Back in the 1920s, a group of executives migrated to General Motors from Dupont, the chemical and dye-making giant. At Dupont, they had learned from their customers in fashion and textiles—America’s third largest and fastest growing industry—the strategy of making customers want this year’s products by making last year’s products look outdated, even though they were still perfectly good.
The newly-arrived executives at GM turned to sleek styling to make their new models of cars more desirable. Henry Ford had built his Model T market on product reliability, but the ability to last was now out. The ability of a product to make its owners look fashionable was in. GM finally beat Ford out of its market dominance.
Fashion obsolescence, the technique of getting consumers to purchase the same product over and over because of stylistic changes, soon spread from the automobile industry to everything from refrigerators to watches. It is now largely the basis of the American marketplace.
The picture above shows a line of people I saw last Friday waiting to buy Apple’s new iPhone. The phones went on sale in the ATT store these people stood outside at 6PM. The kids I talked to at the front of the line had been there since 6AM. Most of the people in the line already had cell phones, but they wanted to have the new it phone. Full disclosure: recovering gadget addict that I am, I might have been in the line myself a few months ago.
Some say that e-waste is becoming one of the biggest toxicity problems facing our culture. In the US, municipal incineration of e-waste is the largest source of cancer-producing dioxin and among the largest point source of heavy metal contaminations in the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, by 2002, over 130 million still-working cell phones had been retired. Thanks to the fashion obsolescence marketing strategy pioneered back in the 1920s at GM, the cell phone now has the shortest life cycle of any electronic device.
The question is: how can the environment sustain a society where even a $500 gadget has become a disposable object? Is there a sustainable way to satisfy the gadget addictions of people like the former me, or will we have to go cold turkey? Can we change our buying habits? Can we get the producers to change? Do we need a whole new basis for our economy?