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Built to Fail

Eric Molinsky

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Siddhu settles for his 2007 MacBook.
(Eric Molinsky)
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My family is like a lot of American families. We buy stuff we don't need and that causes problems. Like my cousin Dan Grossman. He's got a thing for cars. His wife Gaby used to think it was cute.

"That's how he first met me," Gaby says. "We both had a VWs, it was the first year that VW came out with that cool key, the new design on the key. And he saw my key--"

"That was my pick-up line," Dan interrupts.

"That was his pick-up line. 'I see you have new body style Volkswagen.'"

In the five years that Dan and Gaby have been married, Dan moved on from VWs to BMWs. And he got into the habit of buying and selling them every year. He actually sneaks around on Gaby.

"And then all of the sudden," Gaby says, "he's telling me going out to Staples to get something for work and grab a coffee, and all of the sudden there are BMW salesmen calling our house. So he lies, he won't even tell me he's at the car dealership."

Dan feels like he's exercising his freedom as a consumer, but he's also caught up in a conspiracy called "planed obsolescence." Manufacturers deliberately phase out styles to get us to buy the same products over and over again. Not surprisingly, it started with cars. Back in the early 1920s, Alfred Sloan had just become the head of General Motors. He tried to build better car than Henry Ford, but that didn't work. Giles Slade is the author of, "Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America."

"So Sloan, in desperation, gave it overhaul, made it available in a variety of different models, made it look a lot better than the Ford. And it worked," Slade explains. "He began to develop what was called the annual model change, where they change the look of the car every year. And he put it on a three-year cycle where there were major changes every three years, minor changes every year."

It's the job of advertisers and salesman to convince us that we that need those new models. It used to be tail fins, now it's the latest GPS system or a V8 engine. I saw this relationship play out with my cousin Dan and his favorite salesman, Walter Budisan.

"I sell some choice high line cars," Walter boasts, "unique cars."

Dan agrees. "I'm glad that I brought you here, you come in here and you can hang out and talk about cars and you end up buying one but you didn't go to a dealership, there's no hard sell, it's like an organic process. You're like a spiritual guide." Dan laughs. "Oh, we're having twins by the way."

"Congratulations," Walter responds. "That's not going to crimp shopping, is it?"

Dan pauses. "No. We're buying a big garage, so there's going to be a lot more room."

Shopping is almost a spiritual activity, at least in America. Brand names give us a sense of identity. Buying new products gives us a sense of rebirth. And for Dan, buying a high-end car is a status symbol.

"In the big picture, I don't care what people think on the highway," Dan says. "When I know that I've gotten the approval of another guy, I have sports premium addition and it's a specific graphite paint hard to find, it's like a different kind of approval."

Planned obsolescence found its way into every industry, from kitchen appliances to farm equipment. But the real boon was in personal computers. In the '90s, each new computer was faster. But at this point, we don't really need super computers for web browsing and word processing. But manufactures still need to convince us to buy new computers. So they're selling us on style.

My cousin Siddhu Nardkarni bought a MacBook last year. Then he saw the commercial for the ultra slim MacBook Air and he was smitten. "It took half a second or so," Siddhu says, "when I realized it was actually a computer coming out of that manila envelope."

Too bad a computer can't disappear inside a manila envelope. Planned obsolescence was the engine of the U.S. economy for 85 years, but that relationship is looking dysfunctional. Americans threw away 315 million computers last year. We trashed 130 million cell phones. Author Giles Slade points out, "When we throw it way, full of toxins, go into landfill, or it goes to China full of acid and pulled apart by migrant workers and their kids die young."

We're also running out of raw materials--oil, plastic, steel, wood, gas. The price of everything is going up. Even my cousin Rebecca Cascade, who's a total fashionista, is feeling the pinch. She's a new mom and determined to stay in style and not let herself go. I went shopping with her at Barney's New York.

"You read things about college costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and it totally scares you and you don't want your kids to loose opportunities because you needed a new pair of jeans and a new handbag and the latest cashmere sweater from Habitat and the latest Christian Lubitan shoes," Rebecca says.

Like a lot of us, she's becoming more aware of the costs of her shopping habits--but she really needs a pair of 2008 designer jeans.

"It's not really need, by the way," Rebecca interrupts. "It's want. And I think that's a huge thing about our total consumer retail therapy society right now."

"Consumer retail therapy?" I ask. "What does that mean?"

"Oh, I'm having a bad day, I'll stop into Saks and get a lipstick. That's the cheap version of retail therapy. You know, in our country, we feel crappy about a lot of things now, it's an easy way to feel better than face up to problems."

Corporations feel our hesitation. They factor guilt into the advertising. Rebecca even debated whether she should buy a pair of organic cotton designer jeans. But we can't buy our way out of the problem. We need stuff that's more durable. We need to be less trendy. But habits are hard to break. Rebecca eventually bought a $200 pair of jeans. Her daughter wasn't far from her mind.

As she signs the receipts, Rebecca jokes to her one-year old daughter, "Ruby, I hope you want to go to University of Michigan and not Yale!"

She returned the jeans the next day.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Marie N. (is this displayed?)

    From St. Louis, MO, 07/19/2008

    Bill! You are buying a new vacuum because you don't "feel like" fixing the old one?! Don't you have a vacuum repair store in big "cosmopolitan" LA?! Putting it in the "responsible person's landfill" and buying a new one is consumerism at its worst.

    Even if it's old and you "have" to get a new one, you could still get the old one repaired and use it, say, to vacuum a screened-in porch or the basement, like I do with my grandma's old Eureka Princess. You could get it repaired and donate it and take a tax deduction.

    As much as I hate being judgmental, I was genuinely appalled when you said you were getting a new one because you didn't "feel like" getting the old one repaired.

    The mantra is REDUCE, reuse, (then if all else fails) recycle. Just because you can dispose of it responsibly doesn't mean you should get rid of it.

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