Sir Martin Sorrell on deliberate obsolescence

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the global marketing group WPP, recently called for an end to deliberate obsolescence, citing Apple as a prime example of a company that exploits this as a strategy to flog more stuff:

“Sorrell cited Apple as an example of a brand creating products that consumers quickly jettison in favour of the company’s newer ones. While nobody can deny that Apple produces desirable, design-led objects, they do tend to become outdated very quickly. The company cut the price of its 8GB iPhone model and scrapped the original 4GB model only two months after launch.”

Green marketers are increasingly willing to embrace strategies to encourage consumers to buy fewer, more expensive, longer-lasting things, rather than what John Grant, in his recent book ‘The Green Marketing Manifesto’ calls a “superfluity of crap commodities”.

Grant writes:

“If our money was tied up in a few big budget items, we would buy classics that don’t go out of style, we would treasure them and take great care of them and we would derive status from their ownership.”

The problem with this approach is that it needn’t necessarily do anything to encourage people to embrace less materialistic sources of meaning. And as other posts on this site have argued, the only systemic and lasting response to the sustainability crisis we face is to work towards the emergence of such alternative means of securing our identities. If consumers consume because they need, psychologically, ever more new stuff, then making this stuff longer lasting but more expensive may simply lead them to work harder, or borrow more, to finance the increased costs of their new consumption patterns – with negative personal, social and environmental consequences.

Tom CromptonSir Martin Sorrell on deliberate obsolescence

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  • jules - April 1, 2008 reply

    I agree with your point Tom. Its something I struggle with. Part of the time we are as a movement trying to get companies to make ‘less bad’ stuff and part of the time many of us are thinking that much of this stuff is just that – just ‘stuff’ that we don’t really need.

    I agree there is an urgent need to help people stop seeing themselves as consumers and become again citizens. There is an interesting analysis which you will be familiar with from people like Vance Packard and Adam Curtis etc which suggests that Edward Bernays and his uncle Freud are to blame for much of this.

    Freud and then Bernays and then Anna Freud all thought we are basically brutish dangerous beasts who cannot be trusted to be active citizens. So they encouraged us to become passive consumers. The Sir Martin’s industry formed to play the role of keeping us happy and switched off by grazing brainlessly on endless stuff. This serves two purposes 1) feeding the minority interets of the powerful who profit from the vorascious captialist growth economy 2) keeping the people’s minds away from big citizenry issues.

    If we come to the conclusion – as i have – that we need to slow or halt economic growth, then we will need to help people see the psychic and spiritual whole-wellbeing benefits of less ‘stuff’ and more play, fun, time with family, community, nature etc. The question is then what role (if any) can companies and thus Sir Martin’s industry play in such a new wellbeing economy?

    Or do we need in fact a new form of ‘company’ which looks more like a social enterprise or co-op model?

  • Jonty Whittleton - April 1, 2008 reply

    Completely agree with you too Tom – arguably, the two steps to sustainable consumption (consuming ‘better’ and consuming less), are both vital. However, consuming ‘better’ still places a strain on finite resources and, with a projected global population of 9 billion people by 2050, consuming less HAS to become the name of the game.

    It’s important to acknowledge that consumption has always played a profound role in generating and maintaining identities and probably will continue to do so ad infinitum. The challenge is finding a way to create and catalyse a cultural shift that leads to people believing that less is truly more – not just for the planet, but for themselves.

  • Ciaran Mundy - April 2, 2008 reply

    The catastrophic overuse of natural resources and damage to the environment means we have to accept a very different world. Maybe a much poorer world with less money for everything not just less ipods, but for basics too. This is what politicians are really afraid of. The resistance in ‘serious’ politics to moving away from growth economics is very difficult to challenge. Growth is what provides the stability in capital markets, currencies etc. The belief that there will be more economic activity in the future is the basis of our banking/debt based monetised system. It is persuasively argued that no-one one would otherwise lend/invest on anything like the scale we are used to. This collapses the system as there would result a run on every bank. Remeber it was German militarism that stimulated the miraculous recovery of the German economy under Hitler. The same is true of the US to a great degree.

    What is coming out of organisations like NEF or IPPR on this fundamental question?

  • John Grant - April 2, 2008 reply

    Isnt it both? I do agree with Martin Sorrell (a rare event) that industries whose business models are based on short fashion or redundancy cycle should really be brought into line by government, retailers, consumers, NGO’s or someone.

    But agree with people learning to consume MUCH less. It’s the clear implication of an 80% cut in our emissions. We just cannot get there while the manufacturing and transport of Chinese and similar imports form about 1/4 of the UK’s total (according to that paper before xmas by Dieter Helm). Things have got a lot more serious since I was writing the book a year ago (the latest evidence on accelerating climate change, Hansen’s stuff which says we passed the safe limit in the 1970s…) and I think if I wrote it now it would be more hardline although I might have lost the audience in the process.

    There are also mid cases between what in the book I called the cut vs switch debate (& incidentally the book does come down in favour of cut because going on consuming ‘eco luxuries’ is still a bad habit):

    1. Worn again. There should be ways to make new products out of existing materials. A friend of mine has a plan to make patching clothes fashionable again. that sort of thing.

    2. Sharing. One new car with significantly lower emissions, fuel cell powered etc. would still have a manufacturing footprint, but if shared through smart taxi services, city car clubs, lift sharing & car pooling. The big waste in my consumption is my book addiction – I’d have a much larger library and less need for new books if I pooled this with the rest of NW3. But I do need new thoughts, the old ones aren’t enough for the challenges we face today.

    3. second hand, retro, junk chic, trash jewelry, antiques and all other ways to endow traditional used objects with great value than crap new ones.

    4. Fixability. I broke my computer last year by standing on the screen. Jules just had to buy a new laptop too because the last one went into catastrophic failure (that was his excuse for not answering emails for a month anyway 😉 My phone is limping along at the moment because I broke its dial. these items should be built to last better and also be readily repairable and upgradable.


  • Jim - April 2, 2008 reply

    I agree too Tom, but what worries me here is that it is perfectly possible to have (or at least aspire to have) more play, fun, time with family, nature AND shedloads of pointless stuff too. If it were a choice between them it would be easier to convice people to ‘choose life’. If we all look at ourselves- can we really say we are in any way living an epicurian life compared to the average world citizen? We have more stuff than the vast majority of people. We have to realise the problem and then vote in the system to control us- a big ask.

  • admin - April 7, 2008 reply

    Clearly wearing again, sharing, fixing, treasuring, etc. will all be things we do more of when (in all likelihood as a result of dire necessity) we shift towards a less resource-intensive way of living. My question is really whether we are more likely to effect this shift by promoting these alternative patterns of consumption? My feeling is we are not – because of the problems of rebound, essentially. (What do with all the money we save?). These approaches will only help if they are adopted in the context of a radical change in our psychological relationship with material objects. And pursuing sharing per se will not get us there. For dramatic demonstration of this, see Fractional Life; now you really can have it all – your Porsche, your super-yacht and your apartment in Bahrain!

  • Ciaran Mundy - April 7, 2008 reply

    I think it is clear there are many effective potential responses that can come from the commerce, individuals as John describes already), local communities (e.g. Transition Towns) and government BUT they remain theoretical or at best marginal without a legal framework that puts protection of natural and cultural common assets at least on a par with private capital assets. Investment flows where it gets the fastest return. Jim, I agree, change the system, but to what? The only sensible way I have heard to achieve this is through propertising natural and cultural assets and putting them into trust in perpetuity. Otherwise it is impossibly piece meal and easy to undo the endless legislative changes that are always too little too late. Property is 9/10 of the law after all and should reflect our long term needs both environmental, cultural and spiritual. I suspect too that stating such an intention could in itself help create the political space for change and promote the better angels that exist within most of us. “Oh but vested interests” I hear you cry! Is there another approach that delivers a society with laws that reflect our deeper shared values, whilst allowing as much freedom of expression as possible?

    Check out this by Peter Barnes if you have not done so already

  • Jim - April 11, 2008 reply

    Found this site –

    Check out the philosophy- being eco-effective. I really like the bit about the bees.

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