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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Simon Ford

Relationship between manufacturers and consumers in achieving sustainable consumption

Simon Ford

Relationship between manufacturers and consumers in achieving sustainable consumption

This dissertation begins with the recognition that gross overconsumption within the
developed world has caused significant environmental degradation and social
inequity. There is therefore a need to reduce the unsustainability of consumption in
the developed world. Computers have become increasingly central to our society so
much so that society and technology have become irrevocably connected. For society
to become more sustainable, the manner in which technology is produced, used and
disposed must become more sustainable. For these reasons the focus of this
dissertation is directed towards the computing sector and the interactions between
players in this market.


Two of the most important factors that have shaped the personal computing market
are the modularisation and commoditisation of the personal computer (PC). In the
1980s, IBM developed a computing architecture that allowed modular components to
be developed. Interface standards subsequently emerged that allowed processors,
memory chips and hard disk drives from different manufacturers to fit into that
architecture. Commoditisation then arose as a consequence of this modularisation. In
this way the computer industry was responsive to consumer needs because a cheaper,
more versatile product was created. However, it now appears that parts of the industry
push new product offerings to the consumer market that creates profits for its
shareholders without significant benefits to its customers. The worst culprits here are
Intel and Microsoft who create technological lock-in and successfully market their
new products in such a way as to stimulate consumer desire for their products.
This is of concern to the sustainability forum because the desire for profit, most
notably in the case of hardware designers and manufacturers, stems from the release
of new modules that make existing ones obsolete, before any form of technical failure
has occurred. There is nothing novel about this technical obsolescence as many
products on the market today are manufaclured wilh one eye on the next product
range. It is the rapid pace of such obsolescence that is worrying, along with the
shortening of product life cycles. The apparent existence of this built-in obsolescence
is central to this dissertation and an online questionnaire has been produced that seeks
to explore its effect. The questionnaire also looks to discover what scope exists for
improved environmental behaviour from computer users, in terms of purchasing
behaviour, computer misuse and eventual disposal. These survey results are discussed
in the presentation.


What emerges from this research is the understanding that the computing sector is
driven by the ability of manufacturers to develop, produce and market new
components to the consumer. This leads to the availability of personal computers
whose technical performance grossly exceeds the functionality required by the
average user. Marketing from these companies creates a perceived necessity within
consumers to have an up to date PC which can run the latest software, despite the
ability of their existing PC to satisfy their functional requirements. In this sense it
becomes a question of how the consumer's desire for new and novel products might
be met that becomes central to achieving more sustainable consumption.