What We Can Learn from A More Expensive Light Bulb

Last weekend, the Washington Post carried an interesting article about the future of the light bulb business.  Energy to produce light contributes a significant proportion of our carbon emissions. The proportion of energy in a traditional incandescent bulb that produces heat, when what we want from it is light, is much too high.

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The article highlighted for me many of the key principles that we need to incorporate as we move away from disposable, energy intensive consumerism, towards a more sustainable model;

  • Per unit and up-front costs will often be higher for more sustainable products. Companies need to reset consumer expectations and/or come up with new models for financing such as leasing.
  • Companies (such as Philips and Ikea highlighted in the article) that see the future and take the initiative will be better positioned to reap the rewards than the laggards who drag their heels.
  • Solutions that adapt to and protect the existing infrastructure and investment of the customer (in the case of lighting this would be screw-in bulb sockets) will ease the transition.
  • Companies need to create new marketing approaches internally and new consumer mind sets externally for products that were viewed as consumables to be viewed instead as durables.
  • The very terminology ‘consumer’ implies the item is consumed, in the process of serving its purpose. Perhaps we need to come up with a better term!
  • New measures are required. In the case of lighting, we must help people understand why lumens are the better measure for light after years of using wattage as the primary descriptor.

I cannot help but think back to the 1970’s when telephones were something that was leased from the phone company as part of the service. Separation of the telephone from the regulation of the telephone line enabled an explosion of creativity and enabled the wide range of choices we have today in telephones. But it also took us from a repairable, reusable device with replaceable parts and great longevity to an often substituted device where only the battery is replaceable and everything else is disposed of at end of life.

The principles we can draw from the lighting sector evolution can be applied to sustainable product development in other sectors and perhaps to broader sustainability also.




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