The COP 26 summit that takes pace in Glasgow this week has got us thinking about guitars and sustainability. This is a topic that has been widely debated in the guitar press with popular magazines such as Guitarist running numerous features on the challenges facing the industry as it grapples with its reliance on increasingly rare tone woods. There has been much coverage of the impact of the CITES legislation which bans the use of woods from endangered species and restricts the movements across international borders of even old guitars made from such woods. There is increasing mention of the qualities of alternative tone woods from non- or at least less-endangered species, though of course there is also a question of whether these can be harvested sustainably. There is always the possibility of making instruments from recycled woods – Carolan’s neck and inlay are made from an upcycled mahogany wardrobe (see Post 10). And then there are more radical explorations of alternative materials such as the carbon fibre guitars now produced by several manufacturers such as Emerald.
We’re not going to replay these discussions here, but rather consider a perhaps more radical option still – that the industry stops making so many new guitars. This is a tough one for an industry and market that is geared up to constantly sell us new instruments, fuelling what many guitarists call their Gear Acquisition Syndrome or GAS. But do we really need them? Come on guitarists, how many instruments have you got and how many more do you need? An isn’t it somehow ironic that the industry is now selling us deliberately reliced new guitars that are pretending to be old vintage ones? What kind of story does that tell about recycling and sustainability?
An even more radical alternative might be to adopt the ‘product as service’ model that is becoming more common place in the world of complex high value goods. While there used to be a very stark distinction between the manufacturing sector that makes products and the service sector that delivers … well, services, the boundary between the two has become somewhat blurred of late. Aeroplane engine manufacturers such as Rolls Royce are trying to reinvent themselves as service companies that sell ‘power by the hour’. You don’t buy an aero engine, but rather lease it, along a bundle of services. Closer to our everyday experience, much the same can be said of cars, where manufacturers are focused on lease agreements that include regular service plans. Academics refer to this bundling of goods and services as Product-Service Systems or PSS.
So, what might be the PSS offering for guitars? It might certainly be interesting for some players to lease guitars instead of buying them. Wouldn’t it be great to get to try a variety of instruments instead of being stuck with one? Or to lease an instrument for a particular purpose just when you need it? Of course, this isn’t a new idea. It has been possible for both learners and professionals to lease instruments for many years, although not typically with a model that encourages a rapid change around to satisfy our GAS.
There is of course an important role for digital technologies in all of this (there you knew it was coming didn’t you?). The emergence of product-service systems in other sectors has been enabled by digital data-oriented technologies that capture data about the ongoing use of products that then helps optimise, maintain or personalise them. It has been said that data is the new commodity that underpins the digital economy, of which ideas such as PSS are a key component.
What then is that data and digital service for guitars? Perhaps the answer lies with Carolan. Our guitar has been designed from the outset to capture a lifelong digital footprint that might potentially enable a wide variety of additional services. Carolan’s data footprint might potentially support provenance services that confirm that it is what it is and how it was made. They can enhance its utility, for example with information about how best to record it. And they can add to its personal value to players by capturing their stories of playing and perhaps even sharing them with a wider community of likeminded players.
So perhaps one route to sustainability is for guitar companies to make fewer guitars and instead to offer more services that add value to existing guitars – driven by the kinds of data footprints we have with Carolan. It’s certainly far removed from the guitar industry of today. How many guitar companies have ‘digital divisions’ that could innovate such services? Not many I’ll wager. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t and couldn’t. Large companies that already trade on their heritage should surely consider the power of digital technologies to better engage their customers with this? Small producers might be in a better position to innovate digital services that personalise their offerings as they do with their physical guitars.
Of course, digital technologies face their own sustainability challenges, for example increasing demands for power to run massive server farms. So perhaps it’s not such a straightforward proposition after all. The new services that are offered need to be sustainable too. However, it’s difficult to see how the industry can keep encouraging people to buy more and more guitars while at the same time trading on heritage and vintage brands. Surely something has to change in their underlying business models as well as in the woods they use?