September 4, 2012

Time to plan the obsolescence of consumerism

Consumers did not exist prior to WW2. People did.

It was after the postwar boom in the United States that a variety of existing professions evolved and morphed to meet the needs of Big Business as industrial production and wealth increased. Consumers were created to meet the unmet needs of the producers.

The Waste Makers, published in 1960, states that inventories in post war industrial America were piling up as the durable goods, cars and services were saturating markets even as people were not buying or replacing their possessions that frequently. They’d not thought of entering other markets yet. That would wait for another 20 years before Theodore Levitt wrote his "Globalization of markets".

Advertising, marketing, promotions and products were all swept up in an integrated national attempt to encourage the American consumer to buy more. [BusinessWeek 1955 cover story on Planned Obsolescence in the auto industry broke the news!] The industrial designer Brookes Stevens coined the term "planned obsolescence" where products would be designed to go "out of style". This concept spread widely amongst the giant manufacturing sectors of automotives and white good in the fifties. Even in the 30′s and 40′s GE had specified that their bulbs be designed to burn out hundreds of hours sooner than could actually be designed and built.

"Consumer culture" and "the good life" and its specifications built on consumption of goods and services spread outwards from the US but its reach and thinking not as embedded in other parts of the world or restricted to the top 10-20% of the population. Or, in the case of countries with large numbers of the underprivileged, there was always someone who could use an old pair of shoes or would buy your empty bottles from you along with the newspapers for recycling.

This cycle of consumption, dispose or throw away, buy anew, rinse repeat refresh has gotten shorter and shorter, and not entirely due to Wall Street’s insistence on monthly and quarterly earnings reports. Its also heavily conditioned society in three or more generations of exposure to mass media on the largest scale around the world in recorded history.

Giles Slade wrote the book on the history of planned obsolescence "Made to Break" in 2006, where he said:

"This was a significant development in the history of product obsolescence," he writes. "As a throwaway culture emerged, the ethic of durability, of thrift, of what the consumer historian Susan Strasser calls 'the stewardship of objects,' was slowly modified. At first, people just threw their paper products into the fire. But as the disposable trend continued, it became culturally permissible to throw away objects that could not simply and conveniently be consumed by flames."

People started filling landfills with things like old vacuum cleaners so that, as time went on, "disposable" came to mean nearly everything, not just old paper collars.

Where are we today with regard the culture we are crafting anew, if at all? How does the conversation shift towards considering the triple bottomline of people, profit and planet if maximizing profit is still the underlying design principle of the existing system? Can we dispose of the now obviously "disposable"?

3 comments:

  1. I was actually discussing this with a highly-reputed economist friend. His view in short was that current economic theory is premised on unending economic growth, which can only be sustained through unending consumption. In other words, if people stop consuming, the economy will stagnate/crash and economic theory will be unable to help. In a world where policy is defined by economics (and security), I don't foresee any possibility of a truly sustainable zero-growth state.
    Read this interview: http://www.himalmag.com/about-us/5096-where-indian-growth-is-crooked.html

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  2. I wonder if you can help me find a quote that I saw somewhat recently but now I cannot remember where.

    I believe it was from someone in the government just after WWII proposing rampant consumerism to replace the economic war machine by convincing modern man that the measure of his value was by the bigger house, car, and other such material goods. Along the lines of the 1932 proposal by Bernard London on the planned obsolescence page on wikipedia, but not that early and the quote was just a few lines long, maybe a paragraph. It stated a goal which is now fact: competitive consumerism as the measure of social standing.

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  3. Look for Vance Packard, he wrote about this in The Hidden Persuaders and the quote might be from there. He also wrote The Status Seekers, on exactly this phenomena

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