Rex Weyler: Planned Obsolescence - Most of the stuff you buy is designed to break down

Interviewed by

Tim Lynch

Rex Weyler: Planned Obsolescence - Most of the stuff you buy is designed to break down

The poor today are always working long hours in menial jobs to pay off something that is continuously breaking down. In many ways they are being punished for being poor.

If you have a hot jug, fan heater, hairdryer, juicer, toaster, vacuum cleaner and other consumer white ware - with a bit of luck you may get two to three year’s life out of them - and then they are off to the landfill.

This interview of Rex Weyler, is one of the original Greenpeace activists - when it was more a volunteer organisation - and they were true Rainbow Warriors - tells of the continuous battle on bringing humankind to become accountable and responsible for the wanton abuse and use of the earth’s critical resources.

This below is Rex’s most recent article ‘It's a waste world’ that was printed in Greenpeace Magazine https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/23747/its-a-waste-world/

It's a waste world

A popular bumper sticker in the United States – typically seen on large vehicles, with giant wheels and vibrating chrome muffler pipes – reads: “My carbon footprint is bigger than yours.” This appears as a banner for the culture of extravagant indulgence. And wherever consumption is encouraged and admired, waste follows.

The world’s rich cultures are all wasteful, and not just because of excessive fossil fuel use. Even our modern electronic devices represent a massive waste stream. Last year, electronic waste reached an all-time record of 65 million tonnes.

Planned Obsolescence

International Coastal Cleanup at Bokor Island Jakarta. © Dhemas Reviyanto / Greenpeace

Used bulb lamps collected by Greenpeace volunteers during the clean up at Bokor Island conservation area on Thousand Islands. © Dhemas Reviyanto / Greenpeace

Even modern LED light bulbs, for example, do not last as long as incandescent bulbs made a century ago. One carbon filament light bulb, at a fire station in Livermore, California, is still burning continuously after 120 years. Building things that last, and consuming modestly, used to be common human values. But that all changed with the advent of contemporary business models and modern marketing.

In 1924, three companies – Dutch Philips, German Osram, and US General Electric – formed a cartel, Phoebus, to shorten the life of light bulbs. Making light bulbs that could last 100 years limited their sales growth. They agreed on a thousand-hour standard, about three or four months of normal use, the historic beginning of planned obsolescence.

During World War I, the U.S. Treasury Department launched a frugality campaign to save resources for the war effort. Merchants, however, opposed the initiative. According to Giles Slade in Made to Break, US stores displayed signs such as, “Beware of Thrift,” and “Business as Usual.” New York retailers formed the “National Prosperity Committee,” with slogans like, “Full Speed Ahead!” and “Clear the Track for Prosperity!”

During the global economic depression in 1932, New York manufacturers circulated a pamphlet: “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence,” the first known printed use of this phrase. An article in Printer’s Ink journal warned that the idea of durability was “outmoded,” claiming that, “If merchandise does not wear out faster, factories will be idle, people unemployed.” Paul Mazur, a partner at Lehman Brothers, declared that obsolescence, designing products to fail or wear out, was the “new god” of business philosophy.

In 1950s America, advertising firms learned that they could sell products not based on function, quality, or durability, but on novelty. Products were sold as “new,” “modern,” and “innovative,” whether or not the “innovations” offered any genuine value. The throwaway fashion industry was born on the notion that clothing “styles” allegedly changed every year, and that to appear “modern,” one must repeatedly buy new clothing. Ad agencies convinced popular journals to publish fashion sections to inform, or manipulate, the public regarding the latest styles.

Thus, the idea of well-made, durable products died away in rich nations, replaced by products that break, wear out, become obsolete, or go out of fashion. This trend has now seized the modern electronics industry.

E-waste and the cost of high tech

Toxics e-Waste Documentation in China. © Greenpeace / Natalie Behring

A small child sitting among cables and e-waste in Guiyu, China © Greenpeace / Natalie Behring

Since the 1980s, computers and electronic devices have made lives in rich countries more convenient and entertaining. Some observers expected that modern electronics would also make society more “efficient,” that computers would save paper and other resources. Those hopes, however, encountered what is known in economics as the “rebound effect“: Efficiency often leads to more resource use, not less. Human enterprise now uses six times more paper than we used at the dawn of the computer age, six times more lithium, five times more cobalt, more iron, copper, and more rare earth metals.

Mining for these minerals tends to be ecologically destructive and exploitive of human labourers. Due to increasing demand and low rates of electronics recycling, mining companies are now proposing strip mines on the ocean floor, a practice that ocean biologists say would permanently damage unique and biodiverse ocean ecosystems.

As computer chips got smaller, more powerful, and more energy efficient, the material and energy intensity of those chips increased exponentially. Since our computers require so little energy to operate, we may believe they are “efficient,” but we are measuring the wrong metric. To understand the high cost of high tech, we must consider the embodied energy built into our devices, our telecom infrastructure, server networks, and data centres. We also have to consider the sheer growth of consumption and the acceleration of waste.

According to Statisa, about 4 million cell phones are sold every day, over 1.5 billion per year. About 250 million computers are sold each year. The average lifetime of these devices is now about two and a half years. Manufacturers design in obsolescence, changing critical parts and marketing more fashionable, “improved” devices. We may marvel at social media and connectivity, but this level of consumption leaves behind a massive, toxic, and destructive waste stream.

Computer Monitor Casings in Ghana. © Greenpeace / Kate Davison

Discarded computer monitor casings in a lagoon in Ghana. © Greenpeace / Kate Davison

Apple Corporation has become notorious for designing smartphones, tablets, and laptops that are difficult to repair or upgrade. These policies are not an accident or a necessity of technological advance. They are marketing decisions, designed specifically, like the three-month light bulb, to sell more products.

Between June 29, 2007 and November 3, 2017, Apple introduced 14 new iPhone models, one every 37 weeks. The company stopped supporting the first generation phones within three years, and continues to make previous phones obsolete and unsupported.

According to Jason Koebler at Motherboard, “Apple is trying to kill legislation that would make it easier for normal people to fix iPhones.” Apple designs products with proprietary parts that cannot be easily repaired and the company has actively lobbied against right-to-repair legislation in the US. According to a Repair.org study, both Apple and Sony have blocked environmental electronics standards that would support repair, upgrade, and recycling.

However, Apple Corporation is not alone. According to a 2017 Greenpeace report, other consumer electronics companies are lagging far behind. Although Apple has made progress in the use of renewable energy they are “moving in the wrong direction,” along with Microsoft and Samsung, by shortening the useful life of devices. Samsung, Amazon, Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi receive failing grades in every category, using toxic chemicals and dirty energy, making short-lived products that are difficult to recycle, and hiding the data about their practices. On the other hand, HP, Dell, and Fairphone are leaders in producing products that are repairable and upgradable.

Electronic waste has now reached over 65 million tonnes per year. Computers, screens, and small hand devices comprise about 22% of that waste, 14 million tonnes annually. According to a 2014 UN Report, Europe produced the highest per-capita electronic waste, over 15 kilograms per person every year. Asia generated the most e-waste, 16 million metric tonnes, followed by the Americas, 11.7 million tonnes per year. Since 2014 those volumes have increase by about 50%.

System Change

As with most of our ecological challenges, there are solutions, but the response requires more than marginal change. According to Deishin Lee, at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, “most waste is generated on purpose,” built into modern business models. Lee criticizes “output-oriented,” production systems that only consider the product. “Every output-oriented process,” she writes, “is designed to produce waste.” We can overcome this by shifting to input-oriented production, considering the value of all resources, how to conserve, and how to use resources effectively, with a minimum of waste.

Smartphone Repair Workshop at Greenpeace Mexico. © RIcardo Padilla Roman / Greenpeace

Smartphone repair © RIcardo Padilla Roman / Greenpeace

Economist Tim Cooper, at Nottingham Trent University believes that a transformation away from planned obsolescence will require a “radical, systemic change.” In his book, “Longer Lasting Products,” Cooper suggests the change could be accomplish with economic policies to encourage minimum standards of durability, repairability, and upgradeability.

Quality goods, robust repair-and-servicing, and secondhand markets would result in more jobs and more economic activity for a given amount of resources. Cooper calculates that when consumers spend less on throwaway products, they will spend more for other services and investments.

In “Culture of Waste,” Julian Cribb, a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, describes how we could reverse the trends toward food waste with government regulation to limit wasteful practices, full-cost pricing and taxing, subsidies for good stewardship production, and with education. The 2017, Greenpeace Report, advocates similar actions to create closed loop, circular production, beginning at the design stage, with all companies required to design recyclable parts, easy repair, and a take-back program for all products.

Growth swamps efficiency

Everything we build requires energy. Wasteful practices waste energy. Although we are witnessing an unprecedented effort to develop renewable energy, we are failing to keep pace with growth in demand. Unless we address the growth of human numbers and human enterprise, we are destined for the natural results of ecological overshoot. We also need to phase out fossil fuels and redouble efforts to build renewable energy infrastructure.

The following chart – prepared by Canadian energy engineer David Hughes, using data from the 2019 BP Energy Review – shows the annual growth in renewable energy compared to the annual growth in electricity demand. A great deal of this demand is due to wasteful manufacturing and sales practices. Two-thirds of the growth is met with fossil fuels. Furthermore, this only accounts for electricity. 83% of the world’s energy consumption is non-electric.

RE growth vs. demand growth, 2019

The only year that renewable energy growth exceeded demand growth occurred in 2009 during an economic recession. This chart reveals two critical pieces of our waste and energy challenge: (1) Renewable energy growth is not keeping pace with total energy demand, and (2) The way to turn this around is to end the expectation of endless economic growth. Some companies, such as Fairphone and Patagonia, have business models that account for slowing growth.

The idea that we should keep businesses growing by creating waste is no longer valid – and never was. We can employ more people by building quality products and repairing them. To reverse the trend of wasteful production, biodiversity collapse, carbon emissions that cause global heating, and general ecological overshoot, humanity has to embrace modest consumption and put an end to the era of extravagant indulgence.

References and Links

“E-waste World Map Reveals National Volumes, International Flows,” StEP Initiative, 2013, Quoted in Greenpeace E-Waste report, 2016.

E-waste: The Escalation of a Global Crisis, TCO certified

"Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America,” Giles Slade, Harvard University Press, 2007; and excerpts at Google Books.

“A Culture of Waste,” Julian Cribb, Ecology Today, 2012.

Guide to Greener Electronics 2017, Greenpeace Reports, October 17, 2017

“Overcoming the culture of waste” Deishin Lee, MIT, Sloan School of Management, 2017.

Power-hungry gadgets endanger energy efficiency gains, review of The International Energy Association analysis, John Timmer, 2009, ARS Technica.

The Global E-waste Monitor, 2014: UN University, 2014.

“Electronic Waste (E-Waste): How Big of a Problem is it?” Rubicon, 2018 Facts and Figures on E-Waste and Recycling, Electronics Takeback Coalition, 2014.

“The monster footprint of digital technology,” Kris de Decker, Low-Tech Magazine,“Electronics Standards Are In Need of Repair,” Mark Schaffer, Repair.org, August 2017.

“Apple is against your-right to repair i-Phones New York state records confirm,” Jason Koebler, Motherboard, 2017.

“Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to the Throwaway Society,” Tim Cooper, Gower Books, 2010.

Culture and Waste: The Creation and Destruction of Value, Edited by Gay Hawkins and Stephen Muecke, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

“The L.E.D. Quandary: Why There’s No Such Thing as ‘Built to Last’,” J. B. MacKinnon, New Yorker, 2016.

“Patagonia’s Anti-growth Strategy,” J.B. MacKinnon, New Yorker, 2015.

What is happening here in NZ?

Here in NZ we continue with this ‘business as usual’ attitude, superimposed over the whole country. It is ‘taken for granted’ and the NZ Government is basically none the wiser. They just continue to carry on as if everything is normal. The NZ struggle to get recycling more efficient has not been able to get a deposit on soft drink or beer bottles, where once we had them.

As a kid I used to be continuously walking up and down the main road collecting beer bottles as they were in those days just thrown out the window of cars. At the big rugby games at towns, during the curtain raiser prior to the main game, I was always able to collect enough coke and lemonade bottles to be able to buy a drink and a hot pie and have some change left over.

Why has NZ not been able to follow the legislation as in the State of South Australia and in the State of Oregon in the USA. Because, like all the other states in Australia and the USA - business interests in both these countries have overridden prudent ecological policies. Time and time again the breweries and Coke cola with huge financial resources and well paid lawyers - have been able to stop a deposit with regard to recycling - in its tracks. Hence, the throw away mentality is still prevalent in NZ especially with the unconscious male macho way of life.

Yet, it could be said that as an extension of the top of this article that stoves, fridges etc don’t last long too too, when compared to how they were built 50 years ago.A person working at a local transfer station north of Auckland said - If it was not for the Warehouse - he would not have a job! (The Bargain was not necessarily a bargain.)

Some of the other issues talked about in this interview was that big business is still calling the shots.

One of the issues is that businesses do not look at our planet as a complex living super system. They fail to see the biosphere as a homeostatic, self regulating system of trillions of living creatures that are all delicately balanced and embedded in the web of life.

Their (very limited) perspective is that they are on ‘a platform’ - that has raw products coming in (they are not interested in where these products come from or how they are extracted or gained) - all they want to do is then push (highly packaged) product out onto the market. It also does not really matter how much pollution they produce in the process - hence various governments world wide - have had to enforce clean air and clean water standards on businesses to force them to comply. This has been an ongoing ‘battle’ for over 100 years.

There is no thought of ‘nature’ in any business model. Where as in America there is a remarkable treatise on this thought to come from a First Nations ‘Indian’ called Chief Seattle.

Privatise the Profits and Socialise the Costs - This means putting products or services on the market and if they do not measure up, then society picks up the costs. - Cigarette companies did this with cigarettes. They made money out of selling them but when smokers ended up in hospital beds - especially in countries with ‘free’ hospital care - it was those countries (the taxpayers) that paid to take care and treat those dying patients.

It was the same when the Wall Street bankers in New York took insane monetary risks back in 2008 whilst still collecting ‘extremely inflated commissions and salaries’ - that they threatened to collapse the whole US and world banking system. That the US Government was then ‘forced’ to bail them out - with the US taxpayer taking the hit. This same mentality is pervasive within the current business world. Privatise the profit and socialise the losses. That there is now such a devastating effect by having to clean up the global environment as a result of business practices that did not factor in a healthy future of the world’s children.

Cradle to Cradle - and the Circular Economy

Cradle to Cradle was mentioned. http://www.cradletocradle.com

Cradle to Cradle is a design framework for going beyond sustainability and designing for abundance in a Circular Economy.

The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance is the eagerly awaited follow-up to Cradle to Cradle. Drawing on a decade of lessons, William McDonough & Michael Braungart put Cradle to Cradle®concepts into practice with businesses, governments, and people around the world.

Prof Dr Michael Braungart gave an interview on the subject of microplastics on 23-10-2018 in the ZDF news programme heute+. Car tyres are the main cause of the microplasty discovered in the human intestine, says environmental expert Michael Braungart. The main problem is the harmful pollution.

In the 1980s, Braungart dedicated his work to the environmental organization Greenpeace and beginning in 1982 helped to establish the chemistry section of Greenpeace International, which he took over in 1985. In the same year he received his Ph.D. from the University of Hannover's chemistry department. In order to develop solutions for complex environmental problems, EPEA was established by Greenpeace in 1987. Ever since, Braungart has been involved with research and consultancy for eco-effective products i.e. products and production processes in a loop, not only harmless to man or nature, but beneficial.

Time magazine recognized William McDonough in 1999 as a “Hero for the Planet.”

In 1996, Mr. McDonough received the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, and in 2003 he earned the first U.S. EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award. In 2004, he received the National Design Award for achievement in the field of environmental design. In July 2014, Mr. McDonough was appointed as Chair of the World Economic Forum Meta-Council on Circular Economy.

Also mentioned was that we are reaching limits to growth and Rex and I touched on some of the major environmental challenges now affecting the biosphere. Japanese built cars superior to American cars.

It was quickly noted that when the Japanese car companies came to North America that it only took a few years or so for the American people to realise that Japanese cars were not only more reliable but they lasted longer. The planned obsolescent cars from Ford, General Motors and now defunct Chrysler were far inferior to the Japanese brands - hence their continued success in the US car market today.

Apple in the US comes in for some well earned criticism in the interview.

That between June 29, 2007 and November 3, 2017, Apple introduced 14 new iPhone models, one every 37 weeks. The company stopped supporting the first generation phones within three years, and continues to make previous phones obsolete and unsupported. Listen - Apple are not your kind and caring corporation. They are a hard nosed business wanting to continually corner the market for their own ends. Listen to how they and Sony stopped legislation to not allow their products to be repaired.

“Apple is trying to kill legislation that would make it easier for normal people to fix iPhones.”

A Global commitment to CHANGE …

Transformation away from planned obsolescence will require a “radical, systemic change.”

To encourage minimum standards of durability, repairability, and upgradeability. What's wrong with 10 years for everything over $4,000?

Having quality goods, robust repair-and-servicing, and secondhand markets would result in more jobs and more economic activity for a given amount of resources. We could also reverse the trends toward food waste with government regulation to limit wasteful practices, full-cost pricing and taxing, subsidies for good stewardship production, and with education.

2017, Greenpeace Report, advocates similar actions to create closed loop, circular production, beginning at the design stage, with all companies required to design recyclable parts, easy repair, and a take-back program for all products.

There is a limit to growth on a finite planet.

There is a limit to growth - that if one becomes an astronaut or a cosmonaut - they see clearly from space - that life within the biosphere can only take so much. That the increase in human numbers and their extracting and polluting practices is overwhelming the natural worlds ability to rebalance these intrusions because of the short time span.

Rex mentioned that unless we address the growth of human numbers and human enterprise, we are destined for the natural results of ecological overshoot. We also need to phase out fossil fuels and redouble efforts to build renewable energy infrastructure.

France Under French law it is a crime to intentionally shorten lifespan of a product with the aim of making customers replace it. ... The French investigation is being led by the economy ministry's consumer protection agency. It follows a legal complaint filed in December by pro-consumer group Stop Planned Obsolescence (Hop). Jan 8, 2018.

End of the line for stuff that's built to die?

A new French law demands that manufacturers display how long their appliances will last. Could this stop planned obsolescence – products designed with restricted lifetimes? https://www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2015/mar/03/has-planned-obsolesence-had-its-day-design

Apple investigated by France for 'planned obsolescence' - BBC News https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-42615378 https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/01/09/apple-investigated-by-france-for-planned-obsolescence-of-older-iphones/ - This is a Silicon Valley newspaper.

Also covered was Regenerative Farming and Biological Farming as a way to make soils more healthy and keep the soil from being blown and washed off the land. This farming method is most definitely the most important way to regenerate our land without using fertilisers.https://www.ourplanet.org/Default.aspx?CCID=34961&FID=629092&ExcludeBoolFalse=True&ID=/greenplanetfm/search-results

So there we have it.  However, it goes far deeper than this. Listen.  This is a very important interview - on an imperilled planet that is awash with rubbish, toxins and the throw away society. That we have to ask the question - are we throwing away our future and our children and grandchildren with it? Time for decisive action, from the Grass Roots up. Not top down from the summit of the Pyramid of Businessmen and Bankers. This has to be where all ‘grassroots’ groups as in localised communities across every nation need to be brought into the conversation and also the planning and action.

 



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Tim Lynch

Tim Lynch

Tim Lynch, is a New Zealander, who is fortunate in that he has whakapapa, or a bloodline that connects him to the Aotearoan Maori. He has been involved as an activist for over 40 years - within the ecological, educational, holistic, metaphysical, spiritual & nuclear free movements. He sees the urgency of the full spectrum challenges that are coming to meet us, and is putting his whole life into being an advocate for todays and tomorrows children. 'To Mobilise Consciousness.'

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