Lighting Commentary

Sustainability Part 2 – Can Lighting Be Sustainable?

Photo by Jordan Hyde on

If like me, you always check out trend predictions, wherever and from whomever they emerge, you are seeing a reoccurring mention of sustainable products. I am constantly questioned about sustainability. Designers are hearing the request and like a canary in a coalmine, they are often the first to recognize a shift. As I pointed out in the first part of this series [link] there will be changes in our application of light. Nonetheless, the disposable nature of a heretofore endlessly reusable luminaire, continues to trouble designers, users and sustainability proponents. “There has to be a better way!” is a very common comment.

I realized this is not a problem exclusive to lighting as I read about Golden Goose, a Milan-based manufacturer of high-end casual footwear. [The New York Times (August 7, 2022) “Don’t Toss Those Old Sneakers” by Laura Rysman. ] Like lighting, once a pair of sneakers is “worn out” they are unceremoniously tossed and replaced. In an effort to extend the life of the sneaker, they are offering bespoke repairs. The problem, as few as five years ago, is that there was no such thing as sneaker repair. Because of the typical manufacturing process, the sole could not be removed from the top, so an entirely different methodology was required. By considering the classic construction method of formal shoes, a new sneaker assembly process was created that allows for the teardown and repair. While not inexpensive, their sneakers can now be repaired and reused, almost endlessly.

LED longevity makes them the perfect light source for new sustainability demand, but they sit on the edge of some shaky foundations, much like the typical vulcanized rubber sole that encases a sneaker top and precluded disassembly. We discussed aesthetic trends in the previous post. There are three additional problems that must be addressed to increase the sustainability of LED lighting.

Driver Longevity

When a LED luminaire fails, it is most likely because of driver malfunction or some sort of circuit interruption. In the industry’s quest to achieve lower costs, corners have been cut in this all-important, albeit hidden, component. Quite simply, to have a more sustainable product, better built drivers and circuitry components are required.

Proof of Longevity

LED longevity is a predicted “guess” based on calculated performance characteristics. Basically, if the system lasts for X hours, testers feel comfortable projecting that it will last 6X hours. Tests of 10,000 hours (maximum) will allow a manufacture to promise the product will last 60,000 hours. One of the reasons we cannot go much farther is because 10,000 hours is a long time! After 14 months of testing, there is a very good likelihood that a newer, better model of LED is on the market and the cycle must be started anew. Most manufactures test for 6000 hours, allowing a promise of 36,000 hour lifespan and consuming only 8 ½ months of time, still a considerable length. Some sort of accelerated testing and performance affirmation is needed.


Incandescent luminaires are like a pair of leather brogues, we can change light bulbs as easily as shoelaces. Resoling is however another thing entirely and must be completed by a cobbler. A repair professional is usually needed to replace sockets or broken chandelier arms. LED lighting becomes closer to the conventional sneaker, nearly impossible to rebuild, even by a pro, unless you rethink the entire process. That, I believe is where the luminaire manufactures are today. To meet the sustainability expectations of the near future, they must plot out a path to luminaire repair.

This might be realized in a number of different ways. Perhaps some companies can easily adapt their business to include a repair service. We might also see LED luminaire repair shops popping up around the country. We could also see lighting retailers adding LED repairs to their list of luminaire services. Only real demand will tell the tale.

“It’s Gotta Be the Shoes!”*

To meet the needs of a sustainable future, electronic repairs will need to be more common. We might see the return of TV repairmen, small appliance repairs and people who specialize in fixing our much more technological environment.

By their own admission, Golden Goose is not seeing a positive ROI on repairs. Knowing repairs are possible is however, turning out to be a substantial selling point for this expensive footwear. I think that might turn out to be the case with lighting, too. The lighting will last longer than most people expected. There will be fewer breakdowns than anticipated. The newness of LED will wear-off and failure expectations will be reduced because it is an effortless product. When needed, there will be some avenues available for resolution, even if they are not ultimately used. That may satiate the consumer.

In a 1988 Nike commercial, Mars Blackmon (a comedic avatar of Spike Lee) tried to explain the god-like moves of Michael Jordan on a basketball court. Discounting every other conceivable option, he reached the conclusion, “It’s gotta be the shoes!” despite the objections of Mr. Jordan. (If you’re not a basketball fan, Michael Jordan was an excellent player, probably even in bare feet.) Offering repairs when they might be of minimal real value, just might be the sustainable aspect we’ve convinced ourselves we need, just like the illusion worked for Mars.

*Mars Blackmon – 1988 Nike commercial with Michael Jordan and Spike Lee

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