Apple and the polar opposite to modular design

Here’s an interesting one…

Apple has made quite a big deal of trumpeting the environmental credentials of its new Retina MacBook. However, much as I have a soft spot for the company and its design genius, now-Knight-of-the-Realm, Sir Jony Ive, I’m not so sure.

Take a look a fascinating article by Kyle Wiens in Wired, and it seems that big claims – for example surrounding Apple’s use of “highly recyclable aluminum and glass” – may not be all they’re cracked up to be. According to Wiens, and his pals in the electronics recycling industry, there’s no way of recycling aluminium that has glass glued to it like Apple has done.

And that’s not the only question mark. In fact, Wiens is pretty adamant that he’s looking at the least repairable laptop he’s ever seen – RAM soldered to the motherboard, so it can’t be upgraded; battery glued to the case, requiring customers to mail their laptop to Apple for replacements, and so on – suggestive of a litany of design choices that seem to go entirely against the core sustainable design principle of modularity.

That principle of modularity – and its essential contribution to durability and longevity – is best illustrated by the words of Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, in his fabulous book, Let my people go surfing 

Because the overall durability of a product is only as good as its weakest element, the ultimate goal should be a product whose parts wear out at roughly the same time and only after a long life […]. To get all the components of a Patagonia product to be roughly equal in durability, we test continually… test until something fails, strengthen that part, then see what fails next, strengthen that part, etc., until we’re confident that the product is durable as a whole. There’s always going to be a need for repairs, and we make sure that they’re possible; a zipper should be replaceable without the entire coat having to be taken apart.

In short, to truly design for sustainability demands not only smart choices about material inputs (how can we reduce the amounts and types of materials used? to what extent are they recyclable/renewable etc.), but also the manner in which they are combined (how easily can individual components be repaired, updated or put to alternative use? how easily can a product be disassembled, and waste streams separated to aid that repurposing and reuse?).

That’s the difference between products designed for longevity versus those designed for obsolescence; those that are designed from the ground up to be constantly repairable and upgradeable, versus those with a built-in death clock; those that exemplify innovation in the context of a new circular economy, versus those that seem destined to perpetuate the same old linear industrial paradigm of “take, make, waste”.

Don’t get me wrong, the stuff Apple’s trumpeting – arsenic-free display glass, mercury-free LED display, 40% greater energy efficiency etc. – are all great steps in the right direction, but it’s a long way short of the true sustainability to which the likes of Patagonia and Interface aspire.

Referring back to one of the key observations in my previous post, to my mind, it’s precisely that trumpeting of improved environmental performance that signals the shortfall. For while Apple waxes lyrical about all these examples of progress, Patagonia and Interface are choosing to focus on how far they still need to go.

And while Apple hones in on environmental performance, defined and measured strictly in terms of its products, a quick glance at the index of Chouinard’s book will tell you that true thought leaders are casting their nets considerably wider. A book in which environmental protection forms but one (and the last) of an interwoven set of philosophies also spanning design, production, distribution, brand, finance, HR and management should be a perfect illustration that real sustainability is about the entire system of business.

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One thought on “Apple and the polar opposite to modular design

  1. Pingback: Has the Apple fallen too far from the tree? | Live Long and Prosper

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