May 27, 2009

Our Disposable Society

The history of America's disposable consumerist society has been on my mind a lot lately.

On one hand, everything we make, consume, toss out and replace just about everything at the local Wal Mart or Target. Our habit to repeat this cycle of consuming 'stuff' is the antithesis of the idea to reduce, recycle, and reuse. The consumer based and capitalist based society that has existed pre-WWI is completely opposite of the eco-friendly idea that we can live within our needs. Choosing to not 'keep up with the Jones ' is downright Un-American. And even if you are trying to match Chip Jones's new Hybrid SUV and the giant new plastic self turning composter from Costco - although he's still buying stuff - it's still more stuff!

Believe it or not, there was a time that things were built to last. You would buy one car - and when it broke, you could fix it. The disposable world that we take for granted just didn't exist. No, not even razor blades. It was a straight edge and you would sharpen it. Hey, maybe that's why facial hair was so prevalent back in the day?

When did the idea of buying something once - then keeping it forever - change?

Let's look again to razor blades....

The razor industry, specifically King Camp Gillette, is known for a pioneering the marketing strategy in which the seller takes a loss on the device, in this case the razor handle, and makes money on refills, the blades. That model is used by inkjet printers and cartridges, video-game consoles and games and mobile phones and wireless service, I'm sure you can think of a couple others... Great idea, and as a bonus the safety razor (the product) also limited the exposure of a head-severing straight edge next to your grandpa's jugular down to a few millimeters.

Another example of a 'revolution' in the throw-away consumer society happened over a century ago. Lawrence Luellen had already become interested in the concept of a manufactured paper drinking cup that could be delivered by a vending machine and connected to a water cooler. At the time, public places often featured common water vessels with a single tin dipper shared by all. That means one shared cup next to the water. Was it just a coincidence that the two leading causes of death in the United States at that time were pneumonia and Tuberculosis?

By 1908, Luellen had patented a porcelain machine that dispensed a paper cup and a drink of water for a penny. The company soon expanded its market to drug stores and soda fountains. The post-World War I flu epidemic cemented the value of disposable drinking cups in the public consciousness.

(I cannot find the proper citation but..) Once the paper cup thing really took off they had to create an informational marketing campaign explaining to the end user that it was okay to toss the cup in the garbage - since the culture demanded that they keep that paper cup that came out of the vending machine - forever. It was, after all, a perfectly good cup.

And now, paper cup expenditure growth is roughly proportional to the spending habits of the middle class worldwide with the regional differences in the growth rate. Think about it, when Starbucks is opening a store on every street corner - paper cup sales are through the roof. Lately, not as much.

Okay, we started filling our rubbish tins around 1918 with paper cups and safety razors. But when did this form of economy really take off for just about everything else?

In the waning days of WWII, President Truman's council of economic gurus was challenged to find a way to convert a war economy to peace.

Shortly after the end of the war, retailing analyst Victor Lebow expressed the solution: “Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…. we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.” So if you want to blame or thank just one person, there's your guy.

President Eisenhower’s council of economic advisors chairman stated: “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” Not better health care, education, housing, transportation, or recreation or less poverty and hunger, but providing more stuff to consumers.

Hey! Isn't that Target's Mission Statement?

When goods are well-made and durable, eventually markets are saturated. An endless market is created by introducing rapid obsolescence (clothes, cars, computers, gadgets, paper cups, condoms...). And with disposability, where an article is used once and thrown away, the market will never be saturated. Ta-dah!

Consumer goods aren’t created by the economy out of thin air though. They come from resources, and when they are used up, they will be returned to the Earth as garbage. It takes energy to extract, process, manufacture, and transport products, while air, water, and soil can be wasted or polluted at many points in the life cycle of the product. In other words, what we consume has direct effects on nature and our surroundings - a.k.a. the environment.

And then there are social and "spiritual" costs. Allen Kanner and Mary Gomes write in The All-Consuming Self: “The purchase of a new product, especially a ‘big ticket’ item such as a car or computer, typically produces an immediate surge of pleasure and achievement and often confers status and recognition upon the owner. Yet as the novelty wears off, the emptiness threatens to return. The standard consumer solution is to focus on the next promising purchase.” Kind of like sex? My last beer?

Ultimately, it goes beyond pleasure or status; acquiring stuff becomes an unquenchable demand. Paul Wachtel writes in The Poverty of Affluence: “Having more and newer things each year has become not just something we want but something we need. The idea of more, ever-increasing wealth, has become the center of our identity and our security, and we are caught up by it as the addict is by his drugs.”

Much of what we purchase is not essential for our survival or even basic human comfort but is based on impulse, novelty, a momentary desire. And there is a hidden price that we, nature, and future generations will pay for it too.

When consumption becomes the very reason economies exist, we never ask “how much is enough?”, “why do we need all this stuff?”, and “are we any happier?” Our personal consumer choices have ecological, social, and psychological consequences.


So what we've got here is way - way beyond just buying stuff. It's become part of the American psychological imbalance. Even the best hippie granola muncher is pining to buy an iPod to play some obscure Grateful Dead show in 1982 and an ironic new Che Guevara/Cookie Monster shirt on Apparently to up the immediate 'happy' time, if even for a half an hour, we need more stuff. While it seems this would be a great time to re-examine some of our deeply held notions of consumerism and what got us into the Great Recession... perhaps we should also consider the other psychological factors that influence our unsustainable lifestyles. I don't think we can handle just going cold turkey on this one, but maybe it's time to have some group therapy on this one?

Just a thought. Feel free to weigh in on the issue.


Cthulhu said...


Dude. Thanks for further bumming me out with the photos of trash.

One potential bright side to this is the opportunity for entrenpenurial(sp?) type folks to provide new services reclaiming old stuff. If trash is valuable enough, someone will retrieve it.

There can be university level courses of dumpster diving!

SO said...

But your clothes aren't just so out of date - they're also too small from all that food u eat or too ruined by all the chemicals in from the washing machine.