If you’re reading this…

…you are probably on a computer. Or some sort of hand-held device. Smart phone. Pod. Pad. Berry. Tablet. Insert [catchy name of the next latest greatest cool and hip new gadget about to hit the market].

What the manufacturers of these shiny new objects fail to tell us is what goes into making them and what happens after we’re done with them.

Annie Leonard, the producer of the acclaimed The Story of Stuff video, just released her latest work, The Story of Electronics.

I think it’s well worth watching and pondering.

What I like about Annie’s films is that they’re not preachy or trying to lay big guilt trips on people. We all know that we’re part of this and that something feels a little weird about having to get a new gadget every other year just to keep up. She describes the kind of situation we’ve all become pretty familiar with:

How did I end up with so many of these things? It’s not like I’m always after the latest gadget. My old devices broke or became so obsolete I couldn’t use them anymore. And not one of these old chargers fits my computer. Augh. This isn’t just bad luck. It’s bad design. I call it “designed for the dump.”

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So much of our lives goes on in front of these big and little screens these days, and much of it has been positive. So this is not an anti-technology or going back to the stone ages appeal. In fact, it’s the opposite: If we’re really so crazy about cutting-edge technology, she seems to ask, then why on earth do we allow the companies who make these things to design them so poorly that they always seem to either break down or become obsolete as soon as you’ve barely figured out how to use them?

Well, it seems that they could make much better, longer-lasting products if they wanted to, but they don’t…

“Designed for the dump” sounds crazy, right? But when you’re trying to sell lots of stuff, it makes perfect sense. It’s a key strategy of the companies that make our electronics. In fact it’s a key part of our whole unsustainable materials economy.

Of course, it always takes two to tango: The companies who sell us these spiffy looking things without a mention of what happens before and after their gadgets’ 18 months of average glory in our possession, and us, the users, who seem to be so enthralled by their miniature flashiness that we can’t even imagine the huge trail of ugliness these things leave on their journeys to and from our hands.

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Of course, it’s easy to understand why electronics companies wouldn’t want to tell us about the true cost of making all these gadgets. Who wants to hear about “conflict” minerals like coltan or columbite-tantalite, metallic ores whose extraction is fueling mass slaughter and rape in Congo? And who wants to hear about how their discarded cell phones and laptops are exported to developing nations where all those toxic minerals are picked apart with bare hands by sweat shop labor and harmful chemicals are released from incinerators and leached from landfills, contaminating air and groundwater?

It’s just easier to keep your dirty secrets and pretend those ipods and blackberries miraculously appear at the store.

I understand that companies are worried about their bottom line, and we the consumers don’t want to imagine ourselves as enablers of rape, disease and environmental destruction. In the true sense of the word, keeping mum about the external costs of our disposable habit is like a marriage of convenience. But of course, by ignoring the problems they usually don’t go away, but just keep getting bigger until things are so bad they blow up in our faces.

You see, the companies they work for keep these human and environmental costs out of sight and off their accounting books. It’s all about externalizing the true costs of production. Instead of companies paying to make their facilities safe, the workers pay with their health. Instead of them paying to redesign using less toxics, villagers pay by losing their clean drinking water. Externalizing costs allows companies to keep designing for the dump – they get the profits and everyone else pays.

These are far from irreconcilable differences, but in order to change the dynamics, we have to all collectively wake up and acknowledge that there’s a huge problem: people all over the world are sick and dying and the planet is poisoned because of the way we’re currently communicating with each other, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

We know that the electronics companies know how to design things that last longer because that’s how they used to do it. So really, it’s a matter of us, the users of their goods, to let them know that we demand products that are responsibly sourced and recycled. Yes, it’ll cost more in the short run, but it’s nothing compared to the current cost of trashing the planet. If a company wants to call itself “green” we have to demand that they back it up with real and meaningful action. Acknowledge that your products’ life cycle spans more than its time at the store and in our pockets. It’s not enough to increase your product’s battery capacity by a few minutes, but you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is and invest your profits into cleaning up the manufacturing and recycling process.

And we the consumers, well, we have responsibilities, too. First, we have to stop dreaming about new toys every 18 months…

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We have to come to terms with the fact that we too should be willing to pay a few extra bucks to get better quality products that last longer and cover all the external costs of our consumption. It’s not much different from the food we eat: by buying fresh, organic and locally grown food, we may spend a little more at the store or the market, but we’re ultimately saving money, not only on our own long-term health, but the planet’s health, which we all depend on. Also, by being willing to invest in the true cost of food, we’re supporting the small farmers that take care of the land. It shows others that a different way of doing things is possible, thus helping to change the way we think about food, soil, and farming.

It’s the same with our electronics. They don’t have to be so cheap and crappy and disposable. Not only can we try to get more mileage out of the ones we have (like installing some extra memory in an existing computer rather than buying a new one), but we can start holding companies accountable and call them on their common practices of planned obsolescence. Rather than swooning over the latest pretty Apples, more of us should start to ask, “Yo Steve, where does all your material come from? How toxic is that stuff inside the new ipad? What are you guys doing to ensure your product isn’t destroying entire ecosystems in China?”

Who’s gonna clean up your mess?

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As Annie says in The Story of Electronics:

When we go along with it, it’s like we’re looking at this toxic mess and saying to companies “you made it, but we’ll deal with it.” I’ve got a better idea. How about “you made it, you deal with it”? Doesn’t that make more sense?

Change never comes easy. But when it does happen, it happens from the bottom up. Apple, Dell, Verizon, T-Mobile, Panasonic and all the other makers of these toxic time bombs are not going to change, unless we demand it from them. If enough of us let them know that we want them to use their tremendous talents to design machines that last longer, are streamlined better and are less toxic, they will listen. If enough of us shine the light on the true cost of these machines and hold these companies accountable for them, they will act. And I think they will act gladly, because they don’t want to destroy the earth, they just feel like they have to right now.

Let’s show them how to heed their own call:

THINK DIFFERENT

:::::::::::::

What You Can Do

Tell the computer companies we want genuine green products
Tell Congress to support HR 6252 and make it illegal to send toxic e-waste from the U.S. to developing countries.
Find a good recycler for your old electronic products, in the U.S. and Canada
Find Greener Products
Find groups near you working on electronics and e-waste

6 responses to “If you’re reading this…

  1. Pingback: Not to Miss: “If You’re Reading This, You Are Probably On a Computer” « Notes Along the Path·

  2. The comparison made to eating Organic foods to maintain our health et al strikes a very real and powerful chord with me in explaining this “Gone nuts technalogical age” thing we are living through in these restless times. It bloody well does! :) Thank you once again Sven. Michael.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Michael. It really seems to apply to most anything we humans do. Whatever we approach from a holistic perspective seems to be so much better for us and for the planet.

  3. “They don’t have to be so cheap and crappy.” And they don’t all have to be bought either.

    My latest blog post talks about last year’s (and probably soon to be this year’s) most popular electronic gift: the GPS. While it has fantastic applications for some, all of us do not need one, and for people like me, life is enriched WITHOUT one.

    I love your post and call to address the issue. You’re so right that consumers need to make demands. I realize that if it were not for electronics, I’d never be able to connect with your thoughts on this blog. But we also need to recognize that an all-electronic world is an artificial world. The more we succumb, the more we loose valuable human skills…like the ability to read a map.

    Thanks for the post. Ruth.

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