Essay: How can design arrest the consumerism binge of the last twenty years?

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  • How can design arrest the consumerism binge of the last twenty years?
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Make, take, dispose and revert.

How can design arrest the consumerism binge of the last twenty years.

Forms of modern life may differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change. To ‘be modern’ means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively; not so much just ‘to be’, let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying underdefined. Each new structure which replaces the previous one as soon as it is declared old-fashioned and past its use-by date is only another momentary settlement – acknowledged as temporary and ‘until further notice’. Being always, at any stage and at all times, ‘post-something’ is also an undetachable feature of modernity. As time flows on, ‘modernity’ changes its forms in the manner of the legendary Proteus . . . What was some time ago dubbed (erroneously) ‘post-modernity’ and what I’ve chosen to call, more to the point, ‘liquid modernity’, is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago ‘to be modern’ meant to chase ‘the final state of perfection’ — now it means an infinity of improvement, with no ‘final state’ in sight and none desired. With these words mr. Bauman defines what how the concept of improvement has changed in contemporary times.


In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler, an American writer and futurist, known for his works discussing modern technologies, with emphasis on their effects on cultures worldwide, deals with man’s ability to change and reaction to change. The various changes experienced in life produce stress and this leads to a strain on the body’s defense mechanisms and results in illness. There is a certain amount of change that men can handle and this is called the adaptive range. If the amount of change is below this level, the result is boredom and people seeking more excitement in life. If the level of change is above the adaptive range, man’s coping mechanism breaks down and the result is destruction and irrationality. This is what Toffler says future shock will consist of if society does not develop methods to deal with the changes.

Toffler does a good job in explaining how and why people select the lifestyles that they select. Adherence to a particular lifestyle makes the individual a member of a subcult and cuts down on the number of choices and decisions the individual has to make.- It avoids the problems of over-selection and over-stimulation. Major life decisions occur when the individual changes his lifestyle. This involves having to confront all of the choices involved in the selection of a new lifestyle with a new set of values to adopt.

A large portion of the book is devoted to the study of relationships, with the five major kinds of relationships being defined and discussed. The result of change is a shortening of the different relationship with a shift from permanence to impermanence. Relationships are now characterized by transience. This causes a change in values and places a greater strain on man to adopt.



There are many ways how designers and consumers could invert this trend, the advance in networks linking people and “things” (I.O.T.) across the globe could create new opportunities, and a new approach to how produce is manufactured backed by a slight cultural change may help sustain a healthier market and lifestyle.


With the exponential acceleration in technological development, many traditional craft skills may be lost in the pursuit of the quickest and cheapest way to manufacture, market and chuck into landfill.

The result has come to be known as the “take, make, dispose” economy, based on digging up ever scarcer resources to make cheap, short-lived products, then swiftly consigning them to the landfill once they break or we grow bored with them. True, we recycle. But according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which campaigns for a more sustainable economy, recycling recovers only 20% of total material value in the consumer-goods sector. The remaining 80% still ends up as buried waste.


Let’s take software for example, now software is moving to an incredibly fast pace compared to other sectors in the market, with this speed, also the attitude towards developing is changing: individuals and interactions are being privileged over processes and tools, customer collaboration over contract negotiation and responding to change over following a plan.

This can be traced to South African entrepreneur Elon Musk: within his strategy we see traces of the the new attitude towards developing and coding, Mr Musks businesses have benefitted from collaborations between different departments for design and development and created a network to update cars produced by Tesla, in this way engineers can work and improve on the performance and efficiency of the units even once the unit is already sold, without the aid of a mechanic.

A unit linked to the manufacturer to exchange data regarding the performance of the product could inform the company directly of faults, this could ease the process of repair as well as giving unbiased feedback about the product, valuable for future product and software development.

Rather than programming objects for obsolesce products could be planned to be updated and kept relevant through time, with more space-memory for newer modules and softwares to be installed to improve performance and efficiency.


There is also a very big difference designers can make in product hardware.

A different approach has already been taken compare to the 70s and 80s where polaroid films contained also batteries to supply the device with power, so a battery was displaced every 8-10 shots, nowadays we have already different ethics towards certain products, batteries are usually rechargeable, bottles are often reused and paper recycled.


Although many markets are moving to a greener approach to production and disposal, others are increasingly worsening, apparel for example: there have never been this many consumer produced garments, with the rise of groups like Inditex and H&M the fashion has moved from boutiques to real wear house retailers, enabling the standard consumer almost infinite buying power. As a result we have market saturated with junk products and wardrobes full of short lived garments. This is a trend hard to revert: a bit like meat in the modern days, once the consumer is “spoilt” and used to being able to afford this much of anything, there is always going to be a retailer to supply this kind of demand in order to have an advantage over other businesses.


In the 1970s when the mass produced products was starting to satisfy the needs of the most,

Alvin Toffler, predicted that mass customisation would emerge as an antidote to the monotony of mass manufacturing. It’s a shift we are starting to see in the fashion industry.

Toffler predicted that it would emerge as an antidote to the monotony of mass manufacturing: a “third age” of industrial evolution would bring forth a near-infinite variation of mass-assembled goods. He coined the term “prosumer”, to describe someone who simultaneously produces and consumes an item. And mass customisation is beginning to happen in all sorts of consumer-goods businesses, where people want made-to-measure, personalised products.

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