In common with around 91% of the UK adult population, I own a mobile phone. In fact, I own several; but more on that later. My phone is an unglamorous affair; I’ve had it for about two years and aside from the occasional uncooperative fit that is the wont of modern mobiles, it does more or less what I want it to.
A short while ago I received a call from my mobile network provider to inform me that I was entitled to a free upgrade. Would I like to choose from a selection of shiny new phones, at no cost? I replied that I was happy with my phone, and that it still worked, so thanks but no thanks; and that I would come and find them when my phone had stopped working or been dropped in a pint glass.
Undeterred, the cheery network representative offered another cherry: having looked at my current monthly spend, he had deduced that I could save money by switching to a new contract, with more free minutes and a smaller monthly charge. Again, I replied that I was perfectly happy with my current outlay and terms, so no thanks.
At this point, breeziness turned to incredulity, and I was asked why I did not want either a free phone or to save money; to which responded: if I am happy to use an old phone and to spend more money with you, why is that a problem for you?
I am enough of a technophile not to be immune to the lure of a new phone, especially given the rampant progress made by smartphones in the last couple of years. On the other hand, I already have one spare phone languishing unused; why consign a perfectly working piece of kit to the drawer simply because a newer one is available?
As long ago as the 1930s, the copywriter Earnest Elmo Calkins wrote that advertising – or consumption engineering as he termed it – “must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use”. In other words, advertising creates an artificial need for products; encouraging the procurement of newer versions of items we already own.
The culture of the free mobile phone upgrade is symptomatic of the trend for economic “incentives” to consume more. Epitomised by the classic supermarket “3 for 2” or “buy one, get one free” offers, marketing is geared towards increasing throughput: an obsession with more.
Of course, an economic “incentive” will never be as such. For the mobile network provider, the carrot of a new phone or a cheaper monthly tariff begets the stick of an 18 or 24-month minimum contract. As is usually the case, the webcomic xkcd sums it up nicely:
Part of the problem stems from the obsession with newness. In the same way that the fashion industry churns out regular, seasonal collections, instantly rendering last season’s must-haves old hat (depending on how suggestible you are), the electronics industry works to a schedule of planned obsolescence, each new model containing indispensable – yet curiously, until recently unheard of – features. Those with the “old” model are left to contemplate a choice between an upgrade or, in technological terms, second-class citizenship.
There is an undeniable satisfaction to be had from possessions. A 2011 Defra report into the marketability of second-hand bulky products found that those interviewed reported a pleasure in buying things that are “new and shiny”. Yet there is just as much material satisfaction to be had from old possessions – items that have given loyal service over a period of time – as new ones. (Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than amongst electric guitarists, who will happily pay more money for a new guitar that is artificially aged than for a brand-new one.)
Amongst the possessions that I derive the most pleasure from are my bike, which I had to take a running jump to get on as a 13-year old in 1996; my digital watch, which was a present for my 10th birthday; and the mobile phone (them again) that I use as my work mobile, which is ten years old this year. All of these things have had periods of disuse, but have been pressed into service when their replacements gave out. The upshot: not only reduced consumption and expenditure, but also decluttered garages and drawers. At Waste Watch, when we talk about wasting less, we mean wasting less of anything: in this case not just materials, energy and money, but also potential.
There have been other benefits too. Having an old bike has meant I have learnt a lot about bike maintenance: both because the bike has needed it, and due to a lack of fear of breaking anything. The mindset of looking to use existing possessions (partly – I’m not going to lie here – driven by chronic skintness) has also seen me read books I hadn’t got round to reading, listen properly to albums I had never got into, and finally find a decent recipe for kale.
This appears to be a burgeoning trend: the current economic climate, as well as concerns over the climate itself, has led to a number of recent initiatives prioritising skills, sharing, repair and reuse. Networks such as ecomodo let you lend and borrow objects, skills or spaces; the London Re-use Network finds new homes for unwanted appliances and furniture; and even businesses such as micycle let members use tools and space to wash and tinker with their bikes for free.
In the grand scheme of things, using a comically old mobile phone or repairing an old bike is unlikely to either avert climate change or end global inequality. And you will get the odd funny look. But 428 million mobile phones were sold worldwide in the first quarter of 2011 alone; anything that can be done to stem the constant demand for new possessions, and rebel against the continuous stream of advertising telling us that “new equals good”, can only be a good thing. Placing a value, rather than a stigma, on items that are used and repaired to the end of their lifespans will bring not only environmental but social and long-term economic benefits.
Sadly, by the time I had made this point the chap from the mobile network had long since hung up.