The Vicious Circle of Consumption

by Terence Jeyaretnam 

Jdimytai Damour was a big man — over 120 Kilos - but he was a gentle giant to his friends, who said he loved to chat about movies, Japanese anime and politics. So on Saturday, they were still reeling from the violent and seemingly inexplicable way that Mr. Damour had died — trampled before sunrise on Friday, the police said, by rampaging shoppers running into a Wal-Mart store on Long Island where he was working as a maintenance man for the holidays.

Mr. Damour is often quoted as a victim of modern heights of consumption gone crazy.  Just before the store’s scheduled 5 a.m. opening, they said, the doors shattered under the weight of the crowd. Mr. Damour was thrown to the floor and trampled….“It was crazy,” said a worker in the electronics department who was in the store during the stampede. “The deals weren’t even that good.”

Zara, a Spanish fashion retailer, is known to be the leader in “fast fashion” being at the forefront of this fashion retail revolution with their brand almost becoming synonymous with the term.  Zara has recently established shops in Sydney and Melbourne, and while no one’s been killed in a stampede, the queues have made front page news.

So, what’s driven this consumption mindset where everything we buy these days seem to have a due date, and the due dates seem to be getting shorter and shorter in cycle. For example, the time in which garments are made have changed from six months in 1970 to less than six weeks now, so that fast fashion, that is designs move from catwalk to store in the fastest time to capture current trends in the market, can be delivered to the consumer quicker.

The answer is planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence in industrial design is a policy of deliberately planning or designing a product with a limited useful life, so it will become obsolete or non-functional after a certain period of time.  The rationale behind the strategy is to generate long-term volume by reducing the time between repeat purchasing.  Estimates of planned obsolescence can influence a company's decisions about product engineering. Therefore the company can use the least expensive components that satisfy product lifetime projections. Such decisions are part of a broader discipline known as value engineering.

Unfortunately, this approach is fast leading the planet to a state of unplanned obsolescence.

Sources: New York Times, November 29th 2008, Wikipedia and What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborate Consumption by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers

Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (terence@netbalance.com), 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Terence is based in Melbourne.