Obsolete and Unneccessary

I went to get a new battery in a watch yesterday, one of those nice Swiss railway watches. It turned out that although the battery was dead, so was the watch. After two years of use I am now the proud owner of an elegant but useless piece of plastic and aluminium. It cannot be repaired and so I will have to replace the entire mechanism or throw it away. I chose to replace the entire mechanism because it is slightly cheaper to do so than buy a whole new watch. I have some doubts about this strategy though because essentially I am rewarding a company for making a product with planned obsolescence. Their strategy is to make a product that people like and want, but that only lasts a certain length of time before failure, thus encouraging buyers to purchase a replacement product.

If I wanted to change this behaviour I would buy a competitor’s product instead, to demonstrate that this strategy does not work, but to do so would mean throwing the entire watch away and wasting the resources that went into it.

This type of activity is the result of buying habits that value low costs above long life. At what point in history (pretty recently) did we collectively decide that it was better to have a lot of cheap throwaway goods than a few long-term ones. It certainly happened within the last fifty years, and a lot of it has happened because companies looking for ways to grow realised that instead of selling a few lasting products they could sell millions of disposable ones instead.

We, the buying public have been seduced by marketing into accepting this state of affairs and we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that this is welcome. That our goods should be short-lived, that we should replace them often, and that they are cheap and affordable. Except that they aren’t.

Disposable razors are a good example, they cost much more per shave than old-fashioned ones, but men the world over have been seduced by ad after ad showing how much more handsome we will be if we shave ourselves with the latest five bladed monster with built-in lubrication. How gullible can we be? (Thanks Tiger for lending your support to the campaign, by the way) The result is that the traditional razor can only really be bought through the internet, and supermarket aisles are full of little bits of plastic that last for one shave or two. The ultimate in built-in obsolescence.

A similar trend can be seen in furniture, clothing, cars, electrical goods and household items. The idea that anything should last a lifetime is sooo last century.

What do we need to do to reverse this damaging trend? A trend that has led to rafts of low quality products manufactured in China replacing better and longer lasting products made closer to home? Swiss watches, english made furniture, Italian leather goods, German razors, French utensils. None of these are affordable now because in order to survive they have had to raise their prices and go after the highest price and lowest volume market. Now these items that used to be valued for their quality are now marketed as a brand and worn as a badge of wealth.

After another generation or two we will find ourselves paying high prices for low quality goods from China, because the Chinese will wake up and decide that they too want two cars and a house by the coast. The supply of cheap tat is not going to be endless.

Could we collectively decide that we only want to buy goods that are lasting and cheaper in the long-term? What would it take to make us change our minds about our purchasing habits? A huge hike in oil prices? Or the realisation that Victor Papanek was prescient when he wrote in 1983 that

“Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress people who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today”

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