Our cultural obsession with consumer products seems like an inevitable by product of capitalism, which means we’ve always been like this, right? Actually, this unquenchable need for stuff is relatively new. During World War II production was pushed to its limits to supply both the war effort and domestic life. The US government responded to this increased need by implementing food rationing in 1942. Families saved their sugar rations for months so they could bake a birthday cake in July.
After the war, manufacturing was threatening to outpace consumption. All of those newly repatriated young men were back on the production line, but the public had been trained to equate frugality with patriotism. This had to be reversed. Victor Lebow, a mid-century marketing consultant explained, “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 satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption…”
Victor Lebow, “Price Competition in 1955,” Journal of Retailing 31, no. 1 (Spring 1955), p. 7.
Manufacturers realized that more stuff wasn’t the only solution. New stuff becomes necessary when existing stuff lasts for less and less time and is rigged so that repair is more expensive than replacement. Planned or built-in obsolescence is the policy of designing products with an artificially limited life span to encourage rapid replacement.
Then there’s social stigma. General Motors opened its first styling studio in the late 1920s. Every year cars were redesigned to encourage consumers to buy the latest model. New =good, old=bad.
Unlike the old days however, when increased consumer spending meant more jobs and more jobs meant more spending and it was all a happy self-sustaining cycle, now manufacturing is farmed out to the country with the cheapest labor and increasingly to robots. The benefits of consumer spending are in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Sam Walton and his brother Bud opened their first Walmart discount store in 1962. Today their heirs have more wealth than 42% of the American population combined. Is this a worthwhile reason to continue to trash our planet?
I have been carefully trained by the manufacturers of consumer products to want more, newer, shinier, better; to continue doing this dance of buying, unpackaging, using, tiring of, discarding. Recognizing the problem is the first step to solving it, right?
If we started by simply distinguishing between products that genuinely make our lives easier and products whose appeal is strictly psychological – the newest shiny thing, I think we could make better choices. It ultimately comes down to consumers retraining manufacturers to only produce what we’ve decided we really want and need.