Why we buy so much crap

Sharon Flitman
Jul 10, 2019 · 4 min read

When I first moved out of home, hard rubbish week was my favourite time of the whole year. During that magical September period, my previously aimless ambles around the neighbourhood were transformed into exhilarating treasure hunts.

Each curb-side heap held potential. Beneath an innocuous pile of broken chairs lay a pristine Japanese tea set, still sealed in its original box. Tossed into a rusty bathtub — a stash of popular children’s books that had seemingly never been read. Not with grubby hands, at least.

I fondly recall the day we wheeled/dragged our table tennis table along 1.5km of road to its new home in our garage. Heck, I once even spent an sweaty hour lugging an ‘as new’ 7-seater lounge suite up the street piece by piece (and smugly sold it on Gumtree for $300 just 24 hours later).

Yep — that’s it. I’m not even kidding. And before you ask… yep. The coffee table was from a nature strip too

Yes indeed. With the right amount of elbow grease, hard rubbish life was not just fun, but lucrative too.

But as time went on, the shine gradually began to wear off.

The thrill of the chase became overshadowed by a realisation. That — no matter how sizeable-a pile any given residence had turfed on any given year — the following year, another gargantuan hunk of junk would again erupt on the very same nature strip.

Buy, chuck, buy chuck. Rinse and repeat.

It didn’t sit well. It felt like everyone had spent the preceding 12 months frantically shopping, only to reach their house’s ‘crap capacity’, forcing old stuff out to make way for the new.

But why? Why the compulsive urge to incessantly accumulate?

I blame two dastardly phenomena: perceived and planned obsolescence.

Perceived obsolescence

“That is so last season”; the basic premise of perceived obsolescence. The system whereby we’re induced to feel that our current stuff is no longer current enough. And that it must necessarily be up-traded lest our status be downgraded.

How many of us have rushed out to get the latest ‘better’ model of phone… without really questioning what benefit it would bring to our lives? Bought new clothes because our current wardrobe is totally 2018? Traded in a perfectly good five-year-old car because the latest models are painted nail polish red and talk to us while we drive?

The problem with feeling satisfied with what you have is that it’s bad for business. Contented customers don’t buy crap. And if that happens, businesses can’t shift stock. The economy grinds to a halt. And no one likes a ground economy.

So we’re induced to feel dissatisfaction.

Our seemingly shiny new item suddenly stops looking so shiny and new when held up against the next model. And everyone else has it. Why shouldn’t we? After all, we tell ourselves, the new one will make us happier.

We gleefully hand over the cash, and dance home to play with our new prize.

The economy blows us kisses. Mother nature snorts in disgust and flips us the bird.

Planned obsolescence

Despite perceived obsolescence’s relatively high efficiency in maintaining the buy-chuck cycle, businesses don’t really trust us to be sufficiently wasteful all on our own. So they give us a little help in the form of planned obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is the reason why your vacuum cleaner dies precisely 2 months after the warranty period expires. Why 2017 charging cables don’t fit 2018 devices. Why, after 2–3 years, your phone starts running slower than a tortoise and a sloth in a three-legged egg and spoon race.

It’s not that the design people aren’t smart enough to make sh*t that lasts. But like contentment, sustainability is not an economy-bolstering concept.

If you build something so well that it lasts forever, no one will ever need to buy another one. And if no one needs to buy another one, your customers will stop being customers. Economies grind… blah blah blah. You get the idea.*

So stuff is designed specifically not to last. Meaning that even if you’re not the type to lust after the latest fashions… you’re forced to get them anyway. Because your old stuff is inevitably on the brink of extinction.

Clearly, this is not a sustainable model. No matter how big we dig our holes in the ground, at the end of the day, the Earth has a finite capacity for housing discarded debris.

But what can the average Joe do about it?

Planned obsolescence is a tough one. I don’t love my chances of convincing any major corporation’s CEOs to pursue a business model that will bring them less revenue.

But that doesn’t mean we have to give up on the items designed to give up on us.

Already there are organisations springing up to combat our crap crisis. This Repair Cafe in St Kilda — staffed by handy volunteers — will fix the broken stuff you bring them, free of charge. This website outlines where in Melbourne you can recycle the things you no longer love or can no longer use. Even the broken stuff.

And as for perceived obsolescence? Well that one is very much within our control. It’s merely a matter of mind over… well, matter.

So don’t let the meddling business bastards dictate what you do and don’t ‘need’. Be brave enough to admire without desiring. To embrace being ‘un-trendy’.

And to feel that dirty, dirty word.

Contented with what you have.

*I don’t buy the whole “but think of the economy!” argument. After all — there was a time in the not so distant past when products were created to last. And somehow, people held down jobs, earned money, and the world kept turning.

Sharon Flitman

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Musings from a human with eyes and ears. Read more at https://flitmusings.wordpress.com

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