The electronics industry has become pretty trashy business. The Environmental Protection Agency cites estimates that 130 million cell phones are thrown out in the United States each year and 250 million computers will be out-of-date in less than five years. These figures aren't surprising when you consider the races between companies to release faster computers, flatter televisions, and fancier cell phones as quickly as consumers can whip out their credit cards. Chalk it all up to 'planned obsolescence,' the strategy of deliberately building a product?that quickly loses its?usefulness so that consumers will line up for the newer, better model. In a new book,Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America(Harvard University 2006), Giles Slade traces the history of planned obsolescence in the United States from the throwaway paper shirt collars of the 1800s to today's pricey iPods and BlackBerrys, those constantly evolving high-tech gadgets that are under warranty for only a year. Utne.com's Rachel Anderson spoke with Slade from his home in Richmond, British Columbia, about the future of planned obsolescence.
How did you become interested in disposability?
I was really interested in how rude people are in North America, and I started thinking that that was part of being short on time. I had been teaching American Studies in the United Arab Emirates and when I came back to Canada in January of 2002, I experienced real culture shock. Your day in an Arab country is filled with little interactions with people -- you argue over five cents or a dollar and you take your time doing it. When I got back, downtown Vancouver felt like -- excuse the expression --'Fuck you. Next!' I started wondering when we lost our sense of social interaction and duration in personal relations. It seemed to happen at the beginning of the 21st century, right around the time that disposable products became really prominent. I started doing a lot of reading and realized our attitudes towards material goods condition our attitudes towards each other. Then I ran across a French theorist [Gilles Lipovetsky] who said that in the early 20th century we made a transition from a very traditional culture to a fashion culture, where everything durable and traditional is discarded and where we become used to quick changes, quick interactions, and superficial relationships between people. I started digging and Made to Break is what I came up with.
You talk in your book about how disposability made thriftiness -- such as saving rags in the early part of last century -- taboo. Are there modern examples of this?
I've written against the disposability of iPods and I thought people would say, 'Yeah, we're being cheated!' But a lot of bloggers and people on the internet write about how wonderful the disposability of the iPod is because you can get the next best thing really quickly. They seem to be missing the point. I mean, you pay $350 for a device, load all your songs onto it -- songs that cost you a dollar a piece -- surely, you want it to last longer than a year. Older people seem to agree with me, and younger people seem not to.
It seems like pretty much everything has a shorter shelf life today. You make note of Henry Ford and how he had a commitment to building durable products. Are there companies out there right now upholding this principle?
There are particular luxury products promoted as highly durable and therefore worth more money, like Mercedes-Benz and De Beers diamonds, but for the most part, it's hard to imagine a product that doesn't require repetitive consumption because the manufacturers are always shooting for more than one sale. They don't want you to buy one thing and never buy another. I guess Henry could allow people to do that because his market was constantly expanding. But as soon as he got a competitor, and as soon as his market stopped expanding, it didn't work anymore. We're at this moment where we're really challenged to find a new model for a market, and there aren't many businesses that do that right now. I guess Boeing aircraft, the manufacturer of jet turbines, and Caterpillar, the firm that manufactures heavy machinery -- they tend to recycle components and rebuild. They have a really good economic model that works for them.
Is it because of competition or lack thereof that they're able to do that? Or is there another motivation?
It might be that it's just the raw expense of their products. But, for sure, competition drives planned obsolescence. Competition drives the invention and development of new options that appeal to people and make them want to trade up. But it's gotten to a ridiculous extreme. I think in Japan most people replace their cell phones after eight months. It's stupid.
I'm trying to get mine to last longer than the 27 months the company said it would.
That's actually pretty long. There are some manufacturers like Ericsson that are building towards this trend. It takes a minute to take a cell phone apart in order to recycle it, and hundreds of millions of cell phones is a lot of minutes. Ericsson has a cell phone that's designed and in the beginning of the manufacturing pipeline. With an electronic impulse the phone falls apart at the end of its lifetime. It can then be machine sorted into recycling bins. That's good, but the trouble is that people aren't trained to recycle them; they just toss them into the garbage.
What do you consider a bigger problem today: technology devices that are quickly becoming obsolete or disposable items like paper products?
Well, they are both dirty industries. Paper's a completely dirty industry (speaking as a Canadian); it's a massive pollutant. The trouble with technology is that people are blind to it. They think it's this clean, wonderful, shiny sort of impeccable industry, but it's not. It is, in fact, very dirty, both at the production end and at the waste and disposal end. Technology is maybe more [problematic] than paper because of the worldwide volumes of information technology products. We're going to pump a massive amount of toxins into the environment over the next decade and most people just aren't aware of that. The lack of awareness is really dangerous.
Do you think people want items that will last?
I think so, though people have been conditioned to want items that don't last. We can condition people to spend money on something that lasts longer. It seems pretty reasonable to me that you don't want to get rid of all your disposable cash and disposable income by replacing things over and over and over again.
Your book puts planned obsolescence mostly on the shoulders of the manufacturers. What do you think people can do?
Well, first of all, read my book. (Chuckles.) I guess what I'm trying to do is make people more aware of their casual purchases. Every Christmas-Kwanzaa-Hanukkah season, these new toys come out and people consume them more and more, and junk their old ones. I think we're past the point where we can do that -- each act of consumption has a sinister downside to it. You really have to make yourself aware of what you're doing with these things. Do you really need that new phone because it's so extra-slim and cool? Or will your old phone keep you going? Do I need a flat screen for my old PC? Not really. I don't have to junk the old one -- not yet. I can make it last, keep it out of the waste stream. And I can save some money doing it.
The Federal Communications Commission has bumped back the mandated switch from analog to digital televisions until 2009. Are they planning to do anything regarding the disposal or recycling of all these analog TVs?
Not that I've heard. I'd love for them to have some sort of plan. They've mandated a group called NEPSI [National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative] to come up with environmental legislation that would cover the take-back and recycling of analog televisions and other e-waste. But NEPSI was an organization that included the stakeholders -- the electronic manufacturers -- and they stymied the whole process so that eventually they came out with this non-agreement. No legislation came out of it.
No federal legislation has been enacted yet, and there's no political will to. But some states have enacted take-back laws. I think there's four that have and 19 more that are looking at it. One of the most strict is Maine, where the manufacturers are actually forced to pay for collecting the stuff and disposing it. Still, it's to the manufacturers' advantage to have chaos in the take-back process -- some states will have laws, some states won't. I don't mean to sound cynical, but unless you put some sort of cap on [the manufacturers], force them to, first of all, not use the toxins that go into these machines and, secondly, to pay to take them back, they'll continue to use the most poisonous materials and make as many of them as they can sell.
Do you see any successful trends that are moving away from planned obsolescence?
In Europe, the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) initiative has been enacted, banning toxic substances in the manufacturing of electronics. Also, electronic manufacturers have been charged with paying to take back and recycle these devices. Manufacturers like Ericsson are beginning to design things that aren't nearly as poisonous and can be recycled easily and cheaply. I think you're not going to find a manufacturer that will willingly limit planned obsolescence. If they're forced to, they'll extend the life of their products.
In May [Apple CEO] Steve Jobs said you should replace an iPod every year. Who's that good for except Steve Jobs? Unless there's some legislation that says, 'If you dump 68 million iPods into the American landfills, you have to pay to collect them,' then I'm sure Steve will do a cost-benefit analysis and say, 'OK, it will cost us less to build them for two years than to recycle them all.' Then you'll get longer life products. I'm really interested to see what happens with Microsoft Zune [the company's planned iPod competitor], whenever it comes out. It will be very smart of them to build something that lasts substantially longer and to position it against the iPod.
I noticed that Dell -- before they had their battery crisis -- became the only electronic manufacturer to freely pay for the shipping of their old computers back to the manufacturer to be recycled. Hewlett-Packard makes their customers pay and I don't know what Apple does -- they've got a recycling program, but it's not very popular. If companies started competing against each other to be more eco-friendly, that would be a wonderful thing.
Are you optimistic about the future? Do you think we'll get our act together?
I think we're in for a really hard patch. We tend to manage things on a crisis basis, so I imagine there has to be one before there will be the public will to at least slow down the kind of excessive waste we have. You mentioned that in 2009 all the analog TVs will go belly up. With 5-10 pounds of lead per TV, and an estimated 300 million TVs -- I think the number is substantially larger, but even if it's only 300 million TVs -- that's a lot of lead. As they're sitting in dumps, lead is coming out of them, and so are flame retardants and other [toxins].
We've confronted ourselves with this really overwhelming problem and I think it's going to get worse before it gets better. When municipalities and states start realizing how much it's costing them to process the junk that's put into the market and what it's doing to the infrastructure in their state -- how they can't afford other [public services], how it's going to impact the health of their workers, how it's going to impact the water quality for their industries -- they'll see all the additional costs. I think at that point people are going to start screaming and making the manufacturers pay.
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