Recently, the creator of website Buy Me Once, Tara Button, was photographed holding a Le Creuset casserole dish. They’re gorgeous dishes, cast in France from solid iron, with a lifetime warranty. The Design Files, the barometer for cool in Australia, often photographs kitchens with one sitting casually atop a gleaming stove (‘What – this old thing?’). They retail in Australia at around $500. My friend, Sally, has one, in a deep blue, and I covet it, even though I have a casserole dish I barely use.
It was this very dish, Tara Button says, that inspired her to start a website selling ‘forever’ products that will enable people to save money, the planet and their feelings of guilt:
Every time I read something about the environment, I would get this guilty feeling that I wasn’t doing anything. I kept thinking, if people did buy things that were built to last it would have such a positive impact – both economically and environmentally.
I recognise that guilty feeling, and the need to assuage it, to do something. It’s what drives my sporadic donations to charity and my panicky decision-making grocery shopping – is it more environmentally friendly to buy non-organic butter from Australia or organic butter from New Zealand?!
The buy-me-once (BMO) movement aims to promote the purchase of high-quality products designed to last – ‘Let’s throw away our throwaway culture’ – and has emerged, in part, as a response to planned obsolescence, the deliberate creation of products designed to become obsolete, either through design or marketing, a strategy satirised perfectly by The Onion:
The new device is an improvement over the old device, making it more attractive for purchase by all Americans,’ said Thomas Wakefield, a spokesperson for the large conglomerate that manufactures the new device. ‘The old device is no longer sufficient. Consumers should no longer have any use or longing for the old device.
But, even if it gets rid of that guilty feeling, saves resources and keeps junk out of landfill, is the BMO movement a true solution to planned obsolescence? Can I get a gorgeous Le Creuset and help save the planet?
‘It’s an excellent trend in consumer goods,’ my friend, environmental consultant, Charlie Davie, emailed me. ‘When we consider the disposability of an item before we acquire it, and begin to question or refuse disposability to the extent that it shapes our consumption habits, then it becomes a very useful part’ of a solution.
The launch of Tara’s website has garnered plenty of mainstream media coverage, and that alone is a positive. I wonder how many people may now consider the longevity of a purchase after simply reading a breezy article?
BMO is a form of green or ethical consumerism which believes that ‘with every dollar you spend you have an impact on the planet and its people’. The benefits aren’t just individual: as more consumers move towards an ethically or environmentally positive product (or away from a negative one), the theory is that businesses will take notice and change their practices on a larger scale. We want ‘to challenge manufacturers to build products that don’t break so easily. (We know they can!),’ says the BMO website. Yes, they can, but will they?
‘The truth is that we have the technology to make these appliances last,’ Tara said. ‘If we can put a man on Mars, which is what they are talking of doing in the next few years, we can jolly well make a kettle that doesn’t die on us after a few cups of tea.’
Even if they do – perhaps putting out a token greenwashed line of products – many large companies won’t be doing it ‘to address over consumption or environmental degradation – only profit,’ Charlie continued. ‘So to buy a longer lasting item from [a large company] is possibly a good thing, but you are still supporting an organisation that drives resource depletion and overconsumption at a fundamental level.’
And, without getting too deep into environmental political theory, that’s the crux with green consumerism (along with the fact it’s an avenue of action only available to those with cash – a Le Creuset costs 1/6th of of Kiribati’s GNI per capita): it is asking the market to solve the problem that the market has created. Green consumerism says: Don’t feel guilty, and don’t change your lifestyle! Just buy better – beautiful, stylish, delicious – stuff.
It doesn’t challenge the fundamental structure of our consuming society that is built on unsustainable growth. ‘We live in a culture where we are constantly being encouraged to want more and more,’ Michele Burton from Australian Conservation Foundation wrote to me, ‘and to think that we “need” it.’ When we believe that a product is green, we feel justified in our purchase of it. Therefore, BMO ‘can give a reason to buy a more diverse range of consumer goods, thus fulfilling people’s desire to keep on consuming,’ said Michele.
Charlie agreed. ‘BMO is not a remedy for planned obsolescence, and the broader system of disposability.’
In order for BMO to be part of an effective solution we need to also consider the principles of anti-consumerism. Anti-consumerism demands that we deeply question our lives: what do we actually need? It asks, ‘how much is enough?’ and it asks us to not ‘just buy green or ethically-produced goods’ but to be less dependent on buying things to feel good about ourselves. That way, writes Charlie, ‘we move from being consumers to humans; from the market to a community’.
So, for example, even if it is excellently made and has a lifetime warranty, do we need a casserole dish? When my daughter was young, and so was I, we only had a few cheap cooking pots with mismatched lids. And the casserole tasted the same then cooked in a cheap pot as it does now in my BMO Italian-made stainless-steel cookware, or as it may taste cooked in a Le Creuset.
Finally, of course, the onus should not be on individuals to effect change. A true solution to planned obsolescence requires systemic action. Earlier, I cynically asked: even with consumers using purchasing power to influence them, will companies actually substantially change their business practises? Well, they will if we make them.
France has introduced legislation that will force manufacturers to inform consumers how long their appliances will last, and how long spare parts for the product will be available. Faulty products will also have to be repaired or replaced for free within two years of being purchased. I reached out to Greens MP, Adam Bandt – what could governments do here to help oppose planned obsolescence? ‘Manufacturers should be made to adopt product stewardship that requires them to take responsibility for a product at the end of its life,’ he replied. ‘The Product Stewardship Act was passed in 2011 but it hasn’t been properly activated. The government must start putting products on the list, starting with all electronic goods, then moving onto bigger products, like cars. When companies that make products are responsible for their waste they will start to re-think how long their products last.’
Choosing a BMO product over a piece of junk can be an environmentally positive act, but a true solution to planned obsolescence, and consumerism in general, needs more action from government, and it needs us, as a society, to engage in deep thought and discussions around our genuine needs. Unfortunately, that means there is no excuse for me to buy a shiny, baby-blue Le Creuset casserole dish and place it casually atop my stove.