Because more equal societies work better for everyone

We Must End Throwaway Consumer Culture (Guest Blog)

Thursday, 10 January, 2019

In this guest blog, Bruce Danckwerts, our contact in Zambia, argues that while we must proceed with steps to eliminate our emission of green house gases (GHGs) with all possible urgency, it is also time to raise our awareness to the wanton waste of resources that our modern consumerist culture is causing. 

Were a Socrates (an Aristotle or a Plato) to look at the predicament facing modern societies, I believe they would conclude that tackling climate change is necessary but not sufficient for our sustainable survival. I believe they would argue that putting excessive GHGs into our atmosphere is a symptom but not the ultimate cause of our destruction; they would find that the ultimate cause is the profligate waste of our throwaway consumerism. 

Not only is it considered acceptable to throwaway a perfectly good phone, just because a newer version is now available, it is also considered acceptable that so many of our manufactured products cannot be repaired, because the manufacturer is under no obligation to make spare parts available.  Whereas it might be true that to repair a $50 printer in the US (Europe or Japan) with a $5 spare part would cost $40 in labour; that is not true of the rest of the world. In most of the rest of the world, the printer would probably cost more like $80, the spare would probably cost $10 by the time it had been shipped, but the labour would only cost $10. Not only would this make the repair economical, it would provide some much needed employment, ample opportunity for skills acquisition and would be a huge saving of resources as it is cheaper to ship the $5 part than it is to ship a replacement printer. 

Perhaps the nadir of this practice is that at least one manufacturer ships new printers with an “Introductory” cartridge that contains just 10% of the ink of a normal cartridge. It is not impossible to refill these ink cartridges, but they are designed to make it difficult and the success rate is extremely low. It costs just as much to make and to ship this “introductory” cartridge as it does to ship a full one, so it is a practice that, in the context of our modern world, should be outlawed. 

Selling any manufactured product, from humble staplers to jet aircraft without full support of spares and online instructions of how to trouble-shoot the problem, how to order the spares and how to fit them should also be outlawed. I really do try to buy the best quality appliances, and one manufacturer of kitchen appliances (and most manufacturers of power tools) do offer some spares, but, in several cases they have not offered all the spares that I needed, so the result is the same – a $50 appliance scrapped for want of a $2 part. This profligate waste has become so ingrained in our modern economy that it actually takes considerable mental effort to step back and to look at it objectively. Again, I think that if a Socrates or Plato were to look at how we live, they would be horrified. 

I have very little hope that manufacturers would adopt a policy of suddenly making all their goods 100% repairable. I have equally little faith that our governments will ever pass legislation making this enforceable any time soon. So I believe that it might require massive consumer pressure. I believe we should start trying to mobilise a massive public movement to make sure that Black Friday 2019, the Christmas Season of 2019/20 and Easter 2020 are disastrous for the sale of manufactured goods provided by wasteful companies. I believe consumer organisations (like the UK’s Which? magazine) should start to maintain blacklists of those manufacturers who do not offer full parts back up for all their products. Manufacturers who do not supply spares should be under pressure to accept their products back when they are no longer wanted in the market. 

Not only would such a movement go a long way to reducing our waste of resources (and our emission of GHGs that this waste engenders) but I believe it would also go a long way to solving one of society’s other dilemmas – the lack of employment opportunities and the resulting Inequality. Modern manufacturing is so automated that it actually creates very few jobs. However, the ability to repair a manufactured good, when a full inventory of spares is available, creates huge opportunities for employment – often in those parts of society where employment is most desperately needed. With online instructions as to how to replace these parts, a wonderful opportunity for skills enhancement is also created.

Bruce Danckwerts, Zambia

This is a guest blog and the views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of The Equality Trust

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