11 January 2022

Toyota UK last week announced a scheme to take back used cars and put them through its factory to “add value to vehicles throughout their life cycles”. The scheme is intended mainly for the fleet market, where high mileages and over-supply have typically hurt resale prices.

BPCC’s green blog:

COP26 – after the party, the fallout
Car fleets, driving to work and ESG
Communicating the Green Imperative within your firm
How green is your office?
The Green Canteen
Remake, remodel – remanufacture?

Remanufacturing in the automotive sector has been more of a slogan than reality over the past decade. In theory, there’s nothing stopping a car being used for many decades – look at the classic car movement. Look at Cuba. Keeping a car in regular use means taking good care of it, not thrashing the engine to within its design limits, nor driving in short hops (daily drives to work of no more than a few kilometres)

However, a mixture of human vanity, carelessness, and built-in obsolescence means that our cars serve their first owners for only a few years, then get sold on to a handful of second-hand owners before turning up at the scrapyard.

Yet with longevity built into a car from the outset, as a fundamental design parameter, it could outlast its human owner. The trouble with such as philosophy is it will kill the business model that has driven the automotive sector since the Ford Model T. Regular facelifts, new design ‘features’ appearing with each model year, keeps the customer wanting ‘new’.

The first auto-maker to bring re-manufacturing into the mainstream of its business will gain a huge advantage over the rest of the industry. The only question is how to set about it – both in terms of manufacturing process and communication with the market.

Is this philosophy transferable to other areas of manufacturing? Consumer electronics, for example, where the business model is driven by step-changes in innovation rather than incremental improvements in design. Who wants to be working on a thirty-year-old computer or watching TV on a cathode-ray set, or walking around with a first-generation mobile phone? Tech is by definition driven by constant innovation. Yet consumer-replaceable modules are being introduced by phone-makers such as Apple, driven by a market that’s turning its back on built-in obsolescence.

If we turn our attention to other sectors – furniture could – indeed should – be built to last centuries. Veneered chipboard or medium-density fibreboard tables and chairs built down to a price are costly to our planet in terms of their short use-cycle; they do not recycle well – nor should they be burnt because of toxins in the adhesives and veneers. Better solid-wood furniture – make less of it, but make it to last.

Clothes could also be produced with longevity as a key attribute! Denim jeans began as workwear before becoming a fashion item – a return to tougher threads and a marketing campaign that guarantees long life being central to the consumer message would propel whichever manufacturer adopted the concept to a segment leadership position. A tailor that could make old suits look new by replacing linings or threadbare patches would have a marketing advantage. Today’s consumers are increasingly turning their back on fast fashion, and seeking ‘new’ in the ‘old’ – The Economist estimates that the global market for second-hand clothes could more than double in size to $50 billion by 2025.

Domestic appliances that could have their lives extended through a modular design allowing components that wear or burn out to be replaced at home by consumers will also do well. A kettle or toaster that lasts 30 or 40 years with a few replacement elements, for example.

Internally, it’s a struggle between the engineers (who can do Six Sigma) and the investors (who want continually rising sales and profits). In the middle is marketing. Pushed by ever-stronger forces demanding sustainability at the cost of profits, the tide is shifting. Investors are increasingly aware of sustainability as a key investment criterion. What could be more sustainable than building in longevity and a business model that involves re-manufacturing?

There is the ever-present threat, however, of greenwashing. Companies will start being tempted to say “Look at us – we’re re-manufacturing!” when in fact, the whole scheme is driven by marketing rather than by any rational engineering or environmental outcomes.

The carbon footprint of every manufactured product will, in time, be carefully studied and rankings published of how much every item costs the planet. Ever-increasing awareness of the climate crisis will change consumer behaviour for good.

There is a Polish saying: “we were too poor to afford to buy cheap things” – the meaning being that cheap things were forever breaking, wearing out, falling apart. Yet buy something good, and it will last. “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten” is a handy English saying.

I foresee a trend in manufacturing that focuses on extended lifecycle and whole-life cost. The age of throwaway consumer goods is over – if we want to save our planet.

The Green Blog by Michael Dembinski

Day 1: BPCC’s green blog on COP 26 in Glasgow
Day 2: Methane emission pledge hailed as success on second day of COP26
Day 3: Coal and climate finance are the focus of the third day of COP26
Day 4: Youth activism flavours fourth day of COP26
Day 7: Barack Obama’s speech highlighted start of second week of COP26
Day 8: Gender equality – focus of eighth day of COP26 – overshadowed by new heat calculation
Day 10&11: China-US ‘breakthrough’ as final statement is hammered out
Summary: COP26 disappoints with the loss of strong commitment