Overcome Obsolescence by Buying Sustainably


Even when this VW grows old, it will be sustainable, thanks to Volkswagen's plan to make parts available long past the required time period. Photo: Tara Gould

Even when this VW grows old, it will be sustainable, thanks to Volkswagen’s plan to make parts available long past the required time period. Photo: Tara Gould

Hello again! Regular readers will have noticed that Blue Planet Green Living has been on hiatus since May. We’re back, albeit with a sporadic publishing schedule that reflects the busy lives of our volunteers. If you’d like to volunteer a post or your editing talents, please write to joe@blueplanetgreenliving.com with the subject line: VOLUNTEER.  

Today’s guest post is by British writer, Tara Gould. As always, when our guest writer hales from a  country with conventions of spelling and punctuation that are different from ours, we publish it as written. We think you’ll like Tara’s thoughtful discussion of how to avoid planned obsolesence. ~ Julia Wasson, Publisher

I’ve been writing about sustainability and green lifestyle for a while now. But the recent demise of my kettle, after only three years of use, got me thinking about sustainable consuming in a way that was much closer to home.

I am in my kitchen, drinking a cup of tea, made with water that was boiled in a milk pan. It’s what I’ve used for the last few weeks because I made the decision never again to buy a kettle that is made deliberately to break. Trying to find a sustainable alternative has not been easy.  Planned, or built-in, obsolescence is common practice, especially in electrical products.

Unsurprisingly, I was not able to find an electrical kettle with a warranty that stretched beyond five years. But what I did stumble over in my travels across the net was the term heirloom design.

Heirloom Design

Heirloom design is the notion that we need to design, produce and consume products that not only last a long time and are fixable, but that are also beautifully and timelessly designed rather than faddish and disposable. Heirloom design counters both style- and mechanical obsolescence.

Disposability might be encouraged in the consumer landscape, but many of us, given the budget, would buy well-designed objects and products that promise a lifetime of use. Imagine a home furnished with gorgeous, practical things, which might even increase in value and be handed down through generations.

Saul Griffith is an inventor, sustainability expert and the man behind heirloom design. In an interview with Good Magazine, Griffith advocates the importance of reducing energy use, whilst trying to enjoy the best quality of life:

It probably means you will end up owning less junk, your life will be less cluttered, and your stuff will be more beautiful and serve you with more joy.

While championing this kind of exemplary design, Griffith cites a number of businesses that have been making heirloom products for generations. He challenges other businesses to do the same:

If an object performs its function beautifully, efficiently, and intuitively, it is likely an heirloom product. If not, you shouldn’t make it. Think about the beautiful, timeless objects: Le Creuset pots and pans, Bialetti or Bodum coffee makers, Iittala glassware, Vespa motor scooters, the Citroën 2CV, the Volkswagen Beetle, Lego toys, Zippo cigarette lighters, Montblanc pens, the Land Rover.

Many of these companies offer a lifetime guarantee on their products and provide replacement parts so that items are fixable.

Volkswagen for example, has a designated company that provides VW parts for out-of-production models, as well as vintage VW vehicles.

David Ward, CEO of VWHeritage — the officially endorsed UK vendors for Volkswagen — thinks it’s important to support sustainability in the car industry:

The current business model makes sense for vehicle manufacturers, who by law have to produce parts for ten years of the car being offered for sale, thereby encouraging people to buy new when the parts supply runs out. Classic and vintage VWs were built to last. They might not be perfect, but having survived 30+ years, people want to keep hold of them and we want to help them to do that. Classic vehicles are part of everyone’s history. VW Campervans and Beetles have become iconic because so many people have fond memories of them, and for that reason it is something that so many owners cherish.

Style Obsolescence

In his book, Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experience and Empathy Jonathan Chapman, explores how sociological issues should be considered at design stage. People throw things away, not necessarily because a product is broken, but often merely because it has become old and stale; it is obsolete in terms of style. Chapman states that we are searching for meaning, not matter, that meaning is symptomatic of empathy, but that empathy has a shelf life. Product longevity is not just about making things that sustain physically, but making things sustain emotionally as well:

Most products are capable of creating even a small amount of empathy at the point of purchase. From this point on, however, product longevity is soberly dependent upon the sustainability of that empathy. Like everything in this unstable world, empathy too has a lifespan, governed in this case by the type of relationship that is evident between the user and the object. Waste, then, is a symptom of expired empathy, a kind of failed relationship that leads to the dumping of one by the other.

Chapman’s solution is for businesses to create products that adapt or change with us. His students at Brighton University designed a teacup with a pattern that reveals as the tea stain develops, and a pair of trainers [sneakers] with an illustration that becomes visible only as the trainers age.

Green Design with Humans in Mind

In terms of sustainable design and its central considerations, notions of human behaviour need to be explored. Sustainable design is about reducing waste and pollution, but it is also about creating products that work with the way people are. Reducing our current levels of consumption is crucially important, especially if you consider that an estimated 80% of the impact in the environment of a product is rooted within the design phase.

The business model as it currently stands is one that needs to make and sell the most products in order to make the most profit. But this is creating a waste crisis that our planet cannot cope with indefinitely.

As I return to my cup of tea and scan my kitchen, I have to admit that my toaster, blender, stereo, and juicer will soon, no doubt, meet their fate piled atop a mountain of broken electrical items in a landfill somewhere out of sight. I don’t want to be part of that anymore.

In my search for an heirloom kettle, I finally found two possibilities that I like, both stove top kettles with replacement parts and a lifetime guarantee—one made by Le Creuset and the other by PicqoutWare. Expensive, yes, but when you do the math, it works out cheaper than buying multiple kettles over the course of two decades. Meanwhile, until I save my pennies, the milk pan will suffice.

Tara Gould

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Consumed: Inside the Belly of the Beast – A Slackjaw Film

We are consuming our planet at an alarming rate, says filmmaker Rich Heap. CONSUMED Logo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

We are consuming our planet at an alarming rate, says filmmaker Rich Heap. CONSUMED Logo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

How many brand names are within your arms’ reach? How new is the computer on which you’re reading this? Are you wearing clothing that bears a popular name? Are you carrying a cell phone, iPod, or Blackberry? How much stuff surrounds you? And how much do you buy into the need to have even more?

I just finished watching Consumed: Inside the Belly of the Beast, a Slackjaw Film. It’s an extremely thoughtful video that put my own participation in consumerism into perspective — and into question.

We're all a part of today's consumer culture, but we have the power to change—if we care enough. Photo: Courtesy Rich Heap, Slackjaw Films

We're all a part of today's consumer culture, but we have the power to change—if we care enough. Photo: Courtesy Rich Heap, Slackjaw Films

Though I don’t frequent malls and rarely buy anything new if I can help it, I have to admit that I still get caught in the web of consumerism. (Yes, I’d love a new iPhone 4S, with SIRI; but I surely don’t need one.)

As an environmentalist, I don’t want to be a part of the over-consumption that’s afflicting us all in the “developed” world. Yet, as a blogger, I’m not immune to the lure of advertising to help pay our bills. It’s a dilemma for sure.

Perhaps you’re caught in the consumerism web, too. If you’re in the U.S., it’s hard to avoid today: it’s the mother of all consumer days here: Black Friday.

We, in the developed nations, have what the film describes as “a weird mental illness called consumerism. We’ve all gone psychotic.”

As the narrator and filmmaker, Richard Heap, states, “Our lives have never been richer, yet our need for more seems undiminished.”

Susceptible to Persuasion

Heap intersperses film footage from television ads of the mid-20th century with footage of today’s consumer society in action. The older ads are laughably quaint by today’s standards: A couple in formal wear dances around kitchen appliances, and adolescents thrust their heads around in circles while wearing a ridiculous-looking gadget called the Swing Wing.

Dancing around a range looks pretty silly today. Will generations to come look back and wonder at how easily we were manipulated by today's advertising? Photo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

Dancing around a kitchen appliance looks pretty silly to us. But will generations to come look back and wonder at how easily we, too, were manipulated? Photo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

It’s hard today to understand how such hokey scenes shaped the purchasing habits of masses of consumers. But they did; and today’s consumers are just as susceptible to being persuaded.

In this roughly hour-long film, Heap presents psychologists, designers, and scientists, all of whom comment on our consumer culture. Their insights strike home.

Jonathan Chapman, author of Emotionally Durable Design, tells viewers, “Our grandchildren will think, ‘What were they on about? And why did they care about brands and having six-bedroom houses if they’re only one married couple and one kid? Why did they care about that?’”

It’s a good question, and Heap’s experts go to great lengths to explain the relationship we humans have with consumption. It turns out that consumption is basically normal; it’s just our excesses that are abnormal.

As Heap says, “Our lives have never been richer, yet our need for more seems undiminished….

“Addictions, depression, and mental health issues are becoming part of everyday conversation. We are losing ourselves in the rush, struggling to keep our heads above water.”

A Cancer on the Planet

“It’s not just the individual financial, and psychological cost of modern culture, there’s also an environmental cost,” Heap tells viewers. “[T]he human race is acting like a cancer on the planet, displaying all the four major characteristics of a malignant process. Ultimately, cancer kills the organism that supports it.”

A sobering thought.

Tim Cooper, Professor of Sustainable Design and Consumption warns, “I think it’s become increasingly clear, the kind of growth rates we’re getting around the world… can’t be sustained.… In Britain, the average household is consuming as if there were three planets rather than one.”

If the British are consuming at such a fast rate, I shudder to think what their neighbors across the pond are doing (yes, that includes me).

Indoctrinated to Consume

Much of advertising is designed specifically to appeal to our desire to attract a mate. Photo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

Much of advertising is designed specifically to appeal to our desire to attract a mate. Photo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

Most of our consumption is fueled by advertising. Heap says, “By 20, the average Westerner has seen one million commercial messages. Budgets for advertising to kids have risen to over one billion dollars. We are now indoctrinated to consume from birth.”

You won’t be surprised to hear that there’s a lot of sophisticated psychology involved in appealing to our consumer impulses, but it’s kind of creepy nonetheless.

As Alistair McIntosh, Professor of Human Ecology, says, “The corporations, especially in the mid-20th century, were actively looking at the way they could trigger off psychological impulses deep within us that would cause us to desire new products that we had never ever thought to desire before…. It’s only possible to do that because, as Microsoft would put it, there are security vulnerabilities within us.”

Quite naturally, some of our vulnerabilities lie in our fears about our ability to attract a mate. Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind, says, “One critical thing that advertising does is that it tries to convince consumers that above-average products can compensate for below-average traits.… It might interest people of the opposite sex at a kind of superficial level, but it doesn’t really pack the emotional punch that leads people to fall in love with you as a person.”

Even our children are driven to consume. Photo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

Even our children are driven to consume. Photo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

But superficiality doesn’t seem to stop us from trying.

Sadly, advertising persuasion isn’t limited to adults. Ever wonder why stores like Abercrombie and Fitch use life-size images of half-clad teens in their advertising? The answer is simple.

“Advertising is trying to insinuate itself into the kids and the teenagers and the youthful consumers at an ever younger age,” Miller says. “And it’s realized, for example, that if you sexualize young teens, that if you make them think about mating earlier and earlier, you can capture more of their money, or more of their parents’ money.”

We’ve Reached the Limit

“The environmental effects of unfettered consumption are well documented,” Heap says. “But if we are to lead our children to a more hopeful future, we need to understand how psychologically we’ve become untouched by destructiveness.

Our economy continues to expand, beyond the limits of sustainabiity. Photo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

Our economy continues to expand, beyond the limits of sustainability. Photo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

“More people are chasing fewer resources. Food production is near the limits of growth. Oil has reached its peak. The world’s population will pass 9 billion by 2050. Strong nations are reaching into weak nations to take what they need. Forests are cut down, and the oceans emptied. Biodiversity is already collapsing.

“But as long as our economies continue to grow, we pretend not to notice. We’re like the people on Easter Island, enthralled to our culture, throwing up structures that prove our mastery, ignoring the damage we are doing to the planet we share. We’ve always done it. Only now, we’ve reached the limits of what the planet can provide.”

“And so,” Jonathan Chapman, says, “the challenge, the intervention, if you like, is about looking at ways of designing products and marketing products and consuming products in ways that have a sustainable kind of meaning and a very durable set of values and desires so that we perhaps don’t fall out of love with them so quickly…

“We need industry to think about new business models as well so that their profit and future don’t depend on shoddy, cheap, throwaway rubbish, but in fact their profitability’s built into designing products that last…”

Revolutions Are Born of You and Me

Revolution will not come from within the system, Heap warns in CONSUMED. Photo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

Revolution will not come from within the system, Heap warns in CONSUMED. Photo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

But don’t think our politicians will save us from consuming until our resources are gone, Heap claims. “Drawn to power and prestige, politicians display all the traits that have got us into this mess in the first place. The very competitiveness of their nature marries perfectly with modern society, and they are unlikely to find the answers we need.”

Heap brings us to the end of the film with the following observation: “We must acknowledge that we’ve become captives in a consumerist system. We cannot see the bars or understand what keeps us in. But even if we have doubts, we are swept along by the stampede around us. Things do need to change. We are wrecking the planet.

“But we must understand that revolution doesn’t come from within a system. Revolutions are born of you and me. They may be as simple as a change of heart. They may be as difficult as saying, “I’ve had enough.”

Have you had enough?

Conscious Choices

Let's make conscious consumer choices so that we leave our children a planet worth inhabiting. Photo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

Let's make conscious consumer choices so that we leave our children a planet worth inhabiting. Photo: Courtesy Slackjaw Films

It occurs to me that this film’s message, in many ways, resonates with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Let’s get back to living simply, within our financial and planetary “means.” Let’s not allow marketers to manipulate us into an unsustainable way of life while we give outrageous profits to the companies they represent.

Let’s start by making conscious choices about what we spend, where we focus our attention, and what we’re willing to believe.

As the 99%, we are in the perfect position to make changes in the consumer society and financial system — starting with ourselves.

I encourage you to watch Consumed. If you’re part of a film festival committee, recommend it to them. Encourage your librarian to purchase a copy for your community. Or buy a copy and share it with your friends. You can even watch it online (a very environmentally friendly way to consume) for only $4.95 (about £3).

Consumed has a powerful message for all of us at a moment in history that couldn’t be more timely.


The Fine Print

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Julia Wasson


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