In search of an ending

Should brands be considering what happens at the end of a product’s life as much as its beginning? Designer Joe Macleod thinks so

I first met Joe Macleod on a train from Edinburgh to London. I was travelling home from the Design Council’s Design for Planet conference in Dundee. So was he, but whereas my journey would end in a few hours, Macleod was on the first leg of a railway odyssey that would take him, eventually, home to Sweden. Such is the commitment required to attend a conference on sustainability in another country.

At the conference, Macleod had been talking about endings, a subject on which he has written two books and dedicated years of study. Put simply, Macleod’s argument is that in our consumer society, attention is focused on the selling and usage of products and services, with very little paid to what happens when we no longer want or need something. And that’s bad for us, the planet and for business.

If I buy shampoo, I expect the manufacturer to be responsible for it working as advertised and not harming me. But when I’ve finished it, that empty plastic bottle becomes society’s ­problem. As millions of such bottles end up on our beaches, for how much longer can we allow brands to put products into the world without ­taking responsibility for their ­lifespan?

A different set of problems surrounds the end of our relationships with digital products and services. Ending a contract for, say, a pay-TV subscription is often painful for the customer and a PR disaster for the brand, while trying to exit from the clutches of social media platforms can be equally messy and unsatisfying.

Commerce wants us to continuously buy and use new products but overlooks endings in these complex relationships

New laws such as GDPR in digital and the Right to Repair in physical products will play an important role in reducing waste and protecting consumers, but without waiting to be forced into action by legislation, brands can take a lead. By thinking about better endings for their products and services, Macleod argues, brands can avoid business risk, boost customer satisfaction, become more sustainable, and increase sales.