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Sustainability Through Meaning

Sustainability Through Meaning

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Published by Ryan Aipperspach
2007 Ubicomp Workshop Proceedings
2007 Ubicomp Workshop Proceedings

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Published by: Ryan Aipperspach on Feb 24, 2013
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Lora Oehlberg
Ryan Aipperspach
Shawn R. Jeffery
Sustainability Through Meaning
Providing Information to Promote Meaningful Products
Received: June 2007 / Accepted: July 2007
Products that fulfill their functional purpose soonafter purchase may become disposable and thus contributeto unsustainable consumption practices. Alternatively, prod-uctssurroundedbyrichstoriescanbecomemoremeaningfulto their owners and thus more likely to be kept around be-yond their initial use. We propose using sensing and onlinepublishing technologies to capture and share stories from theentire product life cycle, encouraging consumers to becomemore involved with the production, use, and post-consumerstories of the products they purchase.
1 Introduction
As humans, we rely on the control of the material worldfor our survival, and it is difficult to escape the environ-mental impact of our relationship with the material world.Too often, product life cycles are characterized by a “cradle-to-grave” mentality, progressing quickly from productionthrough use to disposal. We propose that more sustainablebehavior can be fostered by the creation of meaning attachedto consumer goods.Currently, many products are designed and marketed tohave little meaning beyond their initial intended use and areviewed as disposable once they have fulfilled that function.One way of encouraging more sustainable behavior is tochange the “meaningfulness” of commodities, creating sto-ries around products that allow consumers to build stronger
Lora OehlbergBerkeley Institute of Design, Mechanical EngineeringUniversity of California, BerkeleyE-mail: lora@berkeley.eduRyan AipperspachBerkeley Institute of Design, Computer Science DivisionUniversity of California, BerkeleyE-mail: ryanaip@cs.berkeley.eduShawn R. JefferyComputer Science DivisionUniversity of California, BerkeleyE-mail: jeffery@cs.berkeley.edu
connections to their possessions, incentivizing them to keepproducts around longer, and engendering concern with theirgoods’ pasts and futures.With the emergence of fine-grained sensor informationand detailed product information on the Web, consumerscan gain unprecedented awareness concerning the prod-ucts they buy. This information constitutes a product’s in-herent “story”. Individuals can augment this informationthrough collaborative “Web 2.0” tools to create personal sto-ries about products they buy. It is our hope that these storieswill naturally lead to more sustainable consumer practicesas people are more personally connected to their possessions[4,3]. In this paper, we give an overview of these emergingtechnologies and outline the types of stories that can be builtthrough the data they make available.
2 Motivation and Related Work
A number of scholars have commented on the relationshipbetween commodities, stories, and meaning. Appadurai [1],drawing on Simmel’s [18] argument that the value of an ob- ject is created through exchange, where two parties recipro-cally determine the worth of the object, introduces the con-cept of 
regimes of value
. He argues that the value systemsurrounding a commodity is a politically-constructed phe-nomenon based on cultural values shared by the parties in-volved. These values are encoded in the trajectory of the ob- ject itself: “Their meanings are inscribed in their forms, theiruses, their trajectories...It is things-in-motion that illumi-nate their human and social context.” That is, objects havea life history [13]. Appadurai breaks from the Marxist viewof commodities, which focuses primarily on the creation of value through production, and considers the total history of an object “from production, through exchange/distribution,to consumption.Our proposal to capture the stories of objects throughsensors and product use data encodes meaning directly inobjects, so that the object is the key to its own story. Thisapproach reveals the life histories of things-in-motion, mak-ing more of their story visible and thus actionable in an ex-
panded regime of value. By creating a regime of value inwhich stories become negotiable in the politics of exchange,value can be added to objects later in their life cycle, extend-ing thelife of an object as a commodity (thuskeepingit frombeing discarded or disposed of).Our proposal resonates with Csikszentmihalyi’s [4] twotypes of materialism:
instrumental material-ism
. Terminal materialism is a “runaway habit of posses-sion”, where goods are purchased because possession isviewed as an end in itself. Alternatively, instrumental mate-rialism is the possession of things that serve goals “indepen-dent of greed itself”. One of the ways Csikszentmihalyi pro-poses to change and “escape the deadly inertia of terminalmaterialism”, is to “change the meaning we derive from pos-session of goods.” We agree that transitioning from terminalmaterialism to instrumental materialism will promote sus-tainability by encouraging the consumption of fewer, moremeaningful objects. Blevis [3] similarly notes that productscan reduce their environmental impact by “achieving heir-loom status”, with designs that “create artifice of long-livedappeal that motivates preservation such that transfer of own-ership preserves quality of experience.” Stories are one wayto create the lasting appeal of heirloom objects. Helms [10]also proposes the idea of 
agathonic design
, or the designof items that improve with use. Much like heirloom items,these items functionally improve with use, resulting in per-sonal investment in long-term ownership of the item.In discussing possible stories that might be associatedwith a product, we use the product life cycle [2] to frameour exploration. Other researchers have proposed techno-logical systems that reveal stories from various parts of thisprocess. For example, [20] created a system allowing con-sumerstofindproductsustainabilityinformationbyenteringUPC bar code numbers, and Mankoff 
et al.
[15] propose asystem allowing consumers to share information about theirsustainability footprint more generally, focusing on socialnetworking among groups of consumers. Our alternate per-spective complements these specific examples, highlightingmore general examples across the entire product life cycle.We also focus on allowing users to tell individual storiesabout individual products, creating meaning more directlytied to specific practices around specific objects.
3 Building Stories through Technology
Recent advances in a number of technical areas are enablingunprecedented insight into the product life cycle, facilitat-ing the generation of stories around products. Technologyenables associating stories with objects by collecting multi-ple data sources, aggregating those data sources into a usefulform for consumers, and allowing stakeholders to contributeto and share stories about the objects. These technologiescan then be integrated throughout the product life cycle tocreate a complete “product story” that brings greater mean-ing to the consumer. We discuss the enabling technologiesbelow.Emerging sensing technologies such as RFID [7] andwireless sensor networks [5] can provide detailed informa-tion about a product’s life cycle. RFID (Radio FrequencyIDentification) is an electronic tagging and tracking tech-nology that can provide product-level tracking information.Wireless sensor networks use small, battery-powered com-puting devices coupled with sensors to provide fine-grainedintrospection into environmental conditions. Large organi-zations such as WalMart are beginning to deploy these tech-nologies to track product information. Other sensing devicessuch as cameras, coupled with portable devices like cellularphones, enable consumers to create their own detailed sto-ries about the products they use.In addition to sensor data, the rapid growth of data avail-able on the Web has led to increased transparency into theentire product life cycle. Official corporate sites are increas-ingly providing more detailed information about their prod-ucts in response to consumer demand. For instance, Tesco,a major UK supermarket chain, recently announced that itwould be make available data regarding the sustainabilityimpact of its products [19]. The explosion of user-generatedcontent has also provided vast amounts of product data.User-review sites (e.g., TripAdvisor.com) create centralizedforums for sharing experiences, blogs and wikis enable amore distributed form of expression, and social networkingsites allow people to create and share details of their con-sumption with others [15].Given this vast amount of data, another technical aspectcrucial to creating stories around products is collecting andaggregating this data and displaying it to consumers. Thereare many emerging infrastructures for managing this influxof sensor and RFID data that address real-time collection,aggregation, and correlation of sensor and RFID data withother sources of information [17,8]. These infrastructurescan be coupled with efforts aimed at large-scale integra-tion of heterogeneous web data [9,14] to provide a coherentpicture of consumer product data. Complementary to dataaggregation technologies is the development of appropri-ate technologies and interfaces for presenting stories aboutproducts. There are a number of different delivery possibil-ities, each aimed at different phases of the product life cy-cle. Mobile access gives consumers actionable informationat point of purchase, traditional websites allow consumers toexplore more detailed product information, and community-based sites enable expression of personal stories [15].The prevalence of data available about products raises anumber of issues, most notably personal privacy concerns.Systems using this data must address these issues, but de-tailed recommendations are beyond the scope of this pro-posal. We do note that much of the data being presented iseither publicly available or would be voluntarily contributedby people involved in the story of a product.3.1 Product Life Cycle DataThe technologies described above can be used to collect andshare data throughout the product life cycle, allowing con-sumers to create rich stories around their products. Here wediscuss possible stories created at each phase. Table 1 illus-
trates more examples of stories that can be developed fromdata concerning different stages of the product life cycle.
Material Procurement/Manufacturing.
At the begin-ning of the product cycle, RFID and other sensors (e.g., en-vironmental sensors) provide information on the exact ori-gins of a product, such as what factory produced a givenproduct and when, as well as the environmental conditionssurrounding production. This detailed tracking and moni-toring information can be correlated with the informationcompanies are releasing as a result of pressures toward pro-duction transparency (e.g., the Dole Organic Program [6]).Image-based sensors such as webcams and camera phones,combined with personal online publishing, can be used tofurther reveal production information about goods and thepeople who produce them to help add a more personal viewon manufacturing.
An RFID-enabled supply chain can pro-vide information on the location of a product throughouttransit, the mode of transportation (e.g., by air or truck), andhow long it spends at various waypoints (e.g., distributioncenters) along its journey.
Point of Purchase.
At the point of purchase, consumerscan come into contact with the history of the products theyare considering purchasing, utilizing web or RFID-enabledmobile devices [16] to access information collected duringthe first phases of the product’s life cycle. Knowing the ori-gin of a commodity and who produces it helps build storiesaround a product before it is purchased. As such, consumerscan build a deeper connection to the products they buy.
Consumer Use.
Various technologies being developedfor “smart” or “digital” homes [12,11] can be used to gatherproduct use information throughout the consumer use phase.Additionally, the widespread use of consumer media devices(e.g., camera phones) in conjunction with ubiquitous com-munication enables consumers to create additional storiesand share those stories with others. For instance, websitessuch as zebo.com allow consumers to upload informationabout the products they own and share that information withothers.
Post-Consumer Use.
If consumers discard a product,theycandeterminewhereitmightgousingonlinedataaboutrecycling plants or second-hand stores. Exchange sites suchas throwplace.com offer alternatives to disposal by passingproducts from one person to the next. If the product is passedon for reuse, all of the above information can be made avail-able to the second owner (and data from the second ownershared with the original user), further enhancing the storiesaround the product (see, for example, the money-trackingsite wheresgeorge.com).
4 An Example Life Cycle Scenario
The technologies and data we have described above afforddifferent possibilities for enriching a product’s story at dif-ferent stages in its life cycle, providing the opportunity tobuildstrongerconnectionsbetweenconsumers,products,andtheirproducers.Weenvisionthesedifferentpossibilitieswork-ing together, capturing and enhancing the story of a product
Fig. 1
A Bayern-M¨unchen football shirt
as it circulates in socio-physical space. We now describe ascenario of one product’s story across its entire life cycle.While living in Berlin, one of the authors purchased a foot-ball shirt (Figure 1) in a thrift store; we imagine its story:
While attending a Bayern-M¨ unchen football match, 13-year-old Klaus decides to purchase a team T-shirt to remember the experience.While there are several less expensive options, one of the T-shirts wasmade in his home town. Scanning the RFID tag on the shirt at a kiosk in the store, he reads a blog entry about the manufacturing plant writtenby someone from his neighborhood. He chooses to purchase the T-shirt because it was made in his home town, and he indicates this when he  pays.Because the T-shirt reminds him of the match he went to, and be-cause he’s proud of telling people that it was made locally, Klaus wantsto keep wearing the T-shirt. He takes care of it for several years, bring-ing it with him when he moves to Berlin where he continues to wear it proudly, even though his friends tease him about supporting Bayern-¨ unchen. Eventually, Klaus outgrows the shirt and decides to donate it to a second-hand store rather than throw it out because of its meaning to him. When he donates the shirt, he adds a story to the product’s blog about how he bought it and brought it with him to Berlin, where he wassubsequently teased about it. This story is associated with the RFID tag in the shirt, along with existing data about where it was purchased and new data about the thrift shop.Later, Lora visits the second hand store during her trip, and won-ders why a Bayern-M¨ unchen shirt is in Berlin. She uses her cell phone to look up the T-shirt’s story. Amused by the story, she purchases the shirt, bringing it back to the United States. After Lora makes her pur-chase, Klaus gets an e-mail telling him that his shirt was purchased by someone from America. Several years later, when Lora decides to get rid of the T-shirt, she passes it on to a friend who is moving to Germany, continuing its story.
5 Conclusion
We argue that increased meaning around products, achievedthrough stories, will encourage consumers to develop deeperconnections to their material possessions, resulting in in-creased instrumental materialism and more sustainable be-havior. It is our hypothesis that the creation of meaningaround products can make sustainability a viable alterna-tive to terminal materialism. In this proposal, we have high-lighted a number of technologies enabling the creation, rep-resentation, and transmission of product stories. We havealso suggested that the product life cycle can be a generativetool for enumerating potential sources of stories. We hopethat this work will encourage design explorations of prod-uct stories and studies of the impact of those stories have onconsumer behavior and sustainability.

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