Annie Leonard's animated online video The Story of Stuff is a concise summary of the process by which things are manufactured, distributed and disposed of, and all of the problems along the way. Producers and retailers externalize the true hidden costs (environmental impact, labor abuses, etc.) so they are pretty much invisible to the consumer. Thus at point of purchase our decisions are personalized in terms of "How does this product benefit me?" and "Am I getting a good deal?" and not "Who manufactured this item? How were the workers treated? Were the raw materials derived responsibly and sustainably or not?" Those kinds of issues are not front and center on store shelves.
I especially appreciate Leonard's observation about the difference between planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence occurs when companies manufacture items that are intended to be disposable or produced so cheaply that they are probably going to wear out and need replacing in short order. A few months ago Ellen and I replaced the set of steak knives that we'd received when we got married ten years ago. Those knives were described as not needing to be sharpened, and actually you couldn't sharpen them because the subtle serrated-ness of them would be wrecked if you tried to sharpen them. It occurs to me now that this may have been an intentional ploy for planned obsolescence - once the knives get dull, you have to toss them and buy new ones because you can't sharpen the old ones.
Perceived obsolescence is less of a structural thing but every bit as intentional by manufacturers and producers. It's the seasonal changes of fashion that tell you that your big clunky computer monitor is not as cool as the thin flatscreen version, or that certain kinds of shoes or clothes are in or out this year. From a personal discipleship standpoint, most of us have more control over this second dimension than the first; we may not have much influence over producers, but we can rein in our own desires. But the two are related. If we shop for more durable, quality goods that are more likely to last longer, then we will also keep using them over longer periods of time, regardless of whether they still seem fashionable or not.
Our family still has only one cell phone, a prepaid one that we got six years ago or so. It looks clunky and archaic - no cool color screen, no web browsing or MP3 playing, no camera. At a recent conference I noticed how everybody else seemed to have cooler phones, especially iPhones. But my old phone still works perfectly fine for making phone calls, and I really don't need all the other features. And $20 every three months or so feels a lot better to me than getting locked into a $60-per-month plan.
So maybe Christians can embrace obsolescence as an expression of Christian stewardship and countercultural social protest. If my khakis look older and worn, it's probably because I got them at a thrift shop for $3 and don't care a whole lot about impressing anybody these days. So what if my 1995 Honda has a crack in the windshield? It still works, right? As long as it keeps the rain and the bugs out, it's fine. The less we worry about whether our stuff is in style or not, the less we'll be held captive to consumer acquisitiveness.