I have a professional background as an industrial designer, designing and manufacturing hard good consumer products for the last 15 years with dozens of Chinese and Taiwanese factories. Through that experience, I’ve gradually come to feel that we desperately need to design a much better system in our society of evaluating which products are worthy of designing and manufacturing into reality than merely the traditional capitalist line “it’ll make a buck.” Instead of thinking about merely what can be made, perhaps we should start thinking in terms of what should be made, and why.
We don’t need ten thousand varieties of ketchup and cereal in the grocery aisle, which leads to analysis paralysis, and the paradox of choice. We don’t need a million styles of purses and backpacks, watches and phones, pens and cutlery, furniture and wall decorations. We can’t continue making goods just because we can, just because they look good, or make us feel good, or because someone will buy them, or because they cleverly replace product we made just 2 years ago that we intentionally designed to break (planned obsolescence), or because they make some classes look better than others (conspicuous consumption), and thus add to class warfare, vanity, and inequality. Or just because they will make us rich by easily mass producing and dropshipping it all from China, safely tucked away out of our sight, and thus outside of our responsibility.
We can do better. We must do better. There will come a point when we have no choice but to do things better. Do we want to wait for that? We may already be to that point.
Some people might argue that the market will decide what gets made, and so we shouldn’t worry about it; the stuff that is worthy and right will succeed, while the stuff that isn’t will fail. But that’s the problem! We can’t just let the market decide! The market has decided for the past century, and look now where we are. We need to use our minds more, our moral capacities, and be intelligent creators that cooperate with this planet, not just dominate it, and be a force that acts against all forms of greed. The free market will want nearly anything and everything that could possibly be made to be made, because it can, because people can strip dollars out of it, and then much of it will end up being thrown into landfills or the oceans, filling our world up with junk for ages to come.
Now, given, my professional experience has particularly been in designing and making mostly swag, promotional products, stuff you get from company giveaways in marketing campaigns, and much of it was probably unnecessary in the grand scheme of things, sacrificed on the false altar of advertising, encouraging people to buy things they don’t really need, so maybe I’m particularly biased in terms of just how many mountains of stuff we can create if the sky is the limit, if everything is possible. We made stuff simply to make a buck, for us, our shareholders and owners, for our salaries, and for the corporations that marketed themselves with all that we made (and who the hell cared what products or services they were creating for their customers).
It might have served some minor practical purposes, and we tried making it all look very pretty and desirable, but at what costs? What kind of social, global, planetary, humane, deep supply chain, and end-of-product-life responsibilities were we really truly conscious of? How much indestructible polypropylene plastic did we basically ship directly from our China factories to the landfill? How many people did we exploit for pittance wages to enrich ourselves while patting ourselves on the back for a job well done and good business?
We often think that recycling is the answer, and that we are all doing good by recycling, but this has perhaps been an illusion the whole time. Consider this recent article in Rolling Stone about the horrors of our modern use of plastics:
For Americans who religiously sort their recycling, it’s upsetting to hear about plastic being lumped in with toxic waste. But the poisonous parallel is apt. When it comes to plastic, recycling is a misnomer. “They really sold people on the idea that plastics can be recycled because there’s a fraction of them that are,” says Puckett. “It’s fraudulent. When you drill down into plastics recycling, you realize it’s a myth.”-Tim Dickinson
What fraction is recycled?
Since 1950, the world has created 6.3 trillion kilograms of plastic waste — and 91 percent has never been recycled even once, according to a landmark 2017 study published in the journal Science Advances. Unlike aluminum, which can be recycled again and again, plastic degrades in reprocessing, and is almost never recycled more than once. A plastic soda bottle, for example, might get downcycled into a carpet. Modern technology has hardly improved things: Of the 78 billion kilograms of plastic packaging materials produced in 2013, only 14 percent were even collected for recycling, and just two percent were effectively recycled to compete with virgin plastic. “Recycling delays, rather than avoids, final disposal,” the Science authors write. And most plastics persist for centuries.-Tim Dickinson
If we are going to recycle our waste, we better damn recycle it, figuring out how to actually do this, and not just pretend we are doing it, moving our food around our plate as if we’ve eaten it. Until we do that, we perhaps shouldn’t congratulate ourselves that we are recycling at all. It’s mostly all smoke and mirrors.
What’s the solutions to all of this? How do we intelligently decide what should get designed and made in our society, because we have thought very carefully and consciously about it, and deemed it absolutely necessary, needed, sufficient, practical, facilitating, purposeful, helpful, good, sustainable, beautiful, and in harmony with nature, and not merely excess, vanity, options, choices, more shiny, faster, bigger, classier, more pleasurable, etc.? How do we not make things so people buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to impress people they don’t like? How do we wake up and consciously design and manufacture what is actually needed in this world, what should be made, because it has passed our tests for needfulness, for sufficiency, for the common good, for the health of our ecosystem, and for the livelihood of humanity and beautification of life in the long term? How do we awaken and become aware of deep time?
Because right now it seems like a crap show free-for-all. Tens of thousands of companies make shit today because they think they can squeeze a few pennies out of that shit, stripping the ground and the forests and the oceans and mines of their resources to transform it into dollars, and then sending the byproduct (which is the product) to smolder in heaps of trash or float/sink in the oceans and rivers or fill the sky with smoke. It is exchanging life for property. Do we really want to continue playing in this toilet until we bury ourselves in it? Is that success? Is that business? Maybe we need a much better filter for what we humans make.
There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that, that more choice is better than some choice… Everybody needs a fishbowl... The absence of some metaphorical fishbowl is a recipe for misery and, I suspect, disaster.-Barry Schwartz, TED talk on the paradox of choice
Or as Seth Godin has noted,
The problem with the race to the bottom is that you might win.
This is what it feels like to win.
By nearly all economic indicators, we are “winning.” Congratulations, us. Well done.
But maybe less is more. And who doesn’t want more, right? But maybe this time it really will be more, instead of just more stuff we don’t really need, and we don’t need to make it to begin with.
I apologize for the extra-heated nature and fiery language of this post. I just feel deeply frustrated and passionate that we are doing things tragically wrong in this world, and we are nearly all blind to it. Utterly blind. I was blind, and still am in many ways. I repent. If this article makes you angry, then perhaps we should be angry. Perhaps our anger will give us the energy to compel us into passionate action to change the system, to do things differently, to change our own behavior, and I’m the first one I’m speaking to. If your anger is because you think I’m grossly mistaken, please tell me where I’ve gone wrong, and I will correct myself.