8.18.2011

"we work to buy things that are built to die so that we must work to buy more things that will break"

Two weeks ago, my coffee maker broke. It was a electric percolator (I wrote about my preference for it here), made by Cuisinart. It's the third such percolator I've had in a six-year span. One day they just stop working.

I purchased this particular coffee maker 13 months ago. After digging through my receipts and warranties and instruction booklets, I learned Cuisinart has an unusual three-year warranty. To access the warranty, we had pack up the coffee maker, ship it to a service centre, enclose a $10 cheque for return postage, and wait an estimated two weeks. Meanwhile, we had to buy another coffee maker, which, if it will last long enough, could be our back-up for the next time the electric percolator breaks - but is more likely to break well before it is needed again.

The broken percolator was inconvenient, and annoying, and wasteful. But at least I can - presumably - get a replacement from Cuisinart.
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Last week, after inflating the Aerobed for my mother (we try to give her our bed, but she wouldn't take it), I heard the now-familiar hiss of escaping air. Not one hole, but several, all over the bed. We bought this Aerobed last year. And we bought it last year because, when we stayed at my mom's over US Thanksgiving, the previous Aerobed sprung a leak! We estimate this Aerobed has been used five times. And we've already learned that patching the leak is a waste of time. It's the third Aerobed we've purchased since August 2005.
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You already know about my Heys backpack (overview with links to correspondence here). The mesh compartments normally used for an umbrella and a water bottle ripped after three weeks of use. Heys told me this was "normal wear and tear," not covered by the warranty. I complained strenuously and blogged about their bad customer service. They replaced the backpack. The replacement developed the same holes in less than a month.
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We have purchased three patio umbrellas since 2005, and would have purchased a fourth, but some friends gave us one they no longer need.
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We bought a weed trimmer. During the second season of use, it stopped charging. The warranty had run out.
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A few years ago I purchased a food vacuum sealer. I wanted to cook more in batches - soups, stews and other one-pot dishes that can be frozen in portions - and better preserve the flavour and freshness of the dishes. We bought a Kenmore vacuum sealer from Sears, priced at $150. I estimate we used it no more than 15 times before the vacuum stopped working correctly.

Because a vacuum sealer isn't something one uses daily or even weekly, by the time I discovered it was broken, the warranty had run out - while the thing was sitting in the closet. (I tried to get Sears to replace it anyway, without success.) I wish I had put the warranty expiry date on my calendar, so I could have purposely used it prior to that date. It never occurred to me to do such a thing, but in the future, I will.

Now the vacuum sealer works somewhat - better than a plastic zipper bag, but not the way it's supposed to.

Things fall apart

I could go on. And I'm sure you could post your own lists, too. It's not like we're purposely buying the cheapest stuff, either; it's that quality and durability are nearly nonexistent. (When I bought my expensive ergoCentric chair, we discussed the often false value of the cheap price tag.) I find this enormously frustrating on so many levels. Really, it drives me crazy. It's a huge waste of money. It's a huge waste of global resources. It fills the world with trash. I've taken to calling everything I buy "future landfill".

Like most people who care about the planet, I try to minimize my consumption. I don't shop for recreation. I don't buy more than I need. But neither do I live an ascetic life of self-denial. Life is so very short, and I believe we should enjoy simple comforts and pleasures, whatever those may be for each of us.

Allan and I don't fill our lives with gadgets we won't use or clothes we won't wear, but we need computers, a cell phone, conveniences in the kitchen, tools for the yard, and so on. On the spectrum from total simple living to flagrant conspicuous consumption, I think we're closer to the former than the latter, but we're not extreme in either direction.

But however one would characterize our lifestyle, in order to maintain it, we must buy and re-buy and re-buy the same damn stuff.

It's scientific

This, of course, is the living embodiment of The Story of Stuff: planned obsolescence. We all know why it happens. A world filled with advertising trying to induce us to buy, buy, buy is not enough. We must be forced to buy, buy, buy, more, more, more.

Planned obsolescence has existed for nearly a century, but the cycle of buy-break-buy-break shortened tremendously with the advent of cheaply produced plastics in the 1950s (technology originally developed for military uses during World War II), then telescoped further with globalization. In the last decade, and even in the past few years, the product life cycle has shortened even further. AdBusters dug up a historical perspective on planned obsolescence.
"Planned obsolescence" may sound like a conspiracy theory but it was once openly discussed as a solution to the Great Depression. In fact, most scholars trace the origin of the term to Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”, in which London blames the global economic Depression on consumers who disobey “the law of obsolescence” by “using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected”.

London’s sinister solution was to propose a government agency that would determine the lifespan of each manufactured object whether it is a building, a ship, a comb or a shoe. Those frugal consumers who insisted on using their products past the expiration date would be penalized. London explained his plan simply: “I propose that when a person continues to posses and use old clothing, automobiles and buildings, after they have passed their obsolescence date, as determined at the time they were created, he should be taxed for such continued use of what is legally ‘dead’.” While the regulatory specifics of London’s plan may not have been put into place the spirit of his proposal has been adopted by product designers whose objects are meant to break.

And so we grow old in a world surrounded by things whose disposability is prized above all else. Of course, the need to constantly replace the objects in our daily life has an added benefit as well: it keeps us locked into our overworked, over stimulated and under paid daily grind. We work to buy things that are built to die so that we must work to buy more things that will break. . . .

Only 15 copies of London's pamphlet remain in libraries around the world. No copy is available online. Adbusters has tracked down Bernard London's pamphlet and for the first time ever we are making it available online. [Read the 1932 pamphlet here.]
Researching this post, I learned of a book called Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, by Giles Slade. In a review of the book in Grist, Terry Tamminen writes:
Among the eye-opening revelations of Made to Break is Slade's account of the anti-thrift campaigns launched in the wake of World War I. During the war, the U.S. Treasury Department initiated a frugality campaign opposed by wary merchants. In 1917, Slade recounts, "stores in every city began displaying signs reading, 'Business as Usual. Beware of Thrift and Unwise Economy.'" And a few years later, New York retailers "launched the National Prosperity Committee, with posters that read 'Full Speed Ahead!' 'Clear the Track for Prosperity!' 'Buy What You Need Now!'" (Those sentiments, I realized, were echoed 80 years later, in the grief-stricken days following Sept. 11, when President Bush exhorted Americans to "go shopping" - to show that our resolve and values had not been shaken.)

An entertaining historian with a conversational style, Slade explores the Depression-era development of marketing campaigns that encouraged rapid automobile replacement and resulted in products designed not to last - a concept called "death dating." By the end of World War II, Americans' self-image and esteem were entwined with the possession of the shiny and new as never before. Then, in the 1950s and '60s, the media began touting a plethora of products whose novelty outweighed their necessity, to a growing - and increasingly affluent - audience. To this day, says Slade, "We evaluate ourselves and those around us by what they display. It's a very hard cycle to break."
Evaluating ourselves "by what we display" reminds me of a wmtc essay: on raising consciousness and wanting a new cell phone. I was a bit shocked to realize that - like those idiots in the ads I mock - I actually felt embarrassment by my cell phone, which worked perfectly fine but looked outdated. No need to worry about that anymore. The phone breaks long before any embarrassment can kick in.

Here on this mountaintop

For some people, the response to the frustration of the constant breakdown of everything we buy - as well as the alienation and emptiness of consumerist culture - is DIY or Maker culture. In Maker culture, people eschew cheaply made products and painstakingly craft their own. Reading about this movement, one frequently encounters the idea that buying ready-made products, rather than making objects ourselves, is a function of mass production and the postmodern age. There's a nostalgia for an unspecified past in which everyone knew how to use tools and made whatever they needed. For example:
One of the results of the culture shift has been the fact that some of us have forgotten how to make hardly anything other than dinner and house plants, and a few of us have even forgotten how to do that much.

Maker culture represents the desire of individuals to return to a lifestyle that includes a person making their own life tools and understanding how the machines that we depend on operate.
If people enjoy a DIY life, then by all means they should pursue it. However, I believe there's a misreading of history going on. The lifestyle that people want to "return to" never existed.

Humans have been specializing in skills and crafts since the dawn of civilization. When I researched and wrote about ancient civilizations for young readers, I quickly identified specialization as one of the defining hallmarks of civilization itself.

In ancient civilizations, each family did not necessarily make their own clay pots. Someone who was particularly adept at pot-making would churn out large quantities of pots, or would make pots to order, and would trade her expertly crafted pottery for grain and other necessities and luxuries - items which the potter did not have time to make, because she was busy making pots. Some people were scribes, some were blacksmiths, some were engineers, some made glass objects. As new technologies developed, specialists emerged around each one.

In the past (and in the present in less developed areas) people generally made things themselves when they had no choice. Frontier women made clothes for their families, because they were isolated and had few resources. As villages and towns grew, a woman with better-than-average sewing skills would emerge as a clothesmaker. People gave her money or bartered goods in exchange for her expertise. She in turn bought fabric and sewing equipment from someone who made those. She might have baked her own bread, but if her eyes tired from long days plying a needle, she sought an optometrist. She didn't make eyeglasses herself.

As civilization evolved, specialists emerged who "made" intangible services. Teachers, lawyers, nurses, librarians, builders, doctors, engineers - each exchange expertise and services for money. In the hours not spent earning a living, they raise families, they garden, they make art, they write, they go to the movies. It is unlikely they have time to "make their own life tools and understand how the machines that we depend on operate". Their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents likely did not, either.

I'm not sure how the idea emerged that earlier generations worked with tools and crafted objects more than present generations, but I'm pretty sure it's nostalgia, postmodern alienation edition.

If "making your own" is an absorbing and enjoyable alternative for you, that's terrific. Go for it. But for most people, it's not a realistic alternative, and it won't solve the problem of a culture of disposability.

Check out Mr. Businessman

Most writing on disposability and sustainability exhorts us to buy and consume less - something most of us can and should do. Consuming less is important, but it's insufficient.

First, whatever we do buy is created to fall apart, and will fall apart, and will have to be replaced. And second, simple living will represent, at best, pockets of sustainability amid the dominant culture of consumption. Enough people will not voluntarily change their lifestyles drastically enough to make an appreciable difference.

The wasteful unsustainability of global capitalism will not be reversed by handfuls of people buying less stuff. The problem cannot be solved at the consumer end. It can only be solved at the production end.

You've seen those bumper stickers that say "Still have a job? Keep buying foreign!"? The sarcastic implication is if we had only done our duty to "Buy Canadian" or "Buy American," the manufacturing sector would have remained in North America. Rubbish. Corporations do business where it's most profitable and convenient for them to do. North American consumers generally have no choice but to "buy foreign," because that's what's in the store.

Our buying power does not control manufacturing; it's the other way around. We are not consulted, and our collective (but not organized) buying power cannot create wholesale change. As long as it's cheaper to manufacture goods in China and ship them around the globe, that's what corporations will do. Corporations, you will recall, have allegiance only to the bottom line and to their shareholders, not to job creation and certainly not to abstract concepts like patriotism.

And corporations have no incentive to conduct business sustainability or make durable products. They would have to be forced to by law, or induced to by cost.

Peace of mind, it's a piece of cake

It all comes down to oil.

The whole system that brings us ever cheaper, flimsier products is all built on petroleum - both to create the crappy plastic products and to ship that crap around the globe. Eventually there won't be any more petroleum, and if anything gets made, it will have to be made of something else, and closer to home. What will be left of the planet by that time, and how many millions will suffer until then, remains to be seen.

In the book review quoted above, author Giles Slade is quoted:
During the next few years, the overwhelming problem of waste of all kinds will, I believe, compel American manufacturers to modify industrial practices that feed upon a throwaway ethic. . . . The golden age of obsolescence - the heyday of nylons, tailfins, and transistor radios - will go the way of the buffalo.
I haven't read the book, and I don't mean to pick on Slade; I'm only using this statement as an example of something I often hear. Many people seem to believe that a dire need will somehow compel people and entire systems to change. This is magical thinking. Boards of directors will not reason, "This is too wasteful for the planet. We must start manufacturing cell phones that last 15 years." If corporations are seeing profits and laws do not compel them to do otherwise, they will not change.

What if products had to be made with quality materials, had to last for at least 10 years? What if businesses were compelled to employ sustainable practices? What if, along with wage, safety and environmental standards, there were durability standards? What if environmental standards extended to long-term production practices? What ho, government interference in business?! Markets must be free! (Except for bailouts, tax breaks, subsidies, no-bid contracts, rule changes...)

Why is the so-called free market, from which relatively few people profit, more important than the planet's resources, which every human and every creature needs and shares?

As long as global capitalism continues and intensifies - if the current system is not replaced with a more rational, just and sustainable one - that is, if we do not exchange capitalism for socialism - we will not see the end of this trend. We will "work to buy things that are built to die so that we must work to buy more things". Landfills will continue to grow. Oceans will continue to fill with carcinogenic plastics. Many people will consume more than they can ever need or use, while many more wither and starve. And things will continue to fall apart.


Subtitles by David Byrne

14 comments:

laura k said...

I was wondering how long it would be until someone suggested I buy a French press: yesterday on Facebook.

1, I don't want to use a French press, I love using an electric perc.

2, another friend said he's on his 3rd French press, they keep breaking.

And 3, I understand it's a long post and you might not want to read it, but if you only read one paragraph, please refrain from commenting!

johngoldfine said...

Laura: I have read every word and am ready to comment. Alas, I haven't much to say....

We still have the good pressure cooker we got as a wedding present in 1969--I use it at least a couple of times a week, and except for replacing the rubber gasket once and the pressure valve once, it still hisses right along.

On the other hand, our old hand-squeeze can-opener, also 60's vintage, finally gave up about two years ago, and since then we've bought three similar new ones, progressively more expensive and none lasting more than a few months before helplessly spinning, daunted by the challenge of a fucking can of tuna.

Very annoyed, I went crazy and bought a counter-mounted, heavy-duty, hand-cranked, non-electric, restaurant-kitchen style can opener. I keep waiting for the chance to buy a #10 can of something and really put that baby to work....

God forbid I stand between a person and her preferred style of coffee-making. Some things are just too important to mess with. I will say, though, that my French press has only failed me once and that was when I dropped it on the floor and sent it to smithereensville.

I guess I'd make a distinction between junk and planned obsolescence. The subject of your knapsack saga was junk. They may have designed it to fall apart after a year but not a month. I'd say your perk is also junk--Cuisinart makes its profit by virtue of the fact that most people do not save receipts and warranty information or do not want to deal with the hassle of service-center returns. Little better than a shell game!

johngoldfine said...

Just read your old post on coffee pots.

"By the time you're ready for your second cup, the coffee will taste old and bitter."

I couldn't help but think of:

In the desert

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said: "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter-bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

-- Stephen Crane

laura k said...

I have read every word and am ready to comment.

Uh-oh, did I sound like an asshole?

laura k said...

The 1960s pressure cooker is part of my point. My mom also uses her ancient pressure cooker, purchased during my childhood. She used her metal food mill for more than 30 years. When she had to replace it, the replacement was plastic and lasted 2 years.

I guess I'd make a distinction between junk and planned obsolescence. The subject of your knapsack saga was junk. They may have designed it to fall apart after a year but not a month. I'd say your perk is also junk--

But what is the distinction, then? The coffee maker retails for $100. The backpack retails for $75. Neither are cheap. Both are made by well-known, supposedly reputable companies.

To me, junk is a backpack purchased on the street in Chinatown for $10 or a $15 no-brand plastic coffee maker. You don't expect it to last 5 years.

A $100 coffee maker with a 3-yr warranty should not be junk.

laura k said...

Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.


...which Joyce Carol Oates later used as a title for a novel.

laura k said...

I've been thinking about this a lot (obviously, look at this post), and I think "junk" is just one form of planned obsolescence.

There's perceived obsolescence - that goes around fashion more than anything else. It used to be mostly confined to dress/skirt lengths, widths of ties and shoe styles, but these days cell phones are probably the biggest target of perceived obsolescence.

There's technical or functional obsolescence - what we see with technology.

And then there's durability - designed purposely to fall apart. A/k/a junk.

There are probably other kinds, too. This Wikipedia entry is pretty good.

johngoldfine said...

I have read every word and am ready to comment.

Uh-oh, did I sound like an asshole?


No, of course not! I just panicked at the thought of overlooking something and commenting in ignorance.

My old hippie Corona food mill, purchased way before we were married, back when we were going to process all our own flour is still going strong (sitting next to the new can opener), grinding malted barley for homebrewing and coffee beans every morning (for my French press.)

laura k said...

My mom uses her food mill to make her awesome applesauce. She calls it a "Foley food mill," I'm assuming that is an old brand name from her earliest purchase.

I thought of another kind of obsolescence: proprietary. For example, you cannot buy replacement blades for any common brands of food processors. I tried for a very long time. But when my primary blade wore out, I had to buy a whole new food processor - even though the only thing wrong was a worn-out blade!

johngoldfine said...

Then there's proprietary blackmail.

My 1996 BMW motorcycle was not manufactured in large enough quantities to sustain non-BMW aftermarket parts manufacturing. So, when something goes, one really pays--you can imagine building a motorcycle from BMW parts that might cost 6 or 8 times what the original cost--sort of like how computer printer makers find their profit in cartridge sales.

Anyway, the most expensive computer that I have ever bought, by far, is sitting under the gas tank of my bike, humbly metering fuel and monitoring timing, and so on.

laura k said...

I'd say any proprietary obsolescence is blackmail.

Come to think of it, it's all blackmail!

Stephanie said...

I have observed the same thing about household appliances among other things for years. As for the rest of your blogpost...thanks for the excellent research. There is so much to think about...

It all comes down to oil.

The whole system that brings us ever cheaper, flimsier products is all built on petroleum - both to create the crappy plastic products and to ship that crap around the globe.


Given the extreme isolation of my graduate student lifestyle particularly this summer, It has been very easy to disconnect from the extreme consumerism (I know it is there...I just refuse to participate...). My consumerism is mostly spent on groceries these days...my biggest bugaboo (one you've blogged about too) is the unnecessary and beyond excessive packaging. Going to the farmer's market is my only comfort in this regard (though I recognise that it may not be convenient for all). It is great to see that the market vendors want their baskets back alas they are usually gob smacked when we refuse their plastic bags.

David and I will have to buy a new washing machine this fall and I wonder do we have to spend almost double on a Miele in the hopes of seeing 20 years from this new machine? Is it even possible to get 20 years from a washing machine these days? I have come to love the local laundromat with their giant triple-load machines I can get all done in about an hour and a half (we have a working dryer at home and I still use the clothesline as much as possible). Unfortunately, this does require a vehicle and I think I will be less inclined to go in the winter though I was going to the laundromat last winter.

In any case this is a great post Laura, thanks. We all have much to think about.

laura k said...

Thank you, Stephanie. I am also somewhat isolated from the rampant consumerism. I run into mainly at work - or when I actually need to buy something - and it shocks me.

The packaging also drives me batty, as we've discussed. I notice it more than ever in the summer - my organic cherries, grapes and berries are all in plastic clamshells! Awful.

Is it even possible to get 20 years from a washing machine these days?

I wouldn't think so.

We recently had a TV repaired - a small-ish set we bought used. The repair person told us he fixes sets that are 15, 20, 25 years old and just need a small repair. But, he said, the new LCDs and plasmas are built to last 2-3 years, and there's no way to fix them.

Think of that.

laura k said...

A book came out some years back - I wish I could recall the name or who wrote it! - about the decline of quality and rise of phony brand names. By phony, the author meant that, until recently, certain brand names were more expensive because they stood for higher quality and durability. A certain brand watch, pen, leather goods, appliances. People who could afford to spent more and got more.

Now (the theory goes) brand names are status symbols without the higher standards attached. I buy a Cuisinart percolator, but it's no better than the Black & Decker or the Krupp or the Piece O'Crap Brand. I pay more for the name - but that name is empty.

I didn't write down the name of the book, and was later sorry I didn't. I'm going to try Googling later.