The Folly Of Planned Obsolescence

By | September 16, 2016

Originally published as a column in NewsKamloops on September 16, 2016.

20160901_201806Every week on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays there is a pile of newspapers which my eldest son delivers to people in the neighborhood.  Size-wise, Tuesdays are ok, Fridays are occasionally daunting and Thursdays are downright scary. The number of flyers is scary. They cover everything you could think of: food, clothing, cars and trucks, lottery, toys, appliances, furniture and much more.

20160907_135715My son aptly remarked that many people only want their Thursday paper because of the flyers. There’s an inch or so that he lugs around with each paper on his routes. It adds up. But every week that many? How much new stuff can there be on sale every week?

A while back someone shared a few stories of entire sets of furniture and all related being taken to the dump due to remodeling or after inheriting an old house with out-of-style-everything inside. I wrote on more than one occasion about thrift stores bursting at the seams with so much stuff, not to mention the merchandise that gets sent to the landfill because it is not saleable anymore.

Still, sales advertised in weekly flyers promise more and more at low prices. A basic scientific principle dictates that matter gets transformed into something else but never disappears. That we have seen it with objects around us is an understatement.

Garbage in landfills and oceans increases by the day and we put it there. The promise of new and better beats fixing the old and reusing or repurposing all that you can. Holidays have been enhanced out of proportion to make room for more saleable stuff most of us won’t even consider buying. That is not the issue though. Whether anyone buys it or not, it is on the shelves and when the season ends, it becomes garbage.

Yes, Halloween is coming with plastic carved pumpkins at a mere $23 when the fun of carving a compostable local one comes with a lower price and loads of fun. Styrofoam cadaveric heads? Let’s not even go there. From an environmental perspective, Styrofoam is evil whichever way it comes to co-exist and unfortunately outlive all of us. Because it will.

You see, I grew up in a most idyllic way that I came to appreciate even more so recently since attempting to provide my sons with a similar one. Across the street from our house lived an old Hungarian guy who fixed shoes. I don’t know if he had ever been a cobbler, all I know is that from the time I can remember he fixed shoes, lots of them and my parents always said he did an amazing job. The rows and rows of shoes in his workshop stood proof.

The room where he had his workshop was facing the street and I could see him at work all the time from our yard. Whenever I had to drop off or pick up shoes that he fixed I would take some time to sit on a little wooden stool and watch him work. His hands were moving swiftly and expertly and I remember that before starting to work on a shoe he’d always weigh the shoe in and feel it from one end to the other. Then he’d know where to start.

My Dad was keen on taking care of the family shoes. He would regularly polish them and encourage us to keep them clean. It makes for a pleasant appearance, he would say. I liked sitting and watching him apply thin layers of various shoe polish and then use one of his brushes to get a good shine going. Between my Dad’s careful maintenance and the cobbler’s expertise at fixing the soles, shoes lasted quite a while and looked good too.

There were no flyers coming our way so my parents bought things as they needed them and made good use of all that we had. Someone suggested that people who lived through the post-war era like my grandparents likely learned the value of everything and made sure to reuse and repurpose. It may be true, but just as well, many people continued past the war time memories. It made sense to not waste and not reach out for the next one-use that would become obsolete too soon.

I have read about some cell phones being sold with ‘planned obsolescence’. Ironically, that matches our rather ephemeral human existence and even more ironically (yes with a hint of conspiracy theory if you will) big companies are planning both.

The concept of lifetime warranty (sounding more cheerful than ‘cradle to grave’) is what’s becoming obsolete. It shouldn’t. Approximately 20 percent of the national methane emissions rise from our landfills. Landfills already occupy a lot of space and the materials that fill them are here to stay. Exponential growth laws be gone, it makes no sense that we still reach for the next flyer, ready to buy more and add to the mounds of garbage.

That we made it to this day with a planet that can still sustain our lifestyle (yes, I am referring to the western ways) is thanks to those before us, most of whom took what they needed, when they needed it, because their connection to the communities they lived in and the land they lived off of was strong enough for them to know what road to follow.

What’s the answer then? Perhaps a return to a simpler lifestyle, smaller spaces to fill and better connections with our own selves and our values, and more time spent with our loved ones; fewer things to buy and more time spent out of doors and getting to know the very earth we walk on. Our journey here is a short one if you look at the big picture, so making it worthwhile not based on weekly sales but on what’s actually essential to have – time and connections with people and nature – is a challenge worth pursuing.

Simplicity is where it’s at. And truth is, it doesn’t come with sacrifices but with being liberated.

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