What we once thought of as a socioeconomic system that would bring wealth and happiness to humanity, has today become a driver of environmental destruction, socioeconomic injustices, unforeseen financial risks, human diseases, impoverished health and increased stress. The ready-made society that we have created for ourselves on a global scale is no longer serving its desired purpose but rather contradicting it.
A “ready-made society” here refers to a society in which consumer products (such as clothing, shoes, accessories, home textiles, furniture, IT-devices, home appliances and other consumables) are designed and manufactured – often in large volumes and similar varieties – based merely on trend forecasts, estimated sales and expected consumer behavior.
In a ready-made society, production is primarily driven by businesses’ urge to maximize sales, increase economic profits and grow market shares. Products are rarely designed and manufactured to meet any real need or specific demand by customers. Rather, businesses rely on effective PR-strategies to create and impose constructed demands for their pre-designed and pre-manufactured products, and customers have to adjust their preferences to what is already made available to them. Without any other option or a strong character, customers can easily fall for the temptation to buy the ready-made products (and more than needed), perhaps reasoning that “they cannot influence what is already there but only buy what is presented to them”. In other words, the ready-made society creates an impression that consumers cannot be held responsible for an unsustainable act of buying the wrong or too much products, as they have not been involved in their creation at any point. What is not evident to most people however is that production was actually based on previous sales numbers and consumer behavior.
This ready-made society is essentially a result of the widespread industry strategy called “planned obsolescence”, which has been dominating our modern industry since at least the 1950s. This strategy implies that products are designed and manufactured at the onset to become obsolete within only a short time span, typically due to broken parts (which were intentionally made to break easily), an impoverished functionality (intentionally made to be weak) or an out-dated style (intentionally made to be replaced by a new style). In this way, the industry is able to create an endless demand for new products as the previous ones break, become outdated or begin to function improperly. With this short-term profit-focused strategy, a global market of ready-made products is created and maintained. Companies today rely heavily on this inter-dependency between consumers and their market shares.
Yet the truth is, most people rarely need mass-produced and ready-made products, may it be clothes, home textiles or IT-devices. Especially in more developed countries, the need to fill our homes with additional pillows, glasses, appliances, table cloths, t-shirts, pants or accessories is no longer real. This may have been true in the 40’s or 50’s when our homes were not filled to the brim with “stuff” and we still had some actual need for basic garments and household items. Today, in contrast, people long for the “exclusive and special”, items that hold personal meaning and add value to life – things that we feel emotional bonds to, in terms of beauty, intrinsic values, history or special personal meaning.
Furthermore, we can no longer ignore the widespread adverse environmental impacts that modern society has caused, and still does, in terms of greenhouse emissions, changing climate, melting icecaps, polluted air quality, destroyed forests, impoverished marine and river ecosystems and reduced biodiversity in many parts of the world etc. More so, our modern society has also brought various adverse impacts on human health, particularly in urban and industrial areas of developing countries. Nearby and downstream of textile and garment factory sites and conventional cotton farming areas, for example, studies have shown increased frequencies of neurological diseases and various cancer forms due to the release of toxic chemicals and substances into the environment. Even in more developed areas, our “modern” society has caused air pollution, degraded water quality, noise disturbances, higher stress-levels, and in some instances, increased prevalence of various cancer types and pulmonary diseases linked to lifestyle and/or the environment.
The time has come for our global manufacturing industries to transition from a “ready-made production approach” to an “on-demand production strategy”. We need to build industries that are meant to serve people’s and society’s actual needs and specific demands to meet also the long-term and higher good of society, as opposed to meet constructed desires of consumers underpinned by short-term economic interests of the companies. The new “on-demand strategy” is likely to be the missing piece-in-the-puzzle of a wider global sustainability strategy that will help to create a society in which humanity can live in harmony with Nature, and in which the true needs of people and societies are ethically, fairly and responsibly met.
Written by Dr. Anna Brismar. First published on www.greenstrategy.se, December 21, 2016.