Planned Obsolescence & Our Consumerist Economy

It was in 1932 when a real estate broker, Bernard London, self-published an essay called Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence. London may or may not have coined the phrase; yet, he has certainly been given the credit for verbalizing this particular economic strategy.  In a nutshell, London advocated for the government to mandate arbitrary life cycles on material goods. After a certain time frame a variety of products would be deemed “dead” and no longer of use, regardless of whether they were really useless or not. London’s strategy was founded on a few perceived truths. One, that our productive capacity and productive potential far exceeds our population’s general capacity to consume, second, that for a prosperous economy we must have a balance of production and consumption, and, third, that our natural resources which feed such a cycle are infinite.  During the Great Depression, he witnessed consumers holding on to their products longer than they normally would have for the simple fact that they had no money to replace them. Consumer’s lack of purchasing created a bottleneck in the factories, who were subsequently forced to let go of employees as a result of the lack of demand. This regressive cycle “not enough money, not enough people consuming, more people losing their jobs” made the Depression exponentially worse as time went on.  So, London suggested that once the good met its time limit the consumer would return the good to a government agency, receive money in return from the government, and then use the money to buy a replacement. Consumers would be forced to give up their material goods on a frequent basis and this would relieve the bottleneck in the factories and provide balance between production and consumers.

The United States did not implement London’s theory, and it is not known whether companies were directly influenced by his writings either. In fact, it can be argued that Planned Obsolescence has always been, London simply wanted to take it a step further and turn it into a government policy. There are a variety of examples that pepper the 20th Century–from the dawn of the lightbulb, to women’s nylons, to the first ipod. Companies have often withheld the best technology in favour of a product that might not last as long and might not work as well, but at the end of the day would make more money and maintain the long term growth of the company. I believe it would be helpful when contemplating the idea of Planned Obsolescence to see it, not through the gaze of a conspiracy theorist, but to see it as an understandable method of self-preservation. Planned Obsolescence can take the form of many guises. It can be intentional or just a result of technological advances. It could be your vehicle, that works just fine, but all of a sudden looks old and out of date compared to the new features and the different looks that the newer vehicles have. It could be a cheap blender that you got at a Big Box store that was built poorly and never meant to work well in the first place or last that long. It could be your dishwasher that broke down, but with the cost of repairs and service means that it makes more sense to buy a new one than to get the old one repaired. It could be your phone that you would like to replace because the newer ones have more gigabytes and a better camera. Regardless, of Planned Obsolescence or just plain obsolescence we are creating and destroying at a rate that has never been seen before, and although this frequent turnover helps us to maintain our balance between production and consumption we have now entered a time when we are running into the limits of our resources to feed such a cycle.

That is one point that London got wrong. Our resources are not infinite. London hoped that our process of continually creating and destroying material goods would mimic nature’s own ability to create and destroy. Yet, is that really what nature does? The difference between nature and our material goods is that nature truly works in a cycle, what is created and then destroyed is created again. Whereas, with our material goods, in most cases, we use nature’s finite resources to create, create, and create some more, but then what is created really isn’t ever destroyed. It is broken apart and some of it is reused, but most of it is hidden. Whether it be underground seeping through our environment or shipped across seas for different people who have less money and less rights to riffle through.  

The fact that those who promoted Planned Obsolescence eighty years ago started with the assumption that, first, nature’s resources were infinite and, second, that what they were proposing mimics nature is at the crux of our current economic crossroads. Although we can understand the practice and can appreciate the benefits that some of us have reaped from such a practice, we are now in an age where this continuous “catch and release” is clearly unsustainable. But what is one to do? Well, to realize that Planned Obsolescence exists to feed our consumerism and that consumerism is at the heart of our economy is essential. It is the one constant. It is why interest rates went down after the 2008 Financial Crisis and why George W Bush told us to go shopping after 9/11.

If we stopped shopping then all the cracks in our fragile economy would start to appear, but in order for us to truly move into the renewable age then we must create differently and act differently, and move beyond a consumerist economy. We cannot think in fear. London did not believe people would take his policy seriously because, quote, “for it is new, for it is hard for us to abandon our old notions and adjust ourselves to a new way of thinking.” Well, we should not make the same mistake. Imagine how your world would be different if you didn’t have to continually spend money on the same things. Imagine how our world would be different if we didn’t have to continue to work to make the same things. Would our lives be fuller and our knowledge greater? Would we be living with 100% Renewable Energy? Would we have already made it to Mars? To imagine beyond our current reality is necessary for our evolution and our continued success.

Anecdotes: Our Periods and the Menstrual Cup

About a year ago I came across a Canadian charitable organization called–Femme International. An NGO working in Kenya and Tanzania committed to advancing the rights of women and girls through targeted programs that focus on menstruation, sexual health, and feminine hygiene. Through education and the creation of a “Femme Kit” young women and girls are given the means to manage their periods safely and hygienically, central to the success of their “Femme Kit” is the menstrual cup.

For many women and girls who live in the lowest economic bracket “having your period” is more than a nuisance. It can create economic strain, and in the most serious of situations prevent an individual from consistently participating in the regular routines of societal life. In Kenya, the average cost of a package of sanitary pads is $1 CAN. Pretty reasonable, right? Well, when you consider the average daily income of an unskilled labourer in Kenya is $1.50 CAN, this means that women must often choose between properly managing their periods or food and shelter. Often, women resort to other means: leaves, newspapers, rags, etc. which either do not work or lead to infections and discomfort. Due to the fact that some young women are unable to access appropriate menstrual products, girls in Kenya miss an average of 4.9 days of school a month–a direct result of their period.

The menstrual cup or known by it’s various brand names:The Diva Cup, The MeLuna Cup, or the MoonCup is a medical grade silicone cup that is inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual fluid. They are anti-microbial, do not contain any harmful bleeches or chemicals, unlike the majority of pads and tampons, and there is no threat to Toxic Shock Syndrome. Depending on your flow you may keep the silicone cup inserted for up to 12 hours, and, lastly, if maintained properly one silicone cup’s life cycle could last up to ten years. This means that a young women in Kenya can attend an eight hour school day or go to work without worrying about having to find clean toilets.

It means that all women, can save a tremendous amount of money over the long term by switching from disposable products to non-disposable products. It means that every woman can have a positive impact on the environment by completely erasing the garbage created by disposable pads and tampons. However, although the positive impact may be obvious for those in developing countries, who must deal with alternatives that are too expensive and a public infrastructure that is inadequate for their needs, to the average Westerner the change to something better is slow to come. In the United States, an estimated 12 billion pads and 7 billion tampons are thrown out annually. On average, women throw out 300 pounds of feminine hygiene related products in their lifetime. So, why the hesitation? If the option is out there, why aren’t we choosing it?

I am going to be abrupt about this–My periods suck! I won’t be coy. For two days out of the five every month I kick back tylenol on the regular to relieve a pain that is intense and unforgiving. The pressure, the bloating, my vagina feels like it is on fire. The pain makes it impossible for me to hide my cycle, so I don’t. I have never missed work, but every time I stroll in and a co-worker asks, “How are you doing?” I tell them. “I am ill. So, if I grimace in pain or lean against a table know why and if you can have some sympathy than that is appreciated.” I suppose because the pain can be great that it has forced me to re-negotiate my relationship with my body. If you can barely feel it and it’s simply an annoyance then perhaps one can just shoo shoo it away. Shoo shoo the negativity, the grossness, and the shame.

That’s how I was taught–to give it no mind. When I think about my menstrual cycle or menstrual cycles in general what comes to the foreground are little anecdotes that span my decades. The majority of these anecdotes are saddled with a deep sense of embarrassment, so deep that at the age of thirty-one the act of remembering forces my body to shudder. This shame was nurtured not by my father, husband, or brothers, but by some of the women in my life, my friends. It has made me wonder, as women, about our collective relationship to our bodies and its processes.

One of these anecdotes occurred in 2007. I was living in Edinburgh, Scotland and sharing one room and one bathroom with two other girls–one I had known for a few weeks and the other for ten years. If I can remember correctly the issue at hand for my two roommates was that in Edinburgh they could not find tampons with plastic applicators, only paper. I piped up, always in my somewhat offensive, unfeeling, analytical way, that I did not understand their issue, “I’ve used tampons without an applicator for years.” Their response. “That is disgusting.” Now, the only explanation I could surmise from their remark is that a tampon sans an applicator means that your fingers are up close and personal with one’s body, an applicator provides some distance.

One will not find distance with a menstrual cup or cloth pantyliners and pads, that is for sure, and perhaps this is where the crux of the problem lies. Our shame which has been nourished by moments of being scorned, ridiculed, and embarrassed has made using products that can be easily hidden and easily thrown away a more personal, comfortable choice. I love the fact that my menstrual cycle no longer creates waste. I love that my menstrual cup can show me how much I actually bleed. I love that, other than the pain, some days and nights, because of my menstrual cup I sometimes forget I am even on my period. I love that my cloth panty-liners feel like a pillow for my vagina. Yet, to get to the point where I could enjoy these benefits I had to overcome the alienation I felt with my own body. Periods shouldn’t be gross. They can be painful, annoying, ill-timed, and on the other hand cleansing and a good excuse to enjoy a binge day of great TV. If we could all gain the courage to address our feelings surrounding our periods, I have a sneaking suspicion that, just maybe, ourselves and our environment will be better off.     


The best Information that I can find on the menstrual cup is The Diva Cup website.

Little Tidbits from my experience:

(1) Do not give up on it too quickly. The first time I used a menstrual cup, the experience was horrible. It wouldn’t work at all! It took a few times to be able to be comfortable enough to insert it properly. With a little patience you will be able to master it pretty quickly.

(2) I have leaked! And, this is because I am a heavy bleeder. I can fill up a menstrual cup in a few hours. However, from what I learnt I am a rarity, and this is why I use cloth panty-liners. For most women, this shouldn’t be an issue.


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