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Decay by design

Andy Whitwell Thursday, January 3 2008

Talk of environmental protection and environmental damage is on just about everybody’s lips. But if we listen to the words and observe the actions, of Governments and businesses, it is almost entirely lip service. Saving for a rainy day is not applied to the finite resources of the earth and the global ecosystem which sustain our life.

I am an omnivore. My mother regarded all red meat as a potential source of sickness and disease that could only be mitigated by exposure to very high temperatures for an extended period of time. My dad was a vegetarian all his life. In the late 1960’s, my father’s and my culinary desires partially merged. I had discovered that meat did not have to be dark brown, and able to bounce when dropped, and I demanded the right to prepare my own steaks, succulent, juicy and pink on the inside!

My father demanded that his food no longer be tainted with the fumes from heated flesh. He gave me money to buy my own cooker. In those early post-UDI years in a Rhodesia under international sanctions, such things were not readily available. So I visited South Africa.

At a huge store in Pietermaritzburg I purchased a Pineware rotisserie and grill. It has a clockwork timer, a single light to indicate it is plugged in and two mechanical rocker switches, one for the heating element and one for the rotisserie motor. It does not flash, beep or download emails, but it sure grills a mean steak and the spit-roast chickens ooze with flavour.

It has followed me back and forth around Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific on my various overseas contracts. I have it now on my kitchen counter in Trinidad, still with all its original parts in good working order after 40 years of almost daily use.

Pineware still manufactures appliances in South Africa but I do not know if the current products are as durable as those of the past.

PROFIT DRIVER

As competition drives unit margins to the minimum, profit becomes a product of turnover. All good, sound economics, we are told; good for the consumer. Simply put, producers need to sell a lot of their product. Therefore, the last thing a manufacturer really wants is durability, certainly not beyond the warranty period. Whilst the fresh food industry is investing vast resources, developing novel technologies to extend the shelf-life of perishables, much of the manufacturing sector appears to be equally committed to ensuring the untimely decay of their products.

And to make sure we replace one lot of shoddy merchandise with the next, billions in advertising budgets exhort us to buy the latest, to be in fashion, to flaunt our possessions. The economic system is dependent on rampant consumerism and over consumption whatever the consequences in environmental destruction.

I have never been driven by fashion or even chic and I keep everything until it no longer has practical use, and long after it has lost all commercial value. Exhortations to reuse and recycle are largely redundant in the face of utilisation to extinction. I therefore still have in my cupboard socks and shirts that my mother sewed my name tag on at school, some 40 or more years ago. They are not stored as museum specimens evoking fond sartorial memories of a distant upbringing but have been in constant use, a testament to the fact that, like my rotisserie, in the 1960’s many things were made to last.

Designed obsolescence has been around for decades, but now the deterioration to uselessness seems to be planned with single-minded precision. I still have trousers I bought in South London in the mid 70’s. Now, 30 years on, the first signs of deterioration are creeping in. Yet every pair of jeans I have bought in this new millennium has failed to reach its first anniversary in reasonable condition.

The weak spots are built in at manufacture – look closely and you’ll see them – over-tight stitching on the back pockets, so even if nothing is ever put in them, the material of the seat is cut through in successive washings.

Belt loops that tear out of the material within a few months, and a waistband that separates from the rest of the garment. Consider how clever this is. Just apply a little special workmanship during manufacture, and before the year is out, that which holds your pants up has separated from the rest of the garment. Holes in knees became fashionable, fancy patches can adorn a worn seat, but having nothing below the belt is neither chic nor legal.



ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

Discarding and replacing garments, even those made from natural fibres has considerable environmental impact. Globally more pesticides are applied to cotton than any other crop. Add the carbon dioxide and organic fumes released from all the transportation moving cotton to the gin, thread to the textile factory, material, zips and rivets to the garment factory and clothes to the stores.

Accumulatively, the components of a pair of jeans have travelled about 40,000 miles by the time you buy them, and used 12 ounces of pesticide and fertiliser and 2,900 gallons of water. Consider that 450 million jeans are bought annually in the USA alone, then globally perhaps a billion are discarded and replaced every year due to planned obsolescence. Apply this to many of the things we buy; and on this vast scale the environmental cost of designer decay is immense.

These facts are neither new nor unknown. It is ten years since Friends of the Earth published detailed analyses of the increased consumer expenditure and reduced service value of stock resulting from obsolescence. It is neither new nor unknown that in that same ten years governments have done nothing to oppose premature obsolescence and businesses have done their best to turn durables, in perception as well as actuality, into consumables.

If governments were serious about reducing waste and resource depletion, they could, for example, make sales tax or VAT inversely proportional to the length of warranty offered with durable products. Perhaps a 30% reduction for a 3 year warranty, a 50% reduction for a 5 year warranty and tax free for warranties of 10 and more years. If the duration of the warranty had to be printed on the outside of the packaging, it would be easy to police and a competitive marketing tool.

So, might we expect such environmental initiatives from our Government? The Prime Minister has recently returned from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda, talking about carbon dioxide and global warming.

He spoke forcefully on rejecting the per capita ranking of nations’ carbon emissions, and the need for TT to consider expensive technologies for scrubbing CO2 and other pollutants from industrial discharges.

I did not hear one word on carbon sequestration and implementing the inexpensive technology of planting trees. But then considering something, however expensive, is always cheaper and easier than doing something, however economical.

Perhaps what has not been spent on turning our high mountains into high rises has gone on lip balm to ease the lip service.



Andy Whitwell is Managing Director and owner of The Pathmaster Ltd.



The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Guardian Life of the Caribbean Limited or the Newsday.

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