Welcome to our series of posts on the A-Z of zero waste!
An overview of everything that has been shared so far can be found here.
We live in a throw away society. Did you know that of all materials that go into creating products that we buy, only 1% of them are in use 6 months later(1)? So 99% of all those resources end up as waste within 6 months. We are no longer buying for life. Some of this is down to personal preference with consumer culture growing, fashion labels now selling clothes for 52 seasons instead of just 4, and then slowly moving into homewares as that market grows too. We live in a culture where it's seen as a sign of status to have the newest electronic devices and to never be seen in the same outfit more than once. We choose to buy new things all the time. We no longer value quality over quantity. But how much of this is actually fully our own choice? How much are our choices limited by advertisement, decisions made by the companies, and the items they're producing?
We see over 5,000 adverts every day (2) and all of them are telling you that you need something. Some of them may be services, or food items, but a large proportion are telling you that you need physical things. More things. Advertising agencies employ incredibly smart people with degrees in psychology and pay them plenty of money to convince people like us to buy more. Advertisements are well thought out and tactically target you and your vulnerabilities in order to manipulate you into buying a product. They have gotten so good at it, and they are so subtle about it that we hardly even notice they're doing it, but yet it changes they way we think and the way we shop. We feel we have a choice over what we buy but how much has that been forced upon us by advertisements? So now we are shopping more than ever but how can they keep us shopping, because surely we will eventually have enough...?
So if we would usually get to the point where we have everything we need, companies must come up with new ways of getting us to shop. One of these is planned obsolescence.
"Planned obsolescence is a business strategy in which the obsolescence (the process of becoming obsolete—that is, unfashionable or no longer usable) of a product is planned and built into it from its conception. This is done so that in future the consumer feels a need to purchase new products and services that the manufacturer brings out as replacements for the old ones." - The Economist
By making products have a finite lifespan, or having a business model where you bring out a new (but very similar) product every year, you have planned for the products you make to become obsolete much faster than they may ordinarily. It's a bit of a strange idea but it is one that is being used again and again in many different forms by many brands.
So what is the antidote?
The answer to the problem of over-consumption caused by advertisement and planned obsolescence is to try to buy once but buy better. To prioritise quality over quantity. When we look for items that are still designed to last a lifetime, or at least much longer than the usual, then we are choosing less waste and less wasted money. These items may cost more initially as the quality of the item, the workmanship, and materials are superior to what we are used to, but if the product is designed to last for life then it will usually save you money in the long run than buying ten slightly cheaper alternatives that break every 5 years. You are also saving yourself the time and the hassle of buying new products and trying to work out how to best dispose of the old one.
I would rather have one pair of jeans that fit beautifully, make me feel amazing and have a life time guarantee with free repairs than ten pairs that don't quite fit and will probably only last a few years before getting a hole that I'm not suite sure how to fix.
I would rather have a pan that will last for life and I can almost certainly pass on to my children, even if it cost more initially, than buy a constant stream of pans that break, end up costing me more over my lifetime.
Do you know the feeling of "they don't make things like they used to"? That's because they don't. They don't make things like they used to because they have planned obsolescence into the lifespan of this product. Companies are no longer producing products that can last a lifetime, they are producing one that lasts just long enough for you to be happy with, but short enough that you'll need to buy another one soon when it breaks. It also can be seen in how products often can no longer be repaired, or are only repaired by that company at an astronomical price making it better value to buy a new item.
When we are buying cheaper, poorer quality clothes, electronics and homewares, we are actually losing money as we will need to buy more over our lifetime. We are also generating huge amount of waste from creating new products over and over again, and often the original products are ending up in landfill as they have been specifically designed to be un-repairable.
I really love the website BuyMeOnce which focusing on highlighting items that are a step above the competition. They may have a life time guarantee or are designed to be repairable. They may have a timeless design, be made ethically and sustainably, and the company may have exceptional aftercare. They have household names and brands you haven't heard of before. It's where I look whenever I need something new to see what the best possible option is, because they really prioritise buying quality over quantity.
Questions to help you prioritise quality over quantity
- Firstly, do I really need this product or can I manage without and make do with what I have?
- Or can I buy one second hand?
- Is the item I am replacing from the same brand as I am looking at? Did that item last a long time and have the possibility of repairs, or am I just going to repeat the same cycle?
- Does this brand release similar versions of the same product regularly - this may be a sign of planned obsolescence?
- Is this option cheaper in the long run? If the price between this one and the life time guarantee one is minimal, can you save up for the better quality one?
- Does this item have a guarantee? How long is that guarantee?
- What do the reviews say about this item? Do people say it is long lasting?
- Does the brand provide aftercare?
- Is it possible to repair this product?
- Does the brand offer replacement parts? And can you still purchase parts from older models today?
- Has it been made well? (This is especially important for clothes where you can see the quality when it is in front of you - are the seams well finished? Are there any loose threads? Are there replacement buttons included? If you hold it to the light can you see right through it?)
- Is there maintenance advice included to help you care for the product?
In our society we are not supported to make the best decisions with our money and with waste. Often, even when we feel we have the ability to make a choice, the options have been greatly limited by companies. But there are ways that we can still prioritise quality over quantity to buy once but buy better. I hope the questions above can help you make the best decision when you need to buy something. It takes an attitude shift that comes with time but if you do, your bank balance and the planet will thank you.