is the creation of a new product or service.  Other than invention requiring more resources and time to create, there’s also the potential pitfall that your invention has to prove that it’s relevant to customers.  An existing product or service most likely already has a customer base that is probably in need of something better than the status quo.

Is it considered global design? Global design refers to the tailoring of products to specific markets throughout the world.  Thinking and acting more globally will open our minds to an endless possibility of new ideas.  For architecture its the strategy of designing a structure that relates to the local culture and climate, but also keeping an open mind and seeing how other people were able to adapt to local conditions.

Is it easy to care for and clean? Low maintenance becomes an attribute for high quality.

Does it have any added value? A designer should be able to define rather than assert what makes a product the best of its kind.  This can go back to the point of something being multi-functional, and it could also have additional value if the company that makes the product donates a percentage of the proceeds to a worthy cause.  In Patagonia’s case it could mean that by buying their products you are essentially putting more money towards companies that practice sustainable strategies.  Value can be highly subjective.

Is it authentic? Is the product true to its function?  For architecture this relates to the nature of building materials and using them appropriately.  Materials have inherent and perceived functions and abilities, and when they’re not used in a manner that fits these functions and abilities they come across rather odd.  When you see stone and stucco used together the stone will typically be used as a base and the stucco will be placed over the stone.  Stone denotes a heaviness as seen for a foundation, where as the stucco does not.

Is it art or is it just fashion? Fashion is happening only now, and art is timeless.  Fashions become fads that disappear and art endures.

Are you designing for your core customer? This involves staying true to the people that have helped define your company and essentially have helped market your company.  This also deals with being authentic and true to who you are.

Have you done your homework? Know what works before investing time and resources into something that may flop.  This also involves knowing what has worked in the past and what is working in the present.

Is it timely? There’s a great quote by Paul Hawken that states “if everyone thinks you have a good idea, you’re too late.”  Quality means relevancy.  Just as in knowing if your product is functional and if there’s a need, if your product is behind the times or ahead of its time then it’s probably not relevant to the present.

Does it cause unnecessary harm? If it causes unnecessary harm then the product probably resides in the endless cycle of consuming and disposing crap.  Quality means implementing a cradle-to-cradle mindset where the creation and implementation of your product causes no harm to the environment or the people creating the product.

We are hopefully coming to the end of the crap era, where endless wealth and low standards have created a situation where everything required to sustain a meaningful life has been secondary.  Quality is no longer a luxury but rather it’s what people expect no matter how much they paid for a service or product.  To remain relevant we, as consumers and producers, must embrace quality in all its facets.


2 thoughts on “Quality as a Means to Sustainability

  1. Mile High Pixie

    You make a great point here, especially about how the poor cannot afford to buy cheap stuff. Because they only have x amount of money at any given time, they cannot afford to drop y dollars on the better-quality product. but they’re going to end up spending that much over the long-term to replace the cheaper product. As an adult consumer, I’ve become more cognizant of cost vs quality–this dish soap is $1.99, and that one is $2.99, but for $1 more I purchase a product that is made of natural ingredients that won’t harm the environment and weren’t tested on animals. And at some point, someone has to buy the “nicer” stuff in order t help get the price down. So why not me, the upper-middle-class white woman in her early 30s?

    Chouninard’s questions about quality apply to so many things that we can all consider when we peruse our choices in the marketplace. When a friend or relative wants to purchase something or invest in something, I ask them a few of these, especially the question “do you already have something that you could repurpose fairly easily to do what you want this new purchase to do?” My hope for the future is that this crappy present economy teaches folks some long-term lessons about what is necessary and teaches us to redefine “need” and “quality”. Is going to the movies and out to TGIWhatever’s with a loved one really quality time? Or is it higher quality to cook at home and play a board game?

  2. Pingback: The Characteristics of Timeless Design (As Told by Cars) « S7g Architecture

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