The relationship between Convenience and Sustainability

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between these two concepts. Unfortunately, in my view, both concepts have been manipulated by unscrupulous businesses so that they have been undermined. Recently I saw an ad for composting coffee pods that drove that home for me. Coffee Pods have long been marketed as the most convenient way to get real coffee, but sustainable they are not!

The convenience of just dropping a pod into a machine is hard to deny and they have proved popular in homes, offices and conference rooms. However, they demonstrate three really common problems with buying convenience.

  • Price: A lower purchase price for the machine might seem attractive but just as with Inkjet Printers the real cost (and profit for the manufacturers) is in the consumables. I’ve looked at a number of articles and the cost comparison per “espresso” of buying pods is given as between 2.5 and 10 times more than buying roasted beans. Selling something as “Convenient”, almost without exception, means paying more for it.
  • Quality: I have limited experience of pod coffee. A few friends have had them and several places I’ve been for meetings. I’ve tended to prefer the “Mocha” pods as I’ve generally found the plain coffee pods rather bitter to drink black. They seem to attract opinions at both extremes from brilliant to terrible which makes it hard evaluate. Generally it seems to be accepted that the quality is lower than a reasonable automated espresso machine and considerably lower than a crafted espresso. However, it also seems that many people are completely satisfied with the quality.
  • Sustainability: It is very, very hard to say anything positive about using a disposable pod, even if it is compostable. Packaging such a small quantity is always going to be wasteful at every stage of the journey.

Other attempts are being made to improve the sustainability of pods including reusable metal pods. These do impact the taste (a metal filter changes the taste) and they are a lot less convenient (so even worse coffee that isn’t convenient).

This very negative view of convenience works over many different products that have been developed as and sold as “convenient”. However, I want to suggest that it does not need to be true of all moves towards convenience.

My thinking is that for something to be both convenient and sustainable it will need to be developed in a different way. This will affect

  • the leadership: doing more thinking and planning for yourself so the convenience is very customised to your situation
  • the community: solutions developed by and for a community are likely to be more sustainable (not motivated by profit) and more convenient (because they scratch an itch the community finds).
  • the lifespan: something that lasts and can be adapted overtime tends to increase sustainability. By adapting to circumstances it remains convenient.

So sustainable convenience (for me) implies creative work as a community over an extended period of time. An area that I have experience this in over the last couple of decades is Free Software, particularly everything related to Linux. My first encounters and work in free software communities dates back to the late 1980’s (tools for a software development package called Dataflex). Within 6 months of starting our own software business in 1998 we moved all our servers and development computers to Linux. I’ve used Linux exclusively on servers, desktops and laptops ever since. In that time I have contributed (in small ways) to a dozen or so projects and released our own software as free software. Successful free software can be widely used for decades and in that time can make money for multiple individuals and companies while also being great value and game changing for users. As the code never gets lost it can resurface and be repurposed in new ways throughout it’s life.

Applying this in other areas is tougher.

However, there have been many communities supporting each other over the years and more forming around YouTube channels, social media and blogs. We see sharing of ideas, tools and loads of practical help.

Otherwise, I think there is a lot that can be done to subvert the “system”. As one example we think our ideas on Laundry subvert the selling of electric washing machines for boats as essential conveniences while avoiding the issue of microplastics with handwashing. We hope that we can share many other experiences of practices that really make life more convenient without them being sold as “convenient” (Multi-Cookers on boats for stews etc as a safe, quick and energy efficient are one for us). We can find new conveniences (not needing to buy or carry diesel or petrol or gas) that are missed by the profit seeking companies.

To end. We suggest that the quality of life that is possible sustainably is far greater than the quality of life provided by the conveniences needed to allow you to burn up yourself and the planet unsustainably.

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