Our Obsolescent Economy
A friend of mine from India tells a story about driving an old Volkswagen beetle from California to Virginia during his first year in the United States. In a freak ice storm in Texas he skidded off the road, leaving his car with a cracked windshield and badly dented doors and fenders. When he reached Virginia he took the car to a body shop for a repair estimate. The proprietor took one look at it and said, “it’s totaled.” My Indian friend was bewildered: “How can it be totaled? I just drove it from Texas!”
My friend’s confusion was understandable. While “totaled” sounds like a mechanical term, it’s actually an economic one: if the cost of repairs is more than the car will be worth afterwards, the only economically ‘rational’ choice is to drive it to the junkyard and buy another one.
In the ‘throwaway societies’ of the industrialized world, this is an increasingly common scenario: the cost of repairing faulty stereos, appliances, power tools, and high-tech devices often exceeds the price of buying new. Among the long-term results are growing piles of e-waste, overflowing landfills, and the squandering of resources and energy. It’s one reason that the average American generates over 70% more solid waste today than in 1960. And e-waste – the most toxic component of household detritus – is growing almost 7 times faster than other forms of waste. Despite recycling efforts, an estimated 140 million cell phones – containing $60 million worth of precious metals and a host of toxic materials – are dumped in US landfills annually.
Along with these environmental costs, there are also economic impacts. Not so long ago, most American towns had shoe repair businesses, jewelers who fixed watches and clocks, tailors who mended and altered clothes, and ‘fixit’ businesses that refurbished toasters, TVs, radios, and dozens of other household appliances. Today, most of these businesses are gone. “It’s a dying trade,” said the owner of a New Hampshire appliance repair shop. “Lower-end appliances which you can buy for $200 to $300 are basically throwaway appliances.” The story is similar for other repair trades: in the 1940s, for example, the US was home to about 60,000 shoe repair businesses, a number that has dwindled to less than one-tenth as many today.
One reason for this trend is globalization. Corporations have relocated their manufacturing operations to low-wage countries, making goods artificially cheap when sold in higher-wage countries. When those goods need to be repaired, they can’t be sent back to China or Bangladesh – they have to be fixed where wages are higher, and repairs are therefore more expensive. My friend was confused about the status of his car because the opposite situation holds in India: labor is cheap and imported goods expensive, and no one would dream of junking a car that could be fixed.
It’s tempting to write off the decline of repair in the West as collateral damage – just another unintended cost of globalization – but the evidence suggests that it’s actually an intended consequence. To see why, it’s helpful to look at the particular needs of capital in the global growth economy – needs that led to the creation of the consumer culture just over a century ago.
When the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line in 1910, industrialists understood that the technique could be applied not just to cars, but to almost any manufactured good, making mass production possible on a previously unimaginable scale. The profit potential was almost limitless, but there was a catch: there was no point producing millions of items – no matter how cheaply – if there weren’t enough buyers for them. And in the early part of the 20th century, the majority of the population – working class, rural, and diverse – had little disposable income, a wide range of tastes, and values that stressed frugality and self-reliance. The market for manufactured goods was largely limited to the middle and upper classes, groups too small to absorb the output of full throttle mass production.
Advertising was the first means by which industry sought to scale up consumption to match the tremendous leaps in production. Although simple advertisements had been around for generations, they were hardly more sophisticated than classified ads today. Borrowing from the insights of Freud, the new advertising focused less on the product itself than on the vanity and insecurities of potential customers. As historian Stuart Ewen points out, advertising helped to replace long-standing American values stressing thrift with new norms based on conspicuous consumption. Advertising, now national in scope, also helped to erase regional and ethnic differences among America’s diverse local populations, thereby imposing mass tastes suited to mass production. Through increasingly sophisticated and effective marketing techniques, Ewen says, “excessiveness replaced thrift as a social value”, and entire populations were invested with “a psychic desire to consume.” 
In other words, the modern consumer culture was born – not as a response to innate human greed or customer demand, but to the needs of industrial capital.
During the Great Depression, consumption failed to keep pace with production. In a vicious circle, overproduction led to idled factories, workers lost their jobs, and demand for factory output fell further. In this crisis of capitalism, not even clever advertising could stimulate consumption sufficiently to break the cycle.
In 1932, a novel solution was advanced by a real estate broker name Bernard London. His pamphlet, “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence” applauded the consumerist attitudes that advertising created during the 1920s, a time when “the American people did not wait until the last possible bit of use had been extracted from every commodity. They replaced old articles with new for reasons of fashion and up-to-dateness. They gave up old homes and old automobiles long before they were worn out.”  In order to circumvent the values of thrift and frugality that had resurfaced during the Depression, London argued that the government should “chart the obsolescence of capital and consumption goods at the time of their production… After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally ‘dead’ and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed.” The need to replace these ‘dead’ products would ensure that demand would forever remain high, and that the public – no matter how thrifty or satisfied with their material lot – would continue to consume.
London’s ideas did not catch on immediately, and the Depression eventually ended when the idle factories were converted to munitions and armaments production for World War II. But the concept of planned obsolescence did not go away. After the War its biggest champion was industrial designer Brooks Stevens, who saw it not as a government program but as an integral feature of design and marketing. “Unlike the European approach of the past where they tried to make the very best product and make it last forever,” he said, “the approach in America is one of making the American consumer unhappy with the product he has enjoyed the use of…, and [making him want to] obtain the newest product with the newest possible look.”
Brooks’ strategy was embraced throughout the corporate world, and is still in force today. Coupled with advertising aimed at making consumers feel inadequate and insecure if they don’t have the latest products or currently fashionable clothes, the riddle of matching consumption to ever-increasing production was solved.
The constant replacement of otherwise serviceable goods for no other reason than “up-to-dateness” is most clear at the apex of the garment industry, tellingly known as the “fashion” industry. Thanks to a constant barrage of media and advertising messages, even young children fear being ostracized if they wear clothes that aren’t “cool” enough. Women in particular have been made to feel that they will be undervalued if their clothes aren’t sufficiently trendy. It’s not just advertising that transmits these messages. One of the storylines in an episode of the 90s sit-com “Seinfeld”, for example, involves a woman who commits the faux pas of wearing the same dress on several occasions, making her the object of much canned laughter.
Obsolescence has been a particularly powerful force in the high-tech world, where the limited lifespan of digital devices is more often the result of “innovation” than malfunction. With computing power doubling every 18 months for several decades (a phenomenon so reliable it is known as Moore’s Law) digital products quickly become obsolete: as one tech writer put it, “in two years your new smartphone could be little more than a paperweight”. With marketers bombarding the public with ads claiming that this generation of smartphone is the ultimate in speed and functionality, the typical cell phone user purchases a new phone every 21 months. Needless to say, this is great for the bottom line of high-tech businesses, but terrible for the environment.
Innovation may be the primary means by which high-tech goods are made obsolete, but manufacturers are not above using other methods. Apple, for example, intentionally makes its products difficult to repair except by Apple itself, in part by refusing to provide repair information about its products. Since the cost of in-house repair often approaches the cost of a new product, Apple is assured of a healthy stream of revenue no matter what the customer decides to do.
Apple has gone even further. In a class-action lawsuit against the company, it was revealed that the company’s iPhone 6 devices were programmed to cease functioning – known as being “bricked” – when users have them repaired at unauthorized (and less expensive) repair shops. “They never disclosed that your phone could be bricked after basic repairs,” said a lawyer for the complainants. “Apple was going to … force all its consumers to buy new products simply because they went to a repair shop.”
In response to this corporate skulduggery, a number of states have tried to pass “fair repair” laws that would help independent repair shops get the parts and diagnostic tools they need, as well as schematics of how the devices are put together. One such law has already been passed in Massachusetts to facilitate independent car repair, and farmers in Nebraska are working to pass a similar law for farm equipment. But except for the Massachusetts law, heavy lobbying from manufacturers – from Apple and IBM to farm equipment giant John Deere – has so far stymied the passage of right-to-repair laws.
From the grassroots, another response has been the rise of non-profit “repair cafés”. The first was organized in Amsterdam in 2009, and today there are more than 1,300 worldwide, each with tools and materials to help people repair clothes, furniture, electrical appliances, bicycles, crockery, toys, and more – along with skilled volunteers who can provide help if needed. These local initiatives not only strengthen the values of thrift and self-reliance intentionally eroded by consumerism, they help connect people to their community, scale back the use of scarce resources and energy, and reduce the amount of toxic materials dumped in landfills.
At a more systemic level, there’s an urgent need to rein in corporate power by re-regulating trade and finance. Deregulatory ‘free trade’ treaties have given corporations the ability to locate their operations anywhere in the world, contributing to the skewed pricing that makes it cheaper to buy new products than to repair older ones. These treaties also make it easier for corporations to penetrate not just the economies of the global South, but the psyches of their populations – helping to turn billions of more self-reliant people into insecure consumers greedy for the standardized, mass-produced goods of corporate industry. The spread of the consumer culture may help global capital meet its need for endless growth, but it will surely destroy the biosphere: our planet cannot possibly sustain 7 billion people consuming at the insane rate we do in the ‘developed’ world – and yet that goal is implicit in the logic of the global economy.
We also need to oppose – with words and deeds – the forces of consumerism in our own communities. The global consumer culture is not only the engine of climate change, species die-off, ocean dead zones, and many other assaults on the biosphere, it ultimately fails to meet real human needs. The price of the consumer culture is not measured in the cheap commodities that fill our homes and then, all too soon, the nearest landfill. Its real cost is measured in eating disorders, an epidemic of depression, heightened social conflict, and rising rates of addiction – not just to opioids, but to ‘shopping’, video games, and the internet.
It’s time to envision – and take steps to create – an economy that doesn’t destroy people and the planet just to satisfy the growth imperatives of global capital.