Monday, April 10, 2017

The Birth of Planned Obsolescence

From JSTOR Daily:
There may be nothing as American as consumerism. Across the globe, for better or worse, our national identity is linked to Big Macs and SUVs. Nigel Whiteley tells the story of how we became a nation that buys stuff and then throws it away at an astonishing pace.

Even before the Second World War, Whiteley writes, some businesses began to embrace what one influential 1932 book termed “creative waste”—the idea that throwing things away and buying new ones could fuel a strong economy. Its authors, Roy Sheldon and Egmont Arens, identified the desire for ever-more-modern consumer goods as something unique to America, with its “enormous natural resources.”

“We still have tree-covered slopes to deforest and subterranean lakes of oil to tap with our gushers,” they wrote.

In the 1930s, Whiteley writes, many families were still saving for their first refrigerator or car. But, with the economic boom of the war years, Sheldon and Arens’ arguments quickly became more relevant. Average family incomes doubled in real terms between 1939 and 1945. Soon, middle-class families had all the televisions, cars, and home appliances they wanted. In the 1930s, consumerist pioneer Sears Roebuck began introducing a new refrigerator model each year. Though they were all essentially the same machine, “visual trappings of progress desired by consumers” kept sales up.

The problem for businesses now became continually “stimulating the urge to buy,” as J. Gordon Lippincott argued in the book Design for Business. “Any method that can motivate the flow of merchandise to new buyers will create jobs and work for industry, and hence national prosperity,” Lippincott wrote. “Our custom of trading in our automobiles every year, of having a new refrigerator, vacuum cleaner or electric iron every three or four years is economically sound.”...MORE