Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to the Throwaway Society – review
Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to the Throwaway Society Edited by Tim Cooper, October 2010, Gower, 460 pages, ISBN 978-0566088087, RRP £66.50
In 1970, when I was in my 20’s and drove race cars, I bought a book by Vance Packard called The Waste Makers.
It pictured a pile of American cars stacked one on another in a junk yard and so attracted me for that reason. It was actually about planned obsolescence, enabled by ‘death dating’ goods by designing in a limited lifespan and driven by an advertising media that promoted yearly or short-term fashion. The book is still on my bookshelf; it changed my way of thinking. Sadly there has been nothing like it until now: Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to the Throwaway Society. Do not think of this simply as a single book, it is many books in one.
Our present western society is driven and financed by consumption. After 9/11 President Bush urged Americans to ‘go shopping’; his forthcoming war obviously needed to be financed. In the present UK financial crisis, interest rates for those who borrow are at an all-time low in order to encourage consumption, yet infinite consumption in a finite world is not possible. Our present political system seems to think that it is not in our own best interests to buy goods that last.
The focus of this comprehensive book is on the problem of just how we are going to face the forthcoming challenge of reducing our environmental impact by low production numbers of high-quality items that could be easily upgraded, repaired or recycled and that are designed to be easily recycled when they do become obsolete. It sounds so simple, but we live in the throwaway western society, a society that has become addicted to the latest fashions in clothes, cars and homes. So this is asking for a total about turn in the way we approach products, an about turn not only for consumers but also for designers, engineers and manufacturers alike; and this book tackles that about turn.
The 18 contributors, including the editor – Tim Cooper – focus on the fact that our present economic system is geared to the production of manufactured items, our buying them and then discarding them ASAP, when in total contrast – for our good and the good of God’s created environment – manufactured items require a very long, effective and efficient lifespan indeed. The contributors, all experts in their own fields, explore how manufactured items that were designed to last (my expensive wellingtons were those outgrown by our son when he was fourteen and he is now thirty-four) would actually be far cheaper in the long run and reduce our environmental impact.
The 17 chapters of the book are structured into five overall parts: The Significance of Product Longevity; Design for Longevity; Public Policy and Product Life-Spans; Marketing Longer Lasting Products; and Product Use and Reuse.
They comprehensively cover a large spectrum of consumer items, including cars, clothes, hobby items, white goods, TVs, radios, CD players, mobile phones, furniture, carpets, DIY and gardening. They also consider the use and reuse of these items’ packaging.
The problems that such a radical change in the marketing and manufacture of products with long lifespans will demand when contrasted with the present system are also covered. These are in sections on government policy, consumer behaviour, marketing, design, engineering, law, and systems of provision for spare parts. On a personal note, the next time I buy anything mechanical I will see just how long the manufacturer holds spares for; for Miele I now know that it is 15 years.
What really impressed me was that, although focussing on product lifespan, the writers’ desire was for long but optimally efficient lifespan, allowing for the fact that designs and materials do change and improve and that there will be a slow replacement of outmoded products.
The late Vance Packard threw down the challenge to many in his book, first published in the USA in 1960. Today’s throwaway culture still needs to be challenged and this book does just that.