Annie Leonard of the fantastic internet video “The Story of Stuff” fame has a new video out, “The Story of Electronics.” Here it is:
The tech-trash issue is something I’ve followed since seeing Elizabeth Grossman talk about her book High Tech Trash in college. Leonard’s video does a great job laying out the general problem, which is basically that a lot of resources and toxics go into producing electronic gadgets with short lives. Those toxics don’t disappear when we’re done using the device, and cause great harm to manufacturers and recyclers. It’s a great video, and I’m glad she is drawing attention to the issue (with one nitpick, below).
Leonard’s solution is: “Make ’em safe, make ’em last, take ’em back.” I think the first and last ideas there are great. Stricter regulations of chemicals, resources, and processes that are harmful to people and the environment (“Make ’em safe”) can help create safer working conditions for people who create and dismantle high-tech products, especially in the lightly-regulated countries to which we ship our high-tech trash.
And, requiring manufacturers to develop systems for disposal (“Take ’em back”) is a reasonable request. Certainly, providing (and encouraging) an easy way for consumers to get rid of their gadgets in a regulated way makes sense. Having the manufacturers—who might be able to reuse components—lead that effort is intuitive.
My quibble comes at “Make ’em last.” The video takes aim at fat-cat executives purposefully trying to offload costs by designing products with short lives while knowingly avoiding safety precautions in factories. There’s probably a little truth in that picture, but a lot of the problem lies with us. There’s huge consumer demand for cheap, short-lived electronics—mobile phones are a prime example. It might sound nice to create regulations that manufactures must design products to last more than, say, five years. But the speed of high-tech innovation (And the way technology changes our lives) is incredible. Getting most consumers to resist the newest gadget that comes with a smoother interface, better games, sharper graphics, better connectivity, or more storage? That seems a stretch, to me.
Here’s an example: five years ago, a lot of folks owned a cell phone AND a music player, which they often carried together. When phones that doubled as music players hit the market, it was an awfully compelling innovation to get folks to trim the number of gadgets they manage and carry by upgrading. When Internet connectivity was delivered to phones a few years later, things changed again.
Leonard does make sense arguing for products that can be upgraded to accommodate for new technology without buying a whole new device, but that isn’t always feasible (I think of the strides made in memory storage in the last few years, full of changes that couldn’t have been seen by developers a few years before).
So that’s the (small) bone I have to pick. Regulation to make devices safe and require manufacturer take-back programs could alleviate a lot of the environmental and health problems. But making devices last longer doesn’t help curb consumers’ desire to add the latest functionality to their device. The solution to that is probably rooted in some long-term cultural changes around conspicuous consumption and making do with older technology.
But don’t let my quibbling deter you from watching the video. As usual, Leonard brings a high-quality production and easy-to-understand script that make the video appealing and useful. And while I disagree with part of her solution, I do think it’s worth watching and sending along to your techno-junky friends so they can watch it on the new smart phone they bought last week.
Eric, I think you’re correctly identifying a useful distinction between demand driven and supply driven changes in consumer purchasing decisions. For example, the faster technology changes, the faster prodecuts are deemed obsolete—a problem we can safely expect to intensify. And, I agree that current consumer preferences are causing a great deal of trouble, as manifested in our disposable society. (new is better, historical value is low, etc).As for that middle factor – build it to last. This probably won’t help us manage our electronics waste stream, but in other areas like housing and vehicles, I think it makes a great deal of sense.
Thanks for the comment Morgan. I totally agree that the make it last principle could be well-applied in a lot of sectors, just not high-tech.That said, there’s also probably some market for longer-lasting high-tech products. I certainly know people that don’t upgrade their cell phone every six months, and would be willing to pay more for something that lasted them five years. But if there were a true market for this, it seems like manufacturers would have jumped on it by now.