The Glory of Waste
(part 4 in a 5 part series by Maureen Callahan)
In 1957, Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders, a volume about how the advertising industry is deliberately alienating our wants from our needs to produce more consumers.
Advertisers offer us considerably more than the actual item involved. A Milwaukee advertising executive commented to colleagues in print on the fact that women will pay two dollars and a half for skin cream but no more than twenty-five cents for a cake of soap. Why? Soap, he explained, only promises to make them clean. The cream promises to make them beautiful. (Soaps have now started promising beauty as well as cleanness.) This executive added, “The women are buying a promise.” Then he went on to say: “The cosmetic manufacturers are not selling lanolin, they are selling hope. . . . We no longer buy oranges, we buy vitality. We do not buy just an auto, we buy prestige.” (Packard 1957)
What, then, does a consumer buy when he buys a disposable product? Luxury, cleanliness, sanitation, conspicuous consumption–the ability to buy an item that will only be used for a thirty seconds before being thrown away is a strong reminder of one’s domination over the material world.
Yet for much of American history, there was a two-way flow of materials between manufacturers and consumers. Consumers saved, re-used and recycled every bit for potential re-use; salesmen came to their homes bartering for scrap metal, wool, fats and other items that they would recycle. Those of us with family members who were alive during the depression know too well the mentality of saving to the point of hoarding.
In the nineteenth century, entire sectors of the labor market were charged with making treasure of trash. Scavenging for recycling was a baseline income source for the poor, much like the can-pickers that I see on the University of Michigan’s campus. Impoverished urban children earned pennies from strangers in exchange for sweeping pathways through the ash and grime that would overfill city streets.
Bones were carved into handles and buttons, while smaller bits were ground and charred for use in sugar refining or in making commercial fertilizer… Cloth was used, reused and transformed until it almost disappeared. Worn sheets were “turned”–cut lengthwise down the middle, flipped, and re-stretched so that the thinning center was transferred to the less-used edges. When too worn or stained, sheets and other household fabrics like tablecloths and curtains were reincarnated as pillowcases, bandages, diapers, sanitary napkins, and washrags. (Rogers 2005)
Now, Americans throw such things away. Consumerism offered Americans convenience, cleanliness and comfort–of particular importance to women, as it could often free them from the tyranny of housework. And what is more, most appliances are now designed to be disposed of when broken; the appliance-repair industry is a shadow of its former self in an era of a vast proliferation of appliances.
Trash-making both underscores and creates social differences based on economic status. From the start, “disposability” was promoted for its ability to make people feel rich: with throwaway products, they could obtain levels of cleanliness and convenience once available only to people with many servants.
As is the case with most changes in material culture, the reasons for adopting new practices and consuming new items are blurred with the ideologies their sellers promote to the extent that their use becomes compulsory. A shop owner may have been perfectly happy with his water fountain, but when the provision of paper cups is linked to public health and safety, and protestant-coded ideals of cleanliness, he is coerced into conformity to stay in business.
“Under the private culture monopoly it is a fact that ‘tyranny leaves the body free and directs its attack on the soul. The ruler no longer says: You must think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your property, everything shall remain yours, but from this day on you are a stranger among us.’ Not to conform means to be rendered powerless, economically and therefore spiritually – to be ‘self-employed’” (Horkheimer 1944).
The merchant isn’t free to determine for himself the value of providing the paper cup—he is subject to society’s decision on this issue; acting to the contrary would hinder his business’ success.
We are thus at a point where we don’t think about our reasons for consumption–instead, they are presented to us at an emotional level. Just as doctors prescribe antibiotics to children for the sake of treating their mothers’ peace of mind and undergraduates freeze in black leggings and Ugg boots, the paper cup is a social purchase with a technological, rational face for a social problem.