What with all the rain we’ve been having in London lately, I needed to buy a new umbrella. My last one wrapped itself unceremoniously round my face as I was walking across Waterloo bridge on the daily grind a few weeks earlier…. with only a few working spokes left on the thing, seemed high time to pick up a replacement.
So I drop into Boots – why a pharmacy is also the place to buy umbrellas I really don’t know – but anyway, I go into Boots and browse the umbrella stand in a mild state of bewilderment – after all, one umbrella is much like another. I need something small, light and a bit sturdier than the last so-called umbrella (no more face-wrapping incidents to shame me in front of my fellow rat-racers again)… and maybe something that isn’t black.
Scene of the crime; Waterloo bridge: Flickr Creative Commons T J Morris
I don’t know if you’ve been shopping for an umbrella lately, but they are for some reason mainly black. This reminds me of being a scuttling commuter, and I don’t like it; so after a brief browse,I pick up something in red that seems fairly well made, and am about to trip off to the counter with said purchase in hand.
But wait! What is that peeking out of the black brolly section? A recycling sign?! My eco-reflex springs into action and I pick up the thing to have a closer look…. apparently, ‘this umbrella is made from xyz recycled this that and the other’ – and only a few quid more. Baffled by the science, I put down the lovely red umbrella and pick up said ‘eco-brolly’ instead and make off to the checkout, clutching my new purchase.
Utterly fascinating I know- what does this have to do with public participation,or even user centred design? Well, how do we as individuals exert some kind of say over the way in which our experience of the day to day world develops? We can vote, we can take part in local decision making committees or consultations, we can run for office or campaign for decisionmakers to try and change things in our civic environment. All of these actions are very worthwhile and can lead to lasting change but can also be rather time consuming and frustrating activities that can often take a while to get results.
Another option that many of us now take is to put our money where our mouth is and try to show demand for change through purchase power, whether consciously or unconsciously. When much of an individual’s daily life is spent being a consumer then this seems like an obvious route to take to make an impact- big manufacterers and retailers respond to their customers’ demands… but can the checkout really be a place to make a more social or political point and have it heard by someone with the power to change things for the better- in this case, the greener?
Also, where does design fit into this? I walked out of Boots with an umbrella I’m not entirely happy with – its black and a bit heavy – but the worst thing is, it has eco stuff written all over it:
I don’t really want to be a walking advert for greenness – I just want a lovely red umbrella that folds up into my bag – would be great if it was also made of recycled materials as a given. I want functional and attractive design, not just environmentally friendly design – that should be the new standard… but how do we consumers demand more eco thinking on random items like umbrellas? Is it just up to mugs like me to buy #1 eco brollies and to be happy that there’s another option available at all available from a high street retailer like Boots?
I’m not sure that lone consumers will make much of an impact in a haphazard and dissipated way. There has to be a lead from somewhere else, from buyers, manufacturers, designers, innovators everywhere - or else a group action – galvanising support on such mundane issues as umbrella reform.