Innovation Angst and the Pleasures of Sustainability

Innovation Angst and the Pleasures of Sustainability


In the 1970s I visited a Victorian castle in South Wales where I saw clear evidence of planned obsolescence. I was staying as a guest of the people who lived there, whose ancestors had built the place, and in the late 19th century had installed electricity. Large parts of the house were still lit through the original circuit, indeed in some rooms by the original bulbs, which still glowed with a feeble but warm orange light. While hard to read by, these had been functioning for over eighty years and added to the castle’s charming air of tasteful decrepitude. Their continued existence also confirmed what I had often heard rumoured – that bulb manufacturers across the western world, soon after they’d started making them, had conspired to ensure that their products would have a limited life and as a result need regular replacement.

This was the first time I had really considered the inevitable tension between the value of the old and the commercial imperative of the new. It’s only recently that manufacturers have been shamed into producing, at unjustifiably higher prices, bulbs that will last something like indefinitely.

There have been opposite tensions, of course, where the needs of workers have trumped innovation. For example, some twenty-five years ago, after shuffling for ten minutes in a long queue in the Post Office in Hereford in order to post a parcel, I suggested to the man behind the counter that it would be a good idea if customers could simply put their parcel on scales, enter the destination on a keypad and be issued with the stamps they needed. The counter clerk dismissed the concept with a disdainful shake of the head. “But then we wouldn’t have anything to.” And the PO still doesn’t offer this service widely.

More controversially, in the early ‘80s when a number of coal mines in England and Wales were under threat of closure, the men who worked in them engaged in long, arduous strikes to keep them open, despite the fact that their jobs were hideously bad for their health, causing shortened lives in all mining communities. The men’s health was, of course, not the then government’s motivation in closing the pits, any more than was the damage to the environment caused by generating power from coal.

In the last 50 years though, the rate at which the new has replaced the old has accelerated exponentially. This has left many people disoriented and uncertain of the benefits. The arrival of social media in the mid-noughties for instance, seemed like a positive innovation, letting people keep in touch in ways they couldn’t before. Now it’s perceived as more damaging, as a conduit for the promotion of absurd conspiracy theories as well as downright political propaganda. It isn’t possible to justify its existence as a force for good in a democracy, when small minority extremist groups can manipulate it to exert influence out of all proportion to their support on the ground. But it can’t be uninvented.

Most of us are easily seduced into using innovations, new products, new apps thrust at us by software companies and hardware manufacturers, but few of these do much to improve the quality of our lives, and we’re reaching a point now where it’s important to value the old as much as the new; to appreciate the pleasures of sustainability. In many aspects of our personal lives – in what we wear, what we gather around us in our homes, in what we enjoy in the landscape – the value of the familiar and natural is beginning to feel more important. We’re also becoming more alert to the inevitability that the insatiable consumption of new products comes at a heavy cost to the environment. The manufacture of throw-away clothing has a powerfully negative environmental impact, particularly in its excessive use of water – an increasingly more vulnerable commodity – as well as the damage caused by transporting it from distant cheap-labour economies.

The case for using pre-used, recycled, vintage, second-hand clothing and household objects is obvious, as well as its appeal to our fundamental humanity. There is a strong movement to see techno-gadgets made to be repaired, instead of throwing out Apple laptops every five or six years, especially at a time when waste disposal across the world is beyond crisis point.

Personally, I have bought very few new items of clothing for years. Jackets, shirts, jumpers, jeans, foulards. shoes and hats come from charity or vintage shops. For fashionistas of any gender the case for vintage is stronger than just the health of the planet. Carefully sought vintage garments are often considerably better cut and better made, from superior fabric, than new clothes at the same price, making them great value for money – now more so than ever.

 In our household, apart from fridges and washers, nothing has been bought new – cutlery and crockery, furniture and curtains are from flea markets and antique shops. These are objects with their own discernible history and patina, reassuring to touch, and more pleasing to look at. Thus sustainability and the cherishing of the old is better for your health, as well as Mother Earth’s. 

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