Talking Trash and Pushing Durability

Our throw-away society is cluttering the earth. The author of Made to Break wants to do something to change our attitude

Author Giles Slade refuses to buy an iPod, drives a weathered Toyota Rav-4, and wears his dad's decades-old Burberry trench coat. His wife's cell-phone is about the size of an old camping flashlight, and it works just fine, thank you very much.

In his life and in his new book, Made to Break (Harvard University Press), Slade refuses to give in to the short lifespans of modern gadgets, instead embracing products that are built to last. The book traces the history of "planned obsolescence," or the deliberately short life span of vehicles, personal electronics, and clothing. It's also a call to arms for corporations, designers, and consumers alike to engage in what he calls "the industrial challenge of the 21st century" -- to re-think the traditional cycles of product releases and to launch more durable, sustainable goods.

In the book, Slade plays the role of both erudite historian and "green" crusader to make his points clear. He opens with scary statistics about e-waste, in the wake-up-call style of Al Gore's recent public presentations and essays on the dire state of the environment. Slade, for example, points out that the cathode ray tubes (CRTs) of analog TVs are made up of 55 % toxic lead glass.

When these televisions become obsolete in 2009, the date the U.S. government mandates the nationwide switch from analog transmission, people will toss the old sets by the thousands -- meaning all of those CRTs will wind up in landfills where they will eventually taint the water supply.

Slade then takes us back in time, leading us on a romp through the history of America's culture of disposability, from 1920s cars to today's computer chips. BusinessWeek Online's Reena Jana spoke with Slade about how tech, auto, and clothing companies can still generate revenues, re-market themselves, and retain loyal customers even if they decide to chuck the strategy of planned obsolescence. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow.

Is the main goal of your book to provoke industrial designers to come up with a solution for e-waste?

This book focuses on the electronic and other physical waste that result from the cycle of planned obsolescence. I realized after reading statistics that if things continue, we'll poison ourselves. Last year, consumers got rid of more than 100 million perfectly working cell phones in the U.S. alone. The year before, more than 300 million functional PCs were retired.

There's no organized method of disposing of these electronic goods. Many are stockpiled in the Third World. And the toxic materials will eventually seep into ground water. We need to do something. It's the next great industrial-design challenge.

Can't your case studies of planned obsolescence and the sales generated from new products be seen as historically effective marketing strategies, though?

Obsolescence is the reason why America has enjoyed this century of prosperity and success. It's a strange little American invention and an effective idea for a miracle economy. It can create new industries and jobs -- for initial consumption, though. Then the demand just flattens out.

The turning point in the history of obsolescence happened during the war between Ford (F) and GM (GM) in the 1920s. Before that, inventors and companies were interested in raw improvement -- that's what drove the industrial revolution. But Alfred Sloan, GM's CEO, found that he had all sorts of problems with marketing. Its competition, Ford's Tin Lizzy, was built to last 10 years. At first, Sloan planned to pursue technological innovation, to make GM's cars better than Ford's. And then he realized he didn't have to.

His solution? Redesign existing cars cosmetically. New GM's looked better than the Fords. And they were slightly cheaper. So they sold like hotcakes. Sloan realized GM could now redesign cars every three years by just making minor changes. The idea worked. In 1923, Ford lost 60% of its market.

So how can companies still make money if they try to abandon the pattern of obsolescence?

I believe that manufacturers could make more durable goods and benefit -- they will be able to charge more for what they sell. And things are overbuilt a lot. Additional [unnecessary] features are included at extra expense -- not only for the consumer, but for the manufacturer.

And can't a brand benefit by re-marketing itself as earth friendly, now that "eco-chic" is hot?

Yes, companies could also do a lot for their brands by advertising their eco-friendliness -- as well as the durability and sustainability of their products. One historical example is Volkswagen. In the early 1960s, it ran an ad campaign emphasizing the durability of its cars -- how they were built to last. It was a great way to distinguish the brand and build the company's identity. However, consumers today are skeptical. The key is to advertise eco-friendliness before it's too late. In other words, not as a remedy.

So what's the most effective design solution for obsolescence?

BMW has a good model. The company has built some cars for disassembly. They take old BMW parts and use them in new cars. The same might be done with other products. Why toss out an outdated phone? Why not use some of the parts in a new one? Plus, if companies designed for reuse, their products would be collected rather than going into a landfill.

The classic industrial design problem in the past was to create psychological obsolescence -- to create products that were fashionable and disposable. That has sustained designers and companies for 80 to 90 years. But now as a profession, design has to change into something else. Green design is a growth industry.

What sorts of innovative material and political solutions do you recommend?

I've read articles about the possibility of biodegradable cell phones and plastic goods. That would be wonderful -- as long as the materials aren't released into our water supply. What we need is an independent body that tests such products.

Some states will have compulsory take-back laws for e-waste. What's really needed is a single federal law that sets a standard for manufacturers. Once manufacturers have to pay to recycle, they'll realize it's not in their best economic interest to produce things that are made to break.

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