Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Task 6: The story of stuff

Through the documentary-style video The Story of Stuff presented by Annie Leonard, the focal audience of industrial designers can gain a far more in-depth insight into the materials economy. This understanding is highly beneficial in terms of design, as it is the responsibility of the designer to be aware of the lifecycle of products and 'stuff' as it moves through a system. In this video, Leonard explains how the process of production in a linear system cannot run on a finite planet indefinitely.
The corporation and governmentally influenced materials economy can be broken down into five different stages; extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal. This is the process in which stuff exists; or in short the lifecycle of a product. The quote captured from Victor Lebeau "Our enormously productive economy...demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption...we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate" marked the wartime boom, where the materials economy was kick-started by corporations to reach the levels of production and consumption as we see them today.
If we take a closer and more analytical look at each stage within the materials economy, it can become more obvious as to where the problems lie and how solutions can be proposed to create a better system. The first stage within the system is extraction. Natural materials are exploited, and at current the world is running out of resources as a result of the over production of stuff. After the extraction process, materials move along the system to production. Natural and synthetic materials are combined to produce a myriad of toxic-rich products. This is a harmful step in the production process, not only to the factory workers who are exposed to dangerous chemicals, but also to consumers and the environment. A study was conducted revealing that the United States produces 4 billion pounds of toxic pollution annually, demonstrating that revision of the system is crucial for the realisation of a better environmentally sustainable solution.

The third stage of the linear system is distribution. Leonard explains how within distribution prices are kept down, people are kept buying and the inventory is kept moving. This is maintained by the externalisation of costs, where within previous stages of the system people and communities are wasted through loss of their natural space and clean air. Following this stage is consumption. The consumption of products is linked to the distribution by the 'golden arrow', or the heart of the system. At this stage advertising and media play a big role; making the population feel unhappy about what they have, inspiring them to fix this problem by shopping. Buyers are sucked into advertising but through product advertisement, the media effectively hide the extraction, production and disposal environmental impacts associated with that particular product; these occur outside the buyers vision.

Consumerism has increased to create a society with materialistic values. During the 1950's the concept of designed obsolescence caught on, where products were designed to break quickly, but leave the buyer with enough faith to go and buy another one. This is otherwise known as planned obsolescence, where a product has been designed for the dump. A classic example of this is computer hardware. With rapid technological development, computers are getting smaller and more compact but also causing models to become 'out of date'. As Leonard points out when closely examining an older computer model against a newer one, the only differing element of the design was one small piece, which, across each newer design had been slightly varied in shape, making it impossible for the consumer to replace that one piece; therefore forcing them to discard to old computer and buy a brand new one.

On the other hand the term perceived obsolescence relates to the buyers throwing away goods that are still perfectly useful. In society today, people have more stuff but less time for things that make them happy. This results in an endless cycle of consuming, earning money to consume and watching advertisements that tell them to consume more. This all occurs at the 'golden arrow' within the system. An example that can be used to explain this is within fashion. The world of fashion alternated between wide-heeled and narrow-heeled shoes featured as being in style within a bi-annual cycle. Through the footwear bought by people in response to these changes in fashion, society is able to judge and point out those not contributing to the 'golden arrow' or the fuelled endless cycle of consumerism.

The consumption stage is directly followed by disposal. The final stage within the materials economy creates a huge environmental impact. It has been calculated that one percent of products purchased are still used six months after the date of purchase. This means that ninety-nine percent of products become waste. For every one garbage bin of waste produced within the home, seventy garbage bins of waste of equal size have been created during production. The pollution of air, land, water, landfill and incineration of waste has resulted in the release of harmful toxins and super toxins into the environment; creating a problem that needs a solution. The introduction of recycling has reduced the pressure on the disposal and extraction stages, but this concept will never be enough to maintain today's level and methods of production, or get to the core of a problem associated with a system in crisis.
Through the analysis of the linear materials economy system at every stage of a products lifecycle, Leonard comes to the conclusion that a new school of thinking should be introduced. A system that is fuelled by sustainability and equity, where ideas such as green chemistry, zero waste, closed loop production, renewable energy and local living economies can be made a reality. Although many people may consider these proposals too idealistic, Leonard supports her school of thought on the basis that people created an old way, so why not create a new one?

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