More on Consumerism

Earlier, in response to an article on elitism and bottled water, I wrote about my perspective on mass consumerism. Shortly after, I ran into this exhibit by Chris Jordan of Seattle. He basically tries to put the statistics of American consumption into photos which demonstrate the scale of our consumption. For example, the photo at left is of plastic bottles: every 5 minutes, we in the US consume 5 million such bottles. Even more amazing to me is that every day we discard nearly half a million cell phones. That means that roughly every two years, every person in the US gets a new cell phone. Amazing!

I personally think that some of this is intentionally encouraged by companies. The more disposable their products are, the more we will buy. I don’t think there is any reason to go through so many cell phones. But, there are two factors that encourage us to do so: first, they break (their lifetime is limited) and second, new features are introduced that make us want to upgrade.

You would think that the first is natural. After all, things break. But, my wife’s cell phone, a flip phone, was cracking near the hinge area. We took it in asking if we could get it replaced. Of course, we couldn’t because our contract wasn’t up yet and we hadn’t purchased insurance. But we told the guy behind the counter that she wasn’t doing anything extraordinary, that it was just wearing down from regular use. He said that it was “planned obsolesence”. This means that the company is intentionally designing the cell phone with a shorter lifetime than is really necessary. They could design a better and longer lasting product. They intentionally design a poorer product so that it will break after too long, so that we will have to buy a new one.

The second is a bit more subtle. I think often new features are added only to get us to buy a new model. It isn’t that we need the new features. But I think it plays into our psychology. Especially if someone else buys the fancy new model, then we want it. There was a study I read about recently that posed the following question to a bunch of people: if the price of everything were the same in these two scenarios, which would you prefer: to make $50K while everyone else makes $25K, or to make $100K while everyone else makes $200K. The second one is better in an absolute sense, while the first is better in a relative sense. Most people pick the first scenario. Their view of wealth isn’t based on how much they have, but how much they have relative to everyone else. I think the fancy new features in new products connects to the same human psychology.

I think our disposable colture is a large part of why we have so much waste. If things were designed and built to be more durable, companies might make less money, but the impact of our consumerism on our environment would be significantly less. I guess that would require a significant change in how our economy works, but I think it is a change worth thinking about.

In any case, check out Chris’ website and get a little bit better perspective on how much we consume.

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