Personalized sneakers, vintage tableware, a limited-edition car – each is an example of a product that owners may consider special and unrepeatable, fostering a strong sense of connection.
From a sustainability perspective, designers have long believed that attachment is a good thing: if people keep the products they care about longer, they’ll consume less and send less waste to landfills.
New research from Cornell University provides a more nuanced understanding, showing that product attachment can also unwittingly encourage less sustainable behavior. To avoid damage or loss, people can limit the use of their most valuable possessions – keeping shoes in a box, dishes as decoration, or a car in storage – and buying additional less significant possessions for convenience. daily.
“The goal was to get people to keep products longer, which was seen as inherently more sustainable,” said Michael Kowalski, a doctoral researcher in the field of human-centered design with a designer background. of industrial products. “But that’s not always the case if people don’t actually use these things.”
Kowalski is the lead author of “I Love It, I’ll Never Use It: Exploring Factors of Product Attachment and Their Effects on Sustainable Product Usage Behaviors”, published December 31, 2022 in the International design journal. Co-author Jay Yoon, assistant professor in the Department of Human-Centered Design in the College of Human Ecology and director of the Meta Design and Technology Lab, serves as the research advisor.
The research aims to inform designers about the multiple factors behind product attachment that could be exploited to encourage active use of a product for as long as possible – in line with sustainability goals – and avoid continuous redundant consumption.
That matters because Americans, on average, now throw away seven times more durable goods (meant to last at least three years) than they did in 1960, according to the research. Meanwhile, the average new American home, the primary place where these growing numbers of products are used, stored or discarded, has grown by 1,000 square feet over the past 40 years.
“Irreplaceability seen as an attachment factor has been the benchmark for designers, but it turns out that tackling it doesn’t guarantee that a product’s impact will be lasting, if people are so attached to it that ‘they don’t dare to use it, instead put it away,” Yoon said. “We need to pay more attention to other factors in this relationship.”
Kowalski began exploring these factors after designing and building a wooden dining table for a family member. As noted in the title of the research paper, his seemingly paradoxical response upon receiving the finished piece was, “I love it, I’ll never use it.”
Seeking to better understand this result, Kowalski asked people from different demographic groups in their homes about the products they felt attached to and why, and which of these items they actually used or did not use. The more than 100 objects discussed included a chest of drawers admired for its craftsmanship, bowls that belonged to grandparents and a stuffed animal invested with childhood memories.
Two cars illustrated how attachment could inspire active or passive use of the product. One owner adored a car – nicknamed Stella – that was reliable and capable in extreme weather conditions, delivering the joy of adventure-filled driving experiences. Another also liked a special-edition convertible that he stored in a garage and rarely drove, using other cars for daily transportation.
Kowalski and Yoon identified seven key factors influencing product attachment, including aesthetic qualities, durability, performance, and the memories and emotions invoked. Through an online survey of over 220 participants, they further analyzed how these factors differentially affect long-term attachment and use.
Perceptions of irreplaceability, they determined, did the most to foster attachment to the product, but also led to less sustainable behaviors. Products that were durable, obsolete-resistant, and enjoyable saw more use, while those associated with meaningful memories and sentimental emotions saw less.
The researchers said the findings highlight opportunities for designers to prioritize products that people both want to keep and want to engage with because they’re well-made, feel good and age gracefully. On the other hand, products valued as unique and irreplaceable may inadvertently promote less sustainable consumption. This means that designs emphasizing limited releases, customization, and beautiful-but-rare materials should be viewed with caution.
“Creating the feeling that something is unique increases attachment but decreases actual use of a product,” Kowalski said. “Designers need to be aware of consumers’ psychological and emotional experience in addition to their practical needs to promote long-term sustainable consumption.”
The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Human Centered Design.