Saturday, 20 November 2010

Made to Waste

We buy most products not out of need but out of desire.

There is a reason it's often cheaper to replace a broken electronic gadget than to fix it - the tech industry planned it that way. The unfortunate consumer cycle of want, buy, upgrade, replace, discard is a very calculated one. While it is true planned obsolescence keeps consumers spending, the major downside is the hefty environmental burden that comes with hyperconsumerism in an advanced capitalist society.

Planned obsolescence is not just rampant in the consumer electronics industry, it can be found in just about any sector. "Cheap" products might seem like a deal but when they end up in a landfill a short time later, who's really getting a bargain?

The term planned obsolescence is a well-known concept amongst manurfacturers. The phrase was first coined in 1932, Manufacturers realised that they had a problem, just after the war, goods began to be produced on a mass scale, now everyone could own a car, fridge, and house furnishings. No one needed anymore, but the products were still rolling off the production line.

The solution came from the car industry, General Motors realised that everyone was buying the black Ford Model T, a vehicle built for longevity and durability. So GM realised that if they wanted to sell cars, they had to persuade customers to switch to their products. They came up with the concept of ‘style, selling their products as ‘lifestyle,’ choices. They introduced new ‘coloured,’ cars, extra lights, stylish tail fins etc..

The new models appeared yearly, most of the time with nothing but cosmetic changes. The American consumer was programmed. A trade-in every year or two or three was "de rigueur", but when foreign cars started penetrating the American market, Mercedes, BMWs, Toyotas, Hondas, the American consumer wised up. Here were better products that lasted.

What happened in the car industry was repeated in every other sector of production. And the concept of concept of 'lifestyle design,' really took off. Of course, this is nothing more than a massive con, that appeals to consumers vanities; they must have the latest products. If you don’t buy into the latest trend, fashion or look, you are made to feel behind the pack.

This is termed 'psychological obsolescence.' This is how television advertising works, where you are bombarded with sublime messages, telling you, you must have the latest laptop, dress, car, ad infinitum. If we don’t own the newest plasma TV, we are out of touch and seen as somehow eccentric even. So our desires are endlessly stoked by the manufacturers. We buy most products not out of need but out of desire.

In 1960 the American investigative journalist, Vance Packard, brought out a book The Waste Makers. Subtitled “A startling revelation of planned wastefulness and obsolescence in industry today”, it exposed how capitalist firms making consumer goods were deliberately designing them to break down after a calculated period of time so as to encourage repeat sales.

The manufacturers and their marketing departments were quite open about what they were doing. Thus Justus George in 1928 said: “We must induce people . . . to buy a greater variety of goods on the same principle that they now buy automobiles, radios and clothes, namely: buying goods not to wear out, but to trade in or to discard after a short time . . . the progressive obsolescence principle . . . means buying for up-to-dateness, efficiency, buying for . . . the sense of modernness rather than simply for the last ounce of use”.

Brooks Stevens wrote in 1958, “Our whole economy is based on planned obsolescence and everybody who can read without moving his lips should know it by now. We make good products, we induce people to buy them, and then next year we deliberately introduce something that will make those products old fashioned, out of date, obsolete. We do that for the soundest reason: to make money.” 

This provoked a conflict with engineers, who knew they could make solid products that could last for years, but in the end their reluctance was overcome (they, too, are in the end only hired employees who have to do their employer’s bidding). It is also enormously wasteful as still usable products, and the material resources that went into making them, are simply thrown away.

Things have gotten worse since Packard’s day, with the use of soldered circuits in electronic devices that are now part of everyday life. These are easy and cheap to produce but their chipboard's can’t be repaired. There is a growing problem of where to dispose of abandoned (but still usable) mobile phones, which, together with other ‘e-waste’, contain materials that are harmful to the environment.

Packard blamed consumers, if not so much as manufacturers. If, he argues, people take account of the effect on the environment of what they buy, manufacturers will begin “to adopt design strategies that include not just planned obsolescence but planned disassembly and reuse as part of the product life cycle”. This assumes that the capitalist economy is driven by consumers. It isn’t. It’s driven by the drive of capitalist firms to make as much profit as they can.

Nothing physically produced can ever maintain an operational lifespan longer than what can

be endured in order to maintain economic integrity through ‘cyclical consumption’.

In other words, every ‘good’ produced must breakdown in a respective amount of time in order to continue financial circulation to support the players (consumer/employee/employer) in the game.

There are two aspects to Planned Obsolescence
a) Intentional: Deliberate withholding of efficiency so the product in question breaks down.

b) Consequential: Profit based shortcuts taken in production, usually in the form of cheap
Materials/poor design, in an effort to save money and create repeat customers. This translates into an inferior product immediately. i.e. The use of plastics for electronic enclosures is cheaper for the company and the consumer, but the durability of this material is poor in comparison to say, titanium metal, which is much more expensive.]

The introduction of new products and services must be constant to offset any increased efficiency of the prior generations of production, regardless of functional utility, generating
endless waste.

The constant re-creation of inferior products wastes available resources and pollutes the environment.

In other words, waste is a deliberate by-product of industry’s need to keep ‘cyclical consumption’ going. This means that the replaced/obsolete product is expelled, often to landfills, polluting the environment. The constant multiplicity accelerates this pollution.

‘The Need for Cyclical Consumption’, which could be considered the ‘engine’ that powers the entire economic system, is inherently dangerous and corrupt, for the nature of the necessity does not allow for environmentally sustainable practices to be maximised. The constant re-creation of inferior products, wastes available resources and pollutes the environment.

To express this from a different angle, imagine the economic ramifications of production methods that strategically maximised the efficiency and sustainability of every creation, using the best-known materials and techniques available at that time. Imagine a car that was so well designed, it didn’t need maintenance for 100 years. Imagine a house that was built from fireproof materials where all appliances, electrical operations, plumbing and the like were made from the most impermeable, highest integrity resources available on earth. In such a saner world, where we actually created things to last, inherently minimising pollution/waste due to the lack of multiplicity and maximisation of efficiency, a monetary system would be impossible, for ‘consumption cyclically’ would slow tremendously, forever weakening so called “economic growth”.


  1. Hi John, Brilliant blog. I've always been a bit of a womble and helped myself to the leftovers that other people don't want. I was given my vacuum almost 10 years ago, it's casing broke beyond repairs so DB used Freecycle to find another one with a casing but something wrong with it. He found a Dyson with a burnt out motor, replaced it with the motor from ours and it's good to go. In the same weekend we got another Dyson just given to us via freecycle, some one just emailed and said they had a dyson that wasn't working but we could have it if we could fix it.....we did and it's upstairs so I don't have to carry heavy things around. All my furniture is second hand...I'm afraid the 'mass market' won't make much money out of me!

  2. Jane thank you. Your attitude should be taught in all schools, alongside basic skills like carpetry, cooking and so on. I took both gardening and domestic science at school (yes boys could do DS even then). Now kids take media stuides instead. Well your're a teacher so you know more then I do.

    Freecycle is amazing isn't it, that you got a Dyson cleaner and repaired says it all rally. Most people would have not bothered and gone out to buy a new one.