Waste a Lot,Want a Lot: Our All-Consuming Quest for Style

Stuart Ewen 

Each day of the year, New York City disposes of 14,329 tons of garbage. Miami generates 7,445 tons; Los Angeles, 6,193 tons; Chicago, 5,985 tons; and Dallas, 1,948 tons of garbage per day. 

Much of what gets thrown away is packaging, the provocatively designed wrappings that we have come to expect on nearly everything we purchase. But it is not all packaging. Increasingly, products that in the past would have been considered durables quickly find their way into the trash bin. These include wristwatches, telephones and other electronic devices, razors, pens, medical and hospital supplies, cigarette lighters, and recently, cameras. General Electric and GTE sell $25 lamps designed to be discarded when the bulbs burn out. Black and Decker sells a "throwaway travel iron." Predictions abound that automobile engines will soon be made of plastic and will be "less expensive to replace than repair." 

From a marketing point of view, disposability is the golden goose. It conflates the act of using with that of using up, and promotes markets that are continually hungry for more. Joseph Smith, a consumer psychologist, contends that the popular appeal of disposable products "reflects our changing social values; there's less emphasis on permanence today." 

Along these lines, John Rader Platt, professor of physics at the University of Chicago, has raised the issue of the "fifth need of man": "The needs of man, if life is to survive, are usually said to be four -- air, water, food, and in the severe climates, protection. But it is becoming clear today that the human organism has another absolute necessity... This fifth need is the need for novelty -- the need, throughout our waking life, for continuous variety in the external stimulation of our eyes, ears, sense organs, and all our nervous network." 

The ever mounting glut of waste materials is a characteristic byproduct of modern "consumer society." It might even be argued that capitalism's continual need to find or generate markets means that disposability and waste have become the spine of the system. To consume means, literally, "to destroy or expend," and in the garbage crisis we confront the underlying truth of a society in which enormous productive capacities and market forces have harnessed human needs and desires, without regard to the long or even short term future of life on the planet. 

If the course of consumerism is one of continuous exhaustion of resources, it must be acknowledged that for most people living within a consumer society, waste is seen as an inherent part of the processes by which they obtain replenishment and pleasure. In societies where local production and subsistence agriculture provided people with most of their essential material needs, the resources that people relied upon and the need to use them carefully were obvious. 

In large measure, a consumer society begins to erode this cycle. While providing many people with new standards of material abundance, the market in goods makes "where things come from" increasingly abstract and apparently insignificant. Simultaneously, modern systems of waste disposal tend to make "where things go" seemingly inconsequential. The often-cited difficulty that moderns have in dealing with the life process issues of birth, aging, and death, may, to some extent, reflect this ignorance of natural processes. We buy our chicken, cut up in a plastic tray, in a modern supermarket with canned music piped in. After we are all done, we place the bones, along with the plastic tray, along with all other kinds of waste, into a large plastic garbage bag which we place outside to be carted off. On those occasions when we do pass a dump site, there is little sense of personal belongings. It does not occur to us that it is our refuse. 

The customs and values of rural and preindustrial life preached against waste or obsolescence, both of which are hallmarks of modern commercial culture. The historical roots of our current wasteful consumer sensibility lie in the social development of industrial capitalism, and in the apparently inexhaustible capacities of mass production. 

Historically, the majority of people on earth lived by economic assumptions that were starkly at odds with those that guide the present. The customary limits governing economics appeared, to many, to have been broken, beginning in the late 19th century. In addition, new techniques, materials, and colorful chemical dyes foretold a world of universal abundance, where all might come to enjoy goods and privileges customarily available only to elites. 

Much of late 19th and 20th century social thought is premised on the coming of what historian Warren Susmand termed "a newly emerging culture of abundance." To some extent, socialist thought has been fertilized by this expectation. For Karl Marx, writing at mid-19th century, "the rapid improvement of all instruments of production" under capitalism was creating the material conditions that ultimately made communism possible. 

In 1892, when most socioeconomic thought still "defended the assumption of scarcity" as an irrevocable part of the human condition, American social theorist Simon Patten declared that "enough goods and services would be produced in the foreseeable future to provide every human being with the requisites of survival." Old practices of saving and preservation, Patten observed, were on the wane, as was the customary way of life that had nurtured those traditional values. Mass production had raised all kinds of previously unimaginable possibilities, and the new standard of living would be drawn from among its myriad creations, propelled by the continual consumption of goods. "The standard of life is determined, not so much by what a man has to enjoy, as by the rapidity with which he tires of the pleasure," Patten wrote. "To have a high standard means to enjoy a pleasure intensely and to tire of it quickly." The most visible symbol of waste is seen in the continually changing styles and packaging that, in order to stimulate sales, affect nearly every commodity. Here the principle of waste is not embedded in any particular image, but rather in the incessant spectacle that accompanies the marketing of merchandise. To a large extent, the phenomenon of market-stimulated waste had its beginnings in the early decades of the 20th century, when emerging American consumer industries and the advertising agencies they hired methodically attempted to promote sales by assailing the "custom of ages," which had encouraged thrift and the careful preservation of resources. By the early 1920's, the advertising industry had begun to publicly define itself as both "the destroyer and the creator in the process of the ever-evolving new." 

Perhaps more than any other person, it was the advertising man, Earnest Elmo Calkins who raised the strategy of rapid, planned stylistic changes as an element of 20th century American business thinking. Calkins took aim at "the Puritan tradition" within American industry, a tradition that had achieved wonders in the area of technological efficiency, yet had little appreciation of the aesthetic dimension. His model for the outmoded "Puritan" businessman was Henry Ford. While many saw Ford as the father of the modern age, Calkins focused on what he saw as Ford's retrograde tendencies. 

In going after Ford, Calkins selected as his text a remark Ford had made: "the he would not give five cents for all the art the world had produced." "There is no doubt that Mr. Ford was sincere in what he said about art," Calkins wrote. "He believed that the homeliness of his car was one of its virtues. He correctly read the minds of his fellow citizens, who suspected that mere prettiness camouflaged the fact that sterner virtues were lacking. The Ford car was homely, but it did its work." 

By the mid 1920's, however, Ford's puritanical commitment to "homeliness" could no longer command an increasingly competitive market. By adding "design and colour to mechanical efficiency," Calkins noted, Ford's primary competitor in the production of inexpensive cars, Chevrolet, seized the largest share of the market. 

Employing the story of Ford as an object lesson, Calkins began to articulate a business strategy that not only added the question of style to the business agenda, but recommended ongoing, methodical style change as the key to business prosperity. Writing in Modern Publicity in 1930, Calkins compressed his strategy into one extraordinarily direct paragraph: "The purpose is to make the customer discontented with his old type of fountain pen, kitchen utensil, bathroom, or motor car, because it is old fashioned, out of date. The technical term for this idea is obsoletism. We no longer wait for things to wear out. We displace them with others that are not more effective but more attractive." 

By the 1930's, as the Depression intensified the ferocity of corporate competition for sales, the ideas laid out by Calkins became rules of thumb. Writing in Consumer Engineering in 1932, Roy Sheldon and Egmont Arens contended that modern conditions had forced a reassessment of meanings: "The dictionary gives obsolescence as the process by which anything -- a word, a style, a machine -- becomes antiquated, outworn, old fashioned, falls into disuse -- ceases to be used. But this definition is itself rapidly becoming obsolete. It expresses a pre-war point of view, [it] is passive." For Sheldon and Arens, it was necessary now to conceive of "obsolescence as a positive force," a resource to be used to drive the market forward. 

Sheldon and Arens were particularly aware and enthusiastic about the role of the mass media in this development: "Obsolescence ... is seething through the life of the nation. Every day the latest fashions in clothes, in furniture, in automobiles, in coiffures is flashed on the screen before 16,000,000 intent watchers. Heralded in the newspapers, illustrated in the magazines, described over the radio, the latest wrinkle and the newest gadget are pushing and crowding into people's lives, not casually or with the leisurely pace of prewar days, but with the haste and bustle -- and also the gaiety -- characteristic of the modern American tempo. 

If during the 1930's, the practice of obsolescence was part of a sometimes desperate attempt to build markets in a shrinking economy, the period following World War II saw obsolescence installed as a basic underpinning to the "populuxe" ideal of suburban prosperity. Articulating the boom mentality of the period, industrial designer J. Gordon Lippincott hailed obsolescence as a fundamental American birthright. Writing in 1947, Lippincott noted that "we have become so used to change that as a nation we take it for granted. The American consumer expects new and better products every year... His acceptance of change toward better living is indeed the American's greatest asset. It is the prime mover of our national wealth." 

Yet even amid this period of suburban boosterism, it was clear to Lippincott that citizen expectations may not be enough. Back in the 1930's, Sheldon and Arens had noted that many people were resistant to the economy of waste. "Scratch a consumer," they wrote, "and you find an opponent of consumptionism and a fear of the workings of progressive obsolescence." By the late 1940's, conditions had changed, but Lippincott still spoke of the need to combat thrift oriented thought: "The major problem confronting us is how to move this merchandise to the American consumer. The major problem therefore is one of stimulating the urge to buy!... Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is... truly an American habit, and it is soundly based on our economy of abundance. It must be further nurtured even though it is contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity -- the law of thrift -- providing for the unknown and often-feared day of scarcity." 

Here, in the clarity of Lippincott's words, we confront the inner logic of the spectacle of waste: the live for the moment ideology that primes the market and avoids the question of the future. 

During the 1950's, the appeal to what Lippincott described favorably as "mass buying-psychosis" accelerated as never before. The suburbs were a symbolic escape from the rhythms of industrial society; they also represented the elevation of planned obsolescence as an entire way of life. At the centre of this life-style was the automobile, which, during the 1950's, became a public laboratory in waste. Perhaps more than anyone else, Harley Earl -- who coined the phrase "dynamic obsolescence" to describe the design approach he innovated at General Motors' Styling Department -- expressed big business' approach to style and market stimulation in the mid 1950's, when he said, "Design these days means taking a bigger step every year. Our big job is to hasten obsolescence. In 1934 the average car ownership span was five years; now it is two years. When it is one year, we will have a perfect score." 

This article was adapted from the book,All Consuming Images:The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. Copyright �1988 by Basic Books, Inc. It is reprinted from Utne Reader which is published bimonthly by LENS publishing Co,Inc. 



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