Enlighten Me: The Brightgreen Brothers On The Challenges Of Tackling Planned Obsolescence

If there's one thing the carbon tax is going to mean for every Australian business, it's more expensive electricity bills. We talk to the brothers behind Brightgreen, who've been valiantly crusading to save the environment and you money for over four years.

When you get to work, regardless or whether that's in an office, your garage or a shared creative space, there's one thing you can guarantee you and everyone else in your city have in common; we all have to turn on the lights. For a basic human need, the field of lighting in this country has been moving remarkably slugglishly in this country, mainly because we're still all wrapped up in the idea of buying new bulbs every year. David and Barry O'Driscoll, the brothers behind Brightgreen, poured their energy into saving energy.

From humble beginnings and a near false-start due to the GFC, they've transformed their small business into an internationally recognised industry leader, with their trademark bulbs now being exported to Germany and South Africa. And given the carbon tax's coming into effect on the weekend, they're extremely well placed to help a lot of businesses who will suddenly be receiving nasty bill shock. But entering as upstarts in an entrenched field isn't without its difficulties, as the Driscoll brothers would find out pretty quickly after they opened up shop. We caught up with David to discuss the untold perils of breaking new ground and how to make people take the medicine that you know is good for them.

Above: Home interior utilising Brightgreen technology.

Your original mission was to fight off planned obsolescence in lighting manufacturing. Can you explain how important it is, both from a business/cost-efficiency perspective, but also for the environment? Planned obsolescence isn’t only reserved to your area, is it? I can think of Apple products that could also fit that bill quite nicely…

Planned obsolescence is the notion of making products with a deliberately short lifespan, in order for consumers to be forced to buy more. It first raised its head in the lighting industry sometime in the 1920s and is still a major issue in the manufacturing of almost all consumer goods. Apple, along with many others, still practice this. In-fact, Apple have taken plabben obsolescence to the digital age and made it downloadable. We are trying to tackle the issue head-on.

It seems foolish to continue to spend and manufacture products just to have customers re-purchase; you almost turn full circle without gaining much. Some say that planned obsolescence is too entrenched and is the backbone of growth and the economy; but our in house economics team thinks otherwise. If we rise above these unnecessary cycles of consumption we can get on with more innovative developments that can further our economy and general quality of life; its growth from efficiency and more optimal allocations of resources.

Environmentally planned obsolescence is huge. There are countries and villages in Africa that are being ruined through planned obsolescence, with ‘broken’ and non-biodegradable products being dumped and left to build up. Our lights are also entirely recyclable and contain no toxic materials, making life easy when their product life expires, about 30 years down the track.

Your company was just getting started when the GFC hit, which must have nearly wiped you off the map before you began. How did you keep going when everyone was tightening belts and refusing loans?

It was a very tough time, but we just pushed through and literally spent all our own money on the business and product design. It was tough, operating out of a garage, but we believed in the company so much that we weren’t going to let financial instability get us. We knew that soon it would turn around and work for us.

You work with your brother. How important is family to a successful small business when it comes to a trying pitch and continued battle such as yours?

Corporate Culture is number one in any business. We are lucky enough to have an amazing team that have a common purpose and love hanging out with each other and innovating new products and business processes. I think working with my brother has really helped us shape that culture. My brother and I also very determined as a team, and we really perform when the chips are down, Barry probably more so than me; to give you an idea of his grit, he once had a 340km horse race in the outback. To win he ran half of it alongside the horse, across rocky terrain and with a serious ankle injury.

Did you guys design the D900 [Brightgreen's first revolutionary LED light] yourselves or do you have a team? How many people are part of your core operations?

The D900 Curve was my design, however we now have a number of very innovative designers, physicists and engineers continuously trying to find the next breakthrough, long-lasting innovation. Our newer products are the work of a team, with input from different minds. As a company we are tightknit but growing quickly. 

Above: An outdoor lighting setting using Brightgreen bulbs.

I understand your biggest problems have come from other lighting companies/councils who see you as disruptive or a threat to their business model. This is obviously one area where even commonsense or reasonable discussion is unlikely prevail, so how did you get around it?

When your disrupting an established market with such effect, the competition can get pretty desperate in their actions. This is actually a good sign that we are doing our job properly but can lead to some aggressive action in this somewhat rudimentary industry.

The fact is that we actually benefit significantly from this in many, many ways. Our product is superior and the more they mention us, the more the real life comparison is made with our customers where we always win. I just hope they keep fighting us, its saving us a bundle in marketing costs right now that we can put right back into making even better product.

When the lighting council of Australia refused to accredit you, did you simply rely on word of mouth and scientific proof and keep going? How important are these bodies anyway in the long run?

Our customers are the important ones in this situation and they are pretty smart people; they experience our products and they know they are better. They are such good quality lights that we now export them to Germany based on their engineering quality. We also have independent test labs review our product for those that really need that hard data to make a decision. We also have good relations with all the universities, the government and other bodies that believe in what we do but don’t have anything to lose. 

How important was the DR700 and the ability to retrofit to getting your product out there? People want what’s easiest for them, rather than what’s always best for them, right?

For any product to be successful it needs to be easy and right. We have that combination with the DR700. Its dead easy to install by anyone, there’s no loss of light, and it starts paying for itself straight away.

I work in large company with about 25 floors that are lit by halogen bulbs 8 hours per day. How much energy could we potentially be saving if we switched to your product?

You could reduce your energy use and cost by 80% straight away with no loss of performance. At eight hours a day the lights pay themselves back in one year, and they are guaranteed unconditionally for 3 years and designed to last for 30. That means you are guaranteed to triple your money in 3 years.

This does not include increases in power costs from the carbon tax and the cost of replacing your current halogen bulbs. And to top it off you can get a 50%+ government rebate if you’re a business in NSW or VIC. We have a cost calculator on our site or you can download our iPhone app to figure the exact savings for your business for free.

You’re now going to be in two international markets by the end of the year. Did you ever see this happening given all the resistance you came up against in the initial stages?

We always had the dream to open our offices in Germany where planned obsolescence began. Next week we will cut the tape to our new offices in the town that began planned obsolescence, which is aptly known as Lighting City.

How important is your 5 year pledge to your business model? Is trust (or putting your money where your mouth is) critical to being accepted?

As of the beginning of July we’ve actually upped our warranties to a seven-year pledge. This is a reflection of our commitment to delivering high quality and long lasting LED lights. It’s important to show consumers that we are for real. You can’t say your lights last for a long time but not back it up, as people will easily become sceptical. It’s a no brainer for us really, because we know that the lights are of standard and will last, so why not put up a decent warranty?

What would be your three top tips for dealing with adversity in business to those starting out in their own endeavours?

• Have a clear and noble purpose
• Love what your doing
• Believe

See also: How To Save Money By Printing Less
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