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Disposable Durables

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What new gadgets are you getting? Will they work during an extended power outage? What does one do during a post-storm blackout when you can’t turn on the TV or computer for news?

Oh no, my laptop and cellphone batteries are running low! Fortunately, I have a deck of cards and an acoustic guitar; and I’m definitely getting a small radio, one that won’t run its batteries down after just a day or two.

Our grandparents may smile wistfully at how helpless we are without electricity. They would’ve first encountered these “wonder machines” as kids. But their parents grew up without these newfangled appliances. Older generations lived through a world war. Survival then was a matter of not getting shot or bombed and having something—anything—to eat. In many cases, they were extremely mobile in a different sense; their prized possessions were limited to what they could carry.

It was the post World War II recovery and the rising affluence of the 1950s that first introduced electric appliances into many households. Newlyweds of the time would be concerned about acquiring “consumer durables.” A radio and a (black and white) TV, an oven/ stove and a refrigerator; hoping, eventually, to acquire the ultimate possession—a car! Few of the pre-war generation had telephones or radios, cars were for the very rich, and TV was then just a lab experiment. That generation would put ice in the icebox and wood in the stove.

Reliable, Sturdy
Perhaps, because they were new and expensive, these appliances were expected to last. For them, the Singer sewing machine was a familiar, older appliance, which didn’t (then) need electricity to run and was sometimes handed down from one generation to the next. It may be a bit too much to expect all appliances be as sturdy as the Singer, but that was the mindset. I can still hear my second lesson about purchasing decisions, “Is it durable?” The first lesson, of course, was “Do you really need it?”

But even as that era introduced the concept of desirable (not to say indispensable) goods and appliances, manufacturers faced a quandary. If you saturate the market with durable appliances, won’t sales taper off? Well, one could further refine and develop manufacturing efficiencies in order to cut costs and make them affordable to a wider market. One could also introduce new features and capabilities, the “new” model.

The era of durables didn’t last. As things actually turned out, manufacturers developed the concept and practice of planned obsolescence. Cut costs by using cheaper parts or processes. Add a new feature every year so that consumers will want the latest and greatest model.

Automobile manufacturers led the way, with cars sprouting thoroughly useless fins atop their trunks. After some time, dispense with the fins. Do anything as long as you differentiate between models and fuel consumer envy for the latest.

Throwaway Mentality
It seems that planned obsolescence has become the norm. Many consumers have come to accept it and have developed a throwaway mentality. But it’s not all marketing hype and consumer envy, technology is really on a fast track. A five-year-old phone feels absolutely “Jurassic.” Until the turn of the millennium, we assumed that the lifetime of a new computer was about five years. Nowadays, laptop manufacturers will tell you it’s two. Vive le disposable!

And yet what is sad is that many consumers have lost any focus on actual functionality; drooling instead over new features. I am reminded of Purchasing Lesson #1, “Do you really need it?” If you get an ego boost from carrying around a new gadget, fine, that’s value for you. Else, why bother when you hardly leverage the new features?

Another concern is that a throwaway mentality is at odds with a conservationist agenda.

Electronic gadgets not only use scarce resources, but many of those materials are bad for the environment. Sure, our usual way of disposing of old phones and computers is to hand them down. But, in the end, all that plastic and metal has to be dumped somewhere. There is, after all, a green rationale behind Purchasing Lesson #2, “Is it durable?

Finally, consider the psychological effects of a throwaway mentality. If we work so hard to acquire certain worldly goods, but then dispense with them so easily, do we not eventually develop an equally casual, careless attitude towards convenient yet disposable friends and relationships? I hope not.

Perhaps, this is the most important lesson of all; to truly value and cherish durable relationships. These need no electricity and you can take them along anywhere, anytime.

Print ed: 12/09


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