Monday, March 10, 2008

Planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence

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.

10 comments:

Helen said...

Great post. Just sometimes it is difficult to not get sucked in, or feel that your clothes are not "right" or things of that nature. Attempting to get rid of older items you no longer wear and yet not buy just as much to replace it. Because honestly, who would really notice that you have x number of shirts and seem to wear the same one often enough...

Milton Stanley said...

State governments are participating in the perceived obsolescence under the guise of public safety. My rebuilt 1996 Aerostar van worked just fine with a crack in the windshield. But when we moved from Tennessee to Virginia, we weren't able legally to operate it in the commonwealth without spending hundreds of dollars to replace the windshield. Since moving to Pennsylvania, we've been told we have to spend extra money on having the van inspected and made road-worthy because it's a re-built vehicle (two states ago). To a degree, these state-mandated inspections keep unsafe vehicles off the road. To an equal degree they act as a strong disincentive to actually keep driving older vehicles.

L.L. Barkat said...

Is that also a book? I'm looking for a good next title for our Social Issues Book Club.

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for commenting, folks. Great observations. And I don't think there's a book related to this - the online video is 20 minutes long and would certainly be something that could be watched and discussed in a small group setting. You could also poke around their website and see what other content or resources might be available.

thetensionishere said...

Excellent post, Preach it!!!

And on a personal note, I spread the gospel of Prepaid Cellphones any and every time I can. Granted, there are a lot of people who ONLY use a cellphone, and for them, it's probably more cost-effective to stick with a monthly plan.

But for everyone else, you've got to sit down and do the math: how many of those 1 million minutes a month are you ACTUALLY using. And how much would it cost if you just simply paid for those minutes you used, as you need them.

For me, the answer was obvious. I'm paying probably 1/2, with TWO prepaid phones, than I was with a monthly contract "Family Plan".

Just my 2 cents...

Bill said...

Al, this is a touchy issue and hard to argue with from a stewardship perspective. Consumption (not TB) is a social disease in our culture that it's easy for any of us to get sucked into to our own spiritual harm. There is another perspective, however, that we need to consider. A friend of mine who opened a manufacturing plant in China calls it "sanctified consumerism." He manufactures quality leather goods to sell in the U.S. at a premium price so he can pay above average wages to his Chinese employees and create opportunities for his employees to reach out into the community to meet social and spiritual needs. When we buy something we provide employment for others. And that is better than saving money by buying cheap items so we can donate more to give people a hand out. What do you think?

Al Hsu said...

Good comment, Bill. Yes, there certainly are folks (both Christian and not) who are working toward a more equitable economic/production system, and I fully applaud their efforts, like Pura Vida Coffee or other fair trade businesses. In many ways, consumption is inescapable, so the challenge is to figure out how to consume more Christianly and justly, to support businesses and industries that treat their workers well. The IVP book Great Commission Companies talks about entrepreneurial businesses that are intentionally strategic for the sake of the kingdom. So those of us who are consumers can do what we can to exercise better stewardship and consume more Christianly, and those in production and industry can do what they can to produce and manufacture more Christianly.

Anonymous said...

it is an interesting topic im actually doing a project on this very issue... there are a lot of great books out there on the subject...
one i recommend is, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America by Giles Slade

Rebecca said...

I agree that we purchase when we really don't need to. But I do not agree with the video. I think she tries to put Americans in a light that is not true.

shanalulu said...

This is a couple of years after the initial discussion, but I found my way here via a Google for "planned and perceived obsolescence," and figure others might as well.

Bill: this is talked about often in the "green" circle. Specifically, socially and environmentally conscious shopping often costs more than just buying whatever's cheapest, no matter where or how it's made, but the extra cost there is then made up by buying less stuff. Less stuff and better stuff, redirecting our dollar-votes (the only ones that really count in a capitalist society and global economy) from unethical/irresponsible producers to ones doing things the right way. I see so many Christians, though saying "I'm going to buy whatever's cheapest and give the rest to the church, charities," whatever -- but how many Americans, anyway, actually do this? About the same number as take those "savings" and actually end up "saving" them.

TheTensionIsHere: I have only a cell phone, and it's prepaid, because I try to use email when possible. I've never been a big phone-talker, preferring to write, so email has the phone's delightful immediacy over letter-writing, but without actually having to get my ear all sweaty and neck all crick-y.

Milton Stanley: I think this has trickled down to the public in a dreadful way. Every time I see an article on a personal finance site about driving an older car, there's an avalanche of "but older cars aren't saaaafe! I need the newest and the best for my familyyyy!!! I'll cut back in a lot of ways, but not on my carrrrr!!!!!" I wonder how many actually do, though, and why we were ever allowed by NHTSA/et al to drive these older cars if they're such death traps? A 1992 Corolla's not going to kill you, but that $600-a-month car payment might. There's a lot of this in the area of cutting down on paper towels and harmful household cleaners, too -- "I'll give up X, but not my Convenience!" So much of the time, it ends up being an undercurrent of "I/people can/should give up X-thing-that's-not-a-priority-for-me, but I can't/won't give up Y-thing-that-is." We won't cut our CO2 emissions if India and China don't, even though we're a much higher-consuming society, we don't want windmills in our backyards but it's okay elsewhere, etc. We're all in this TOGETHER, which Americans have a TERRIBLE time realizing. Our culture of freedom and individuality has a downside that we almost always fail to consider, and it's not a downside only for us, but for the rest of the world -- and we keep using our freedoms to make decisions for said world.

Anyway. More people will eventually learn that there are worse things than being unfashionable and having a slower computer processor than the fastest one currently being made, but I really doubt that enough people will learn it quickly enough to make a difference. And yet, I continue to do the right thing, because "once you've looked behind the curtain, you can't pretend you don't know what's there."