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Ownership vs. Stewardship Header

Designed For Life is a user-focused product framework. However, hidden inside that idea is the relationship between the user and the product.

This relationship can be viewed from two different angles – the idea of true ownership and product stewardship. Each of these is a slight nuance for the way a user will interact with the product and therefore affect the way they might want it designed. We recently discussed these two lenses to see how the Designed For Life group might want to treat them.

The Right to Repair movement, which the DFL Group generally supports, gets to the heart of true product ownership. The iFixit Right to Repair website states: “You bought it, you should own it. Period. We’re working on right-to-repair laws. Let’s take back our right to use, modify, and repair however we want. Defend your right to fix.” This line between your ability to maintain your own product and the ability to modify your own product is thin. It can cause some confusion around some products. Maintainability is, of course, a tenet of DFL, and we want users to be able to maintain their products as easily as possible, including doing the work themselves or bringing the item to an independent repair shop. On the other side of the coin, being able to modify your item is not really part of the DFL framework and falls more into the realm of a customer’s relationship with the seller.

To look at it through the lens of product stewardship, in Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth describes stewardship as a gardener mentality, creating the conditions for a plant to thrive. With respect to physical products, stewardship is about using that item and performing preventative or required maintenance as needed. It also involves using an item in a way that will allow others to use it (or its parts) later on. The idea of stewardship comes up a lot in discussions of the circular economy and prolonging a product’s life, as well as increasing a product’s utilization. Stewardship can apply to the companies that produce an item, the company that rents a product in those cases, and individual users.

Doughnut Economics Circle

The doughnut of social and planetary boundaries from Doughnut Economics.

From the DFL group’s perspective, it is not necessarily a dichotomy, both perspectives can apply to the same product using different business structures. A consumer can choose to buy a car or lease that same car, based on that agreement with the company the user might have more of an ownership or stewardship relationship with the car.

Let’s be clear though. The DFL group is against the kind of hybrid model that companies like Tesla and Caterpillar are pioneering where consumers own the product but have a subscription to the software. This causes an issue where, say, the consumer tries to modify their vehicle, or indeed just tries to fix the transmission in their tractor themselves, the user is then locked out of using their vehicle through software. We think users should be able to have that choice – if you want to modify your product in some way, you are welcome to. There does need to be a balance, if you modify, you should still be able to use the product, but you would no longer be guaranteed continued benefits from the original company. The same way you are penalized for changing rims, driving beyond the agreed mile limits, or failing to perform regular maintenance for a car you lease when it is time to turn it in.

Tesla Dashboard

Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

In a DFL product platform, upgrades that are backward compatible are an important part of the Adaptability tenet. A company’s ability to create those upgrades relies on the fact that they know the design of your product and how it will perform. If you have done preventative or required maintenance to bring it up to the original (or close to) state of the product, or rearranged it, changed it within the structure the company designed for, then the company can still create upgrades that will work with your unit. If you modify the product beyond those bounds, then there’s no way for the company to ensure that new upgrades with work with your modifications. If you want to use 3rd party replacement parts, that’s fine, you just may not get the same durability or warranty protections. But companies should not stop a device from working because of that user’s choice. This kind of anti-competition practice creates a poor relationship with customers.

So, we think it’s a choice – if a user wants to take advantage of the company’s future upgrades, services, etc., they need to comply with the company’s rules. However, there should always be an option for consumers to opt-out, to make modifications or personal changes, and still be able to fully use the base product as-is. These modifications might be something other people would be interested in, if you add a killer speaker system to car, you might not be able to trade it in a the end of the lease, but you might be able to sell it to someone else for more.

For Rent Sign

Photo by Robert Linder on Unsplash

In The Circular Economy: A User’s Guide, Walter Stahel describes the differences between these two relationship schemes as, “Ownership includes the right to destroy an object, Stewardship demands to find the best reuse”. Ultimately on a long enough timescale, we’re all renting, we’re renting the metal and plastic and upholstery that went into that car from the Earth, or the collective commons, and eventually, it needs to be returned to be re-used by other humans or by the ecosystem. So, whether we choose to own or rent, modify or stay within the manufacturer’s guidelines, the goal should be to prolong the useful life of the product, so the energy, we as a society put into it, is put to good use. We are borrowing the earth from our children, so we should all treat our products as such.

Jessie Schwartz

About Jessie Schwartz

Jessie Schwartz-Kwasnik joined the Product Design team at Lovesac in 2017. Before that she spent six years in management consulting working on PLM implementations including new product launch processes.  Her passion for sustainable design started from reading the Lorax as a child and continued through her education at Dartmouth College. She was excited to put her beliefs into reality while working at Lovesac and to try to live up to the DFL principals.

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