As the middle-class daughter of a refugee mother and a Depression-era father, I was part of a transitional generation of consumers. My parents could afford much more than they were willing to buy; most things that broke could be and were repaired. By the time my own children were born, America was flooded with cheap and cheaply made goods. So while my parents continued working at the sturdy antique desks they inherited from my grandparents and sleeping beneath a hand-crocheted bedspread, my children and their friends became the first and last owners of a seemingly endless supply of plastic toys and particleboard furniture.
These days, nearly everything is produced in China and made to be discarded. According to a 2008 report by the Economic Policy Institute, the United States imported $323 billion in Chinese goods in 2007, including $26.3 billion in apparel and accessories, $108.5 billion in computers and electronic products, and $15.3 billion in furniture and fixtures.
The manufacture, distribution, and disposal of an ever-growing mountain of short-lived consumer goods have taken an enormous environmental toll. We can’t, however, only blame the quantity and quality of Chinese goods for the consequences of this transoceanic factory-to-waste stream. For that we can blame the two horsemen of the modern consumer apocalypse: functional obsolescence and fashion obsolescence.
Functional, or planned, obsolescence is the intentional decision by designers and manufacturers to ensure that things don’t last, so that consumers must buy new ones. Fashion obsolescence is the related decision to offer new features and aesthetic changes to entice consumers to discard their old items in favor of updated and supposedly better ones.
Ironically, product obsolescence was once seen as the remedy for what ailed our country. Lizabeth Cohen, chair of the history department at Harvard University and author of A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, traces the origins of mass consumption to the period immediately before and after World War II, when a demand-driven economy was seen as the key to our nation’s recovery and prosperity.
“Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption,” retailing analyst Victor Lebow said in 1955. “We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing pace.”
Today, consumer spending constitutes 70 percent of the U.S. economy. Ultimately, environmental and economic sustainability won’t be possible until that changes. We can’t just keep churning out, buying, and disposing of stuff—we need to start making stuff that lasts.
Saul Griffith, a 2007 MacArthur Fellow and serial inventor, refers to this as “heirloom design.” The best way to lower the quantity of energy required to manufacture and distribute consumer goods, he argues, is to make those products not only durable, but also repairable and upgradable.
Griffith shares this radically obvious idea with Tim Cooper, head of the Centre for Sustainable Consumption at Sheffield Hallam University in Sheffield, England, and editor of the forthcoming book Longer Lasting Solutions. Cooper calls for “slow consumption,” the consumer purchasing equivalent of the Slow Food movement (which seeks to build consumer awareness and appreciation of food and its connection to community and the environment).
“The issue to address is what kind of economy is going to be sustainable in its wider sense—economically, environmentally, and socially,” he says. “The current economy is not sustainable. The sheer throughput of energy and materials cannot be continued.”
If products were more durable, Cooper argues, some jobs lost due to the decrease in consumption would be offset by the addition of more highly skilled maintenance and repair jobs. And whereas the lost jobs might be overseas, the repair jobs would be local. “We need to look at new business models that move away from manufacturing and selling more and more products,” he says. Such models might include “products that last longer but have associated services attached to them, so that the supplier guarantees to maintain, repair, and upgrade the products for a certain period.”
What would it take to overcome our dependence on cheap goods? Even though the rise of overseas manufacturing means that obsolescence is no longer a boon for this country’s manufacturers, cheap products are essential for consumers who can barely afford to put food on the table. If a durable coffeemaker costs twice as much as a breakable one but lasts four times as long, it’s still less attractive to someone who doesn’t have the additional cash up front.
Policy would have to play a key role in reversing this unfortunate checkout counter calculation. Legislation on extended producer responsibility, requiring manufacturers to account for the full life cycle of their products from extraction to disposal, could affect consumer culture by making disposable items more expensive and reviving an interest in repair. Such legislation would also need to create a financial incentive for industry to produce more durable goods and for consumers to favor them.
Consumers are certainly influenced by price, but Cooper holds out hope that they also can be persuaded by having more of a connection to the objects they purchase—a quality referred to as “emotionally durable design.” If that sounds too touchy-feely for a coffee machine, consider the difference between a pair of shoes custom-made for you by your local cobbler and an off-the-rack pair from the shoe store. Which would you be more likely to clean, resole, and repair?
Part of the solution might also be having more products available without the burden of ownership. Tool rentals, car sharing, and even laundromats diminish the number of products that need to be manufactured and place a premium on durability and longevity. (This can even be done informally. We’ve shared a lawnmower with one of our neighbors for years.) “We should have much more attachment to certain products, but for others we should see that they are services,” says Andrew King, a consultant with the UK-based Centre for Remanufacturing and Reuse.
King sees consumers playing a large role in putting pressure on industry to make the necessary changes. “The real issue is creating the demand,” he says. “I work with a large number of large multinational [companies]. When they assign their designers to the challenge—design this for two lives—they rise to the challenge. They just start to think in a different way.”
Excerpted from In These Times (Nov. 2009), a progressive monthly committed to political and economic democracy.