Find a new way to frame the problem.
We’ve become addicted to convenience, and it’s killing our planet. Plastics are a critical issue for people and our environment. Solving complex problems requires us to rethink the context of the situation to develop the new questions that we need to ask. A new way to look at these challenges is to focus on the behaviors that we need to change instead of the goals that we want to accomplish.
Our plastic problem
Since the 1950s 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been created. 79% of that plastic is in our landfills and the environment. This has caused an existential problem for our planet and the life on it. This isn’t news to anyone. We’re inundated with articles, documentaries, and websites, all presenting the environmental crisis that we are have created. Many governments, national and local, are passing legislation to ban single-use plastic products. Change is happening on the private side as well. Some food markets are allowing customers to purchase goods like pasta and nuts in refillable containers. Tom Szaky, the founder of TerraCycle, a recycling company, recently launched Loop. Loop is a service that delivers consumer products in reusable metal containers. Szaky is focusing Loop on our unconscious behaviors towards the disposable culture. The goal is to help people relearn how to reuse things. These are all steps in the right direction.
Is this enough to make a difference? People are still buying, using, and disposing of single-use plastic products. If all this information and initiatives are not enough to make people stop using single-use plastics, then what is the answer? We need a different way to look at the problem.
The Experience Economy
We’re currently living in what has been labeled as the Experience Economy. This is a term that solely benefits the economic equation. People are the commodity and experiences are designed to capture engagement; to delight people with inspiring experiences. These experiences create engaging connections to people, which generate growth opportunities for companies.
The term “Experience Economy” was first used in 1998 by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore. In their Harvard Business Review article, “Welcome to the Experience Economy.” “An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event.” This was the beginning of the period where companies began to create experiences to help sell services and products. Nike’s Niketown and the theme restaurants like the Hard Rock Café and the House of Blues created “eatertainment” experiences.
That was the beginning; today’s reality has evolved into to more complicated situation. According to the 2018 PWC report, Experience is everything: Here’s How to Get it Right, “The ‘Experience Economy’ has ushered in a new B2C mindset, steering brands beyond emphasizing products and services to selling rich consumer experiences. Our findings quantify the potential ROI on experience investments, upwards of 16%.” A good experience is created by speed, efficiency, convenience, and trust. The key to it all is the immediacy of convenience. The Experience Economy has created a culture that’s rooted in convenience.
Convenience Experience Economy
From the consumer product goods, entertainment, and the gig economy, convenience drives the engagement and economic growth. Convenience experiences have created business growth opportunities that are so powerful that companies like Amazon and Apple are their own economic ecosystems. Companies like Uber and Starbucks provide services that give us what we want when we want it. Netflix, Twitter, and Google allow us to see, say, and get what we want in an instant. We have designed machines and algorithms to provide us with the experiences that shape our existence and how we feel. We have become addicted to these experiences because we cannot imagine a world without these comforts. We then develop more and more machines and products to bring us more conveniences. We are literally existing in the human-powered, machine-controlled universe portrayed in the Matrix movies Trilogy. Since convenience has become such a controlling part of our experiences and our economics, we should rename the Experience Economy as the Convenience Experience Economy. The conversation changes once we begin to focus on convenience.
Convenience is a double-edged sword
In his New York Times piece, titled, “The Tyranny of Convenience,” Tim Woo shares, “As Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, recently put it, ‘Convenience decides everything.’ Convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences. (I prefer to brew my coffee, but Starbucks instant is so convenient I hardly ever do what I ‘prefer.’) Easy is better, easiest is best. Given the growth of convenience — as an ideal, as a value, as a way of life — it is worth asking what our fixation with it is doing to us and to our country. I don’t want to suggest that convenience is a force for evil. Making things easier isn’t wicked. On the contrary, it often opens up possibilities that once seemed too difficult to contemplate, and it typically makes life less arduous, especially for those most vulnerable to life’s drudgeries.”
The comfort that convenience brings us comes at a price. We have been convinced that single-use plastics, inexpensive and unrepairable products, and even our mobile technology are all convenience items. However, our smartphones, once touted by Steve Jobs as the “one device,” brought together communication, the internet, and entertainment together has created an expectation of immediacy. Social media makes it convenient to connect to people and to stay on top of current events, however, it’s also collecting data on every user. It has also been weaponized to spread disingenuous and fake news and to divide groups of people. Our single-use and unrepairable products perpetuate the convenience of a throw-away culture. Finally, the energy that we need to power all these conveniences are provided through non-renewable, carbon footprint intensive processes. In many cases, these processes result in toxic byproducts and greenhouse gases.
A new look at the plastic problem
A friend recently posted the following update on social media.
This statement is true. However, the reality is much more complicated. At the surface, bottled water companies appear to be selling health and wellness. They are promoting a healthy alternative to sugary drinks. However, what they are really selling is convenience. They want people to buy a bottle of water because it’s a healthy beverage alternative, but they are also readily available when we need them. This accessibility brings us comfort. We can have a healthy bottle of water whenever we want to! We are addicted to the convenience of plastic water bottles.
Steps forward are not enough
The bottom line is that we need to address our plastic problem. Recycling which was once promoted as a sustainability solution is really just a smoke and mirror charade. With the changes to China’s recycling policy, the National Sword Policy, the global market for recycling has gone through a drastic shift and exposed the uncomfortable truths about recycling. It’s no longer “convenient” to send our recycling to China or other countries for that matter. Even if recycling is accepted, the quality of the materials is being scrutinized. This means what we send to be recycled must be cleaner and less co-mingled with non-recyclable materials. No longer can we mindlessly place dirty containers and bottles into our blue bins. Non-recyclable materials such as straws and styrofoam cannot be included, and our blue bins must not be used as trash receptacles. Recycling isn’t a convenience anymore. Even our behaviors around recycling are rooted in convenience.
Look for similar situations
If convenience has led us to think of our behaviors as an addiction, then we can look at how other addiction issues have been targeted. Smoking is an interesting comparison to look at. Between the 1940s and the 1970s, the percentage of Americans who smoked was around 45%. Since then, that number has been dropping. In 1980, it was below 30%, and in 2018, the number dropped to 16%.
This decline was promoted by changes in the way people were taught about the tobacco industry’s marketing efforts. People were five times likely to quit if they understood how deceptive marketing strategy was designed to make then want to smoke. Ongoing demarketing strategies promote anti-smoking social norms.
The combination of behavioral understandings and emphasis on social norms, with government regulations, and taxes helped bring the smoking numbers to a historic low in 2018. Smoke-free workplaces, bars, and restaurants create environments that are socially easier for people to quit smoking. The focus of linking marketing and social norms to influence behavioral change is the focus here.
Despite all the work that’s being done to get people to stop smoking, there are 38 million American adults still smoking in 2018. Plastics will not go away either, but we can drastically reduce the amount of plastic that is being used and promote a better understanding of its lifecycle.
Looking at plastic in a different light
If we want to solve our addiction to plastic, we need to change the way we look at convenience. The behaviors around our addiction to convenience are not being addressed. Current climate change and waste management messaging tries to shame us into changing our behaviors. We’re overloaded with pictures of dead whales with their belly full of plastics and beaches covered in plastic products pictures. There’s data about the amount and weight of plastic everywhere. However, this doesn’t seem enough to change people’s behaviors toward single-use plastic products. What do we need to do to ween ourselves away from all the conveniences that plastics bring to us? We need a new way to look at the problem.
We need to design new and different experiences, so we can learn and understand what it means to be addicted to convenience. We know that shaming addicts into change aren’t an effective method to change behaviors. We work to reconnect drug addicts to society, instead of shaming them. This is how we need to treat our addiction to convenience.
Designers need to lead the path forward. Designers are the ones that create experiences that influence people. They have been an integral part of the process that has created a culture that expects instant gratification and conveniences at all costs. Whether we are calling for an Uber, ordering dinner through Seamless, or looking for something to watch on Netflix, we’re accustomed to being provided an experience that’s designed for our convenience. We treat convenience as an inalienable right, and the economics of the experience economy is more than happy to keep promoting the addiction.
The bottom line: design is a process that influences an intentional behavior change towards a user. If we’re going to change our behaviors towards single-use plastics, we need to design a different way to approach convenience. Our design process needs to focus on being less evil towards people. Maintaining business growth is essential, but designers need to have a better understanding of the unintended consequences of the experiences they are designing.
We’re currently focused on the low hanging fruit to solve the plastic problem. Banning plastic bags and straws are certainly a step forward, but they are a tiny percentage of the problem. In the end, to solve this wicked problem, we need to focus on behaviors that caused it. Marketers, strategist, and educators need to come together with ethnography and psychographic data to create messaging that educates and resonates with people. Business, as usual, will not save us. It’s time to rethink how we perceive and discuss the challenges that we face. A design process that links research with a creative process to formulate new perspectives can change the conversation and spur new ways to think of a problem. In an increasingly complex world, this is the process that we need to keep pace with the speed of change and solve the most wicked problems. Let’s use the design process for good and not evil.