My friend Brad just shared with me the link to an amazing 20-minute video by activist Annie Leonard on our country’s obsession with consumerism, offering the entire story of a materials economy rather than just the oh-so-happy image we often get from corporations. Leonard looks at every step in the process of a product, from extraction to production, distribution, consumption and disposal. She squeezes a ton of facts into a short space of time while presenting her information into a visually appealing and often humorous package.
The part of her video I found the most provocative was her discussion of planned and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is the conscious effort on the part of manufacturers to design products which have as short a life span as possible without removing public trust in the product and/or company. As a personal example, my first iPod died on me after about 20 months of ownership. I have some friends whose iPods died even quicker. However, all of us remained fans of the product and bought new ones when our older ones died. We had surpassed the point in time when we would have lost trust. Unfortunately, I’m not an economist and so most of the complex equations that could explain how companies reach this specific time frame are beyond me, but I’m sure there is a detailed explanation somewhere. It probably is something like the explanation of how car companies determine if a car should be recalled in Fight Club, which goes a little something like this:
Take the number of vehicles in the field, A.
Multiply it by the probable rate of failure, B.
Multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement, C.
A x B x C equals X.
If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one.
Moving on, we come to the even more despicable (in my opinion at least) perceived obsolescence. Here, we are being told by the media that even if our products have not run their corporation-shortened life spans, we should still dispose of them because they are not “in” anymore. I see this most obviously in the fashion industry, where women are constantly bombarded with the latest looks and trends. And god forbid if women do not adapt to the newest trend, whether it is skinny jeans, choppy bangs, clunky heels or metallic belts. If she falls even one season behind, said woman is doomed to a life of loneliness, for surely no man would marry a fashionably unfit woman. And if that’s the case, I might as well start buying cats, because they’re going to be my only friends for the next 50 years.
I tend to get exceptionally riled up about American consumerism around this time of year, especially with the number of companies trying to sell luxury products to the average American (who can almost never afford these purchases). And unfortunately, many Americans do succumb to these companies because either the advertising makes the (most likely unessential) product seem as necessary as food, water, shelter and air; OR, these poor consumers (typically men) are harassed to the point of insanity by their significant others (typically women) about how the best way to convey love is through diamonds (or Lexuses). The first thought that comes to mind when I think of both these situations is those stupid Jared’s commercials, which contain a number of annoying women bitching to their men, “He went to Jared’s.” Now, I blogged about this last year and received some feedback about how bitter I was. Well, I was bitter then and I’m even more bitter now. American consumerism drives me batty.
To bring this post full circle, the point of Leonard’s video is to educate and inspire you to do something about America’s problems with consumption. Yes, I know you hear it all the time, but get used to it folks, because I am predicting right now that Going Green will be the hottest issue of 2008. She offers to her top ten list of things you can do here. Most important in my opinion is one of her simplest suggestions: educate yourself and educate others.
You can start by watching the video.