Policy 13: The 99 Billion Pound Gorilla in the Room: Mindless Materialism

Policy:

It is illegal to sell merchandise that is designed to fail; i.e. where the seller has purposefully planned for the merchandise to become obsolete (i.e. planned obsolescence). Furthermore, society should be encouraged to live like a traveller and be satisfied with what it has, instead of chasing the temporary pleasures of this worldly life (dunya).

Proofs: What does Islam say about planned obsolescence?

In Islam, planned obsolescence where the goods are manufactured to fail is forbidden.

The following ahadith speak to the issue of fraud:

"If you entered into trading say there is no deceit (khilaba)." [Ahmad]

"If you purchased say there is no deception, then in every commodity you purchased you have the choice after three nights to accept (the commodity) and thus hold it or to return it back to its owner." [Ad-Daraqutni]

 This hadith forbade the selling of un-milked animals:

"Whoever bought a camel or a sheep with a tied udder, he has the choice to return it within three days together with a sa'a of dates or wheat" (which represents the price of the milk he has gained).

(As a side point, notice how just Islam is in that the seller still receives a price for the milk taken by the purchaser, even if though the purchaser is returning the animal)

With these ahadith in mind there is a strong prohibition against fraud. However, the following ahadith puts the obligation on the seller to disclose the potentials issues with the product they are selling or the service they are providing:

"The Muslim is the brother of the Muslim, and it is not allowed for a Muslim to buy a faulty thing from his brother without him being shown that fault." [Ibn Majah]

"The two traders (the seller and the purchaser) have the choice (to conclude or cancel the deal) before they departed (from each other). If they were honest and explained (the commodity and the currency) their sale will be blessed. But if they hid (the defect) and lied (to each other) the blessing of their sale will be eradicated." [Bukhari]

Consequently, the manufacturers and retailers would need to ensure that they are not purposefully working to deceive the buyer into purchasing goods that have a “death date” or have hidden defect that would cause product failure in the future.

That being said, if a seller tells a buyer about the defect in the product being sold it would be legal in Islam. However, would that lead to the consumerist society that we live in today? We will discuss that in a future post in sha Allah.

Propaganda: How do Capitalists defend the practice of planned obsolescence, i.e. purposefully causing the products they make to fail?

The BBC defends planned obsolescence stating that:

 “Though some of these examples of planned obsolescence are egregious, it’s overly simplistic to condemn the practice as wrong. On a macroeconomic scale, the rapid turnover of goods powers growth and creates reams of jobs – just think of the money people earn by manufacturing and selling, for instance, millions of smartphone cases. Furthermore, the continuous introduction of new widgets to earn (or re-earn) new and old customers’ dough alike will tend to promote innovation and improve the quality of products”.

The practice is also defended as practice of, well, spirituality. Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail makes the following defence of consumerism, in an opinion column entitled "Consumerism is good for the soul” (and yes this whole paragraph is taken from what she published):

“Sure, we spend a lot of money on tacky and vulgar stuff. But so what? We spend a lot of money on culture, hospitals and philanthropy, too. Our sneers at consumerism are misguided snobbery. "Material resources, for a life affording scope, aren't everything, of course; but they are something," Ms. McCloskey says. Anyone with the least exposure to the misery and degradation of people who live on $3 a day would surely agree. And anyone exposed to cultures where other values reign supreme – absolutist religious ones or the totalitarian ones of Mao or North Korea – would probably agree that bourgeois values are a better way to promote happiness and dignity…So please ignore those joyless, soul-sapping, censorious puritans who insist on how rotten and corrupt we are. Deck the halls and buy a few more ecologically irresponsible gifts (no goats, please). Indulgence isn't the worst thing in the world. 'Tis the season of abundance, and we should celebrate, not let ourselves be guilted out.”

Counter-Propaganda: How do you prove that this practice of producing shoddy goods is actually happening?

The plan to purposefully reduce the lifespan is something the naturally emanates from the logic of Capitalism: more frequent consumption will fulfill the freedom of ownership. The more people buy, the more the shareholders will make off their investment.  Consider the incandescent lightbulb. According to the New Yorker:

 “The thousand-hour life span of the modern incandescent dates to 1924, when representatives from the world’s largest lighting companies—including such familiar names as Philips, Osram, and General Electric (which took over Shelby Electric circa 1912)—met in Switzerland to form Phoebus, arguably the first cartel with global reach. The bulbs’ life spans had by then increased to the point that they were causing what one senior member of the group described as a “mire” in sales turnover. And so, one of its priorities was to depress lamp life, to a thousand-hour standard. The effort is today considered one of the earliest examples of planned obsolescence at an industrial scale.

 When the new bulbs started coming out, Phoebus members rationalized the shorter design life as an effort to establish a quality standard of brighter and more energy-efficient bulbs. But Markus Krajewski, a media-studies professor at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, who has researched Phoebus’s records, told me that the only significant technical innovation in the new bulbs was the precipitous drop in operating life. “It was the explicit aim of the cartel to reduce the life span of the lamps in order to increase sales,” he said. “Economics, not physics.””

The following documentary (at 5 minutes and 56 seconds) highlights the documentation left behind the light bulb cartel:

Did you know that the lifetime of light bulbs have been reduced on purpose to just 1000 hours? Or that your printer may 'break' after a predefined number of printed pages determined by an electronic counter? Or that Apple batteries lasted only 18 months which meant that you had to throw away your iPods and buy another?

According to Giles Slade, author of  Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, also notes how companies stumbled on this “business strategy” during the Depression:

“After a decade of unprecedented affluence and consumption during the 1920s, consumer demand fell radically with the onset of the Depression, and in desperation manufacturers used inferior materials to deliberately shorten the life spans of products and force consumers to purchase replacements.” [Emphasis added]

Slade in his book also notes how design engineers openly discussed in trade publications about “death dates”. He cites an article, “Product Death Dates-A Desirable Concept?”, by E.S. Stafford in Design News that stated:

“It is of remarkable interest to learn from a highly placed engineer in a prominent portable radio manufacturing company that his product is designed to last not more than three years."

(Interestingly, he notes how many engineers were irate about such unethical behaviour, a concept that we will return to on a future post when we discuss intellectual property, in sha Allah.)

More importantly, that was the stated aim of companies like GM. Slade quotes Harley Earl (an executive from GM) who stated the following:

“Our big job is to hasten obsolescence. In 1934 the average car ownership span was 5 years: now [1955] it is 2 years. When it is 1 year, we will have a perfect score.”

Apple has been taken to court a couple of times because it’s products failed . For example, in 2005, Apple settled out of court over customer complaints “alleging that the iPod did not have the battery life Apple represented...and that the battery’s capacity to hold a charge diminished substantially over time". The article also noted that “[c]onsumers who bought a first or second-generation iPod who experienced a battery failure within two years of purchase”. In other words, these timely failures of the battery would force a customer to buy an new product in two years.

In 2018, Apple confirmed that it purposefully slowed down its older model. As noted in the Guardian: “The feature was recently highlighted by users on Reddit, who noticed that their processors were running slowly in iPhones with older batteries, but that when they replaced the batteries the speed of the phone returned to normal…Analysis of data by benchmarking firm Primate Labs collected from thousands of iPhones appeared to confirm the theory, showing multiple performance peaks for phones of different ages, slowing down from their maximum speed.” Again this would require the customer to upgrade to a new iPhone or pay Apple to fix the problem.

Points to consider: What else should be understood about the problems related to planned obsolescence and consumerism more broadly?

What's the difference between planning and conspiring? When you really think about it: nothing. The only difference is a value judgement. As I noted above, the desire to maximize profits is the driving force of the Capitalist way of life. Given this, it makes sense for corporations to make their products fail over time. As Slade notes in his book about planned obsolescence, tire companies were essentially punished for increasing the lifespan of their tires by reduced sales:

“In the case of the tire industry, quality and wearing power have been increased [circa 1924 ] to an average life per tire of 1 year and 8 months as against 1 year and 4 months in 1920. The Cleveland Trust Company, in its official bulletin of September 15, 1924, remarked: 'These figures explain some of the troubles that have beset the tire industry, which has been penalized for the marked success of having improved its product.' How penalized? By slowing turnover, and loss of sales.”

However, when we first come across such an idea, our brains reject it because we falsely believe we live in a just society. We may think:" "if companies did this there would be an uproar and the perpetrators would be punished." That's not how things work. Matt Taibbi's, The Divide, points out how we live in a two-tiered system: one for the rich and one for everyone else. And, again, why is that a surprise? It's a Capitalist society, and so the institutions are designed to, as one of the Founding Fathers of America put it, "protect the minority of the opulent."  Minority of the opulent is a fancy way of saying the 1%. Therefore, America was designed from the get-go to give preferential treatment to those that have money. Consider how drug possession will land a poor person with a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 to 10 years, while HSBC is fined about 5 weeks worth of profits for laundering drug money and no jail time for nobody.  It is unjust to anyone with a sense of fairness. However, the problem probably is we never read the fine print that the system came with. Capitalism promises to “protect the minority of the opulent” and grants justice to those that can afford good lawyers. Therefore, the idea that the companies would produce things that would purposefully fail is the investors making good on the protection the system gives them.

Suicide-nets and smartphones: what’s the connection? We know deep down inside that, human blood subsidizes the production of smartphones. How? Factories that build iPhones have given birth to a uniquely Capitalist creature; the suicide net. Since the factories are such horrible places, the workers decide to kill themselves. According to the Guardian, suicides notes left by the victims noted that they faced “immense stress, long workdays and harsh managers who were prone to humiliate workers for mistakes, of unfair fines and unkept promises of benefits." So instead of giving them higher wages – out of the $66 billion payments Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, paid to its shareholders – the factories that supply iPhones erect suicide nets so that you don't make a mess on your way down. Apple is not the only culprit here; all companies need to employ similar tactics to remain competitive. In sha Allah, this will be addressed in a future post on colonialism, but it's not appropriate that this post ignores the human suffering that enables that glam and glitter of materialism that we will discuss below.

Credit:  Here

Credit: Here

 Today's gadget, tomorrow's garbage?One of the most shocking things that I came across in writing this post is the scale of waste the Capitalist creates. Slade notes:

“…in 2004 about 315 million working PCs were retired in North America. Of these, as many as 10 percent would be refurbished and reused, but most would go straight to the trash heap. These still-functioning but obsolete computers represented an enormous increase over the 63 million working PCs dumped into American landfills in 2003.”

Doing the math, over 283 million PCs went to the dumpster. He also notes:

“In 2005 more than 100 million cell phones were discarded in the United States. This 50,000 tons of still-usable equipment joined another 200,000 tons of cell phones already awaiting dismantling and disposal.”

Credit:  This article  in the Guardian

Credit: This article in the Guardian

In terms of more recent stats and findings, I found the following:

  • Globally there was 45 million tonnes or 99 billion pounds of e-waste generated. This equals the weight of about 500 million people; or 6.7% of the planet. Ironically, the article blamed “[r]ising incomes and falling prices for everything from solar panels to fridges drove up the amount of e-waste...by 8 percent from 41 million tonnes in the last assessment for 2014”. In other words, “success” of the system is creating this catastrophe.

  • Canada generated 724 kilotons or 1.6 billion pounds of e-waste in 2016. How much is that? It’s about the weight of about 8 million men; approximately the population of the Washington State (home to Microsoft, Amazon, etc.).

  • Going back to the issue of colonialism, an investigation by a group of activists found Canada e-waste was ending up illegally in China and Pakistan. They discovered this by attaching GPS trackers to e-waste they left at electronics recyclers or recycler collection sites throughout Canada. They noted that “4 of the discovered exports (to developing countries) were deemed likely to be illegal… aris[ing] from the fact that each of these pieces of equipment are considered hazardous waste under the Basel Convention – and 3 of the 4 countries concerned, Canada, China (including Hong Kong), and Pakistan, are all parties to the Basel Convention”. It also noted that one piece ended up in the US, but the US does not appear to be part of this convention.

We eat chicken and throw away the bones, so why does this matter?

In Islam, the issue comes down to accountability.

"That the Messenger of Allah (saw) happened to pass by Sa'd as he was performing ablution. Whereupon he said: Sa'd what is this squandering? Sa'd said: Can there be any idea of squandering (israf) in ablution? Whereupon he (the Prophet) said: Yes, even if you are by the side of a flowing river”. [Ibn Majah]

The implications of this saying of the Prophet (saw) is a massive indictment of the Capitalist approach to consuming resources and recklessly disposing of them. For example, “In 1872 America produced 150 million disposable shirt collars and cuffs. Men found paper clothing parts convenient because laundry services in those days were unreliable,  expensive, and available mainly in large urban centers”.  

And do you know what inspired King Gillette to create disposable razors? He didn’t want to take his razor to the barber to get sharpened. And hence we have disposal razors

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It doesn't even begin to address the issue of pollution where that causes harm to people. For example, the toxic Canadian waste that ends up in Pakistan, China, Africa, etc.  poisoning people is something that will be quite serious on the Day of Judgment. 

And that’s the point. What distinguishes Islamic thinking from Capitalist thinking is that Islam requires the society to be framed around the concept of accountability to the Creator. Given that wasting water to wash one’s self for prayer is illegal, the consumer economy that generates such waste is something that the businesses, manufacturers, the rulers and the society more broadly will be held accountable for. In sha Allah, this topic will be explored more fully in a post on environmentalism.  

Packaging the Pillage.

Ever wonder where the box in an unboxing video comes from?


It was one of the “solutions” that businessmen in the 18th-century came-up with to facilitate, according to Slade, repetitive consumption. You see mass production has a problem: it only pays off on volume. So you need to fire up those factories and generate all that stuff. Uh-oh! We have another problem. We’ve now got warehouses full of stuff and no buyers! The solution? Packaging. Branding. Advertising. So companies don’t need just to manufacture things, but you need to manufacture wants. And this is where packaging comes in. People used to buy biscuits from a barrel – as we do now for nuts and dried fruits at bulk foods stores. However, in 1899 the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) started to use packaging to distinguish the product and had ads that illustrated how your cookies would be rained on without such packaging.

In that time, people used to test/taste products as a way to determine the quality of the product. How do companies, like Wrigley’s, the American Tobacco Company and Proctor & Gamble, get around this? Use branding and product packaging as a way to guarantee product quality and thereby get people hooked on their favourite brands. Communally, the ability to taste and test the product requires a two-way relationship, as “markets are conversations." Imagine a seller who gets a new batch of biscuits. For them to be able to sell that new product, they have to have a conversation with the purchaser and have a positive relationship for the sale to occur. We still see this today when we go to the barber, for example. Branding, therefore, removed this relationship and help create the atomized society we live in today.

Disposable lifestyle for secularized souls? The disposable lifestyle is the poisonous fruit of the free society. It emanated from the freedom of ownership, but it ended up seeping into the soul. Consumerism promises to give us fulfillment, but in reality, it leaves you wanting. For the consumerist machine to run, we must be in a constant state of want, emptiness and anxiety. The system must generate “psychological obsolescence” (as Slade calls it); i.e. feelings that the fully functional merchandise we have are no good and so we must have next shiny object up for sale. Slade notes how silver manufacturers mounted a campaign in the late 1920s to create such anxiety:

“…"shame the prospect into buying the latest model of a venerably old product. American newlyweds' habit of prizing their heirloom silver was preventing repetitive consumption, so " it was obviously necessary or us to make the people who cling to the old sets realize just how out of date they are. Ridicule of the past from which the silver was handed down proved to be the best plan. Any manufacturer of a quality product will tell you that the article that refuses to wear out is a tragedy of business".”  

Furthermore, we attempt to gain fulfillment by possessing things – as that's what the messaging around us claims the next purchase will deliver. But it won't. Renting an expensive car can reveal how unfulfilling such an experience is: we quickly adjust to the new normal, get bored of it and want something new.

 

Such is the tragedy of trying to fulfill wants desire for completeness through consumption. As Tim Kasser points in his book, The High Price of Materialism:

 “when people organize their lives around extrinsic goals such as product acquisition, they report greater unhappiness in relationships, poorer moods and more psychological problems. Kasser distinguishes extrinsic goals--which tend to focus on possessions, image, status and receiving rewards and praise--from intrinsic ones, which aim at outcomes like personal growth and community connection and are satisfying in and of themselves”.  (Taken from this article)

It doesn't take Klasser to tell us something we already know. The opinion column by Wente was written in reaction to how society sees consumerism as inherently wrong and empty. She even sets her sights on minimalism. She takes aim at Joshua Millburn “who used to earn $150,000 as a telecom executive. He bought a lot of stuff, but it didn't make him happy. So he ditched his job, his house, his car and his wife and moved to a cabin in Montana with his best friend, Ryan, who was also sick and tired of empty material success. "Less is more," he says…". In other words, there would be no reason for a major Canadian newspaper to praise materialism as it did if society wasn't turning away from it.

The Creator, Allah (swt), warns human beings about the trappings of duniya (i.e. the fleeting pleasure of this world) in contrast to the akhira (i.e. the Hereafter). Allah (swt) revealed:

“Know that the life of this world is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children - like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris. And in the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion”. [TMQ 57:20]

 The verse is amazing at illustrating how even the natural beauty of lush vegetation that is the delight of every farmer seeking to reap his crop is fleeting. After this harvest, that same field has lost its luster and no longer is worthy of attention. Since this is the reality of agriculture – an activity that nourishes human life – what about foldable phones or latest fad? Allah, the Creator, is informing the temporary pursuits of such things is not worth our focus let alone devotion. Indeed, the enjoyment of worldly life is the enjoyment of delusion.

Consumerism: the false god of the current age? Secularism, by its nature, undermines spirituality. The process began with the European enlightenment, and now it is has been foisted across the whole planet by Euro-American imperialism. However, human beings will always seek a higher power. Even the communists built large tombs to Communist "gods" such as Lenin, where they used to make their “pilgrimage” to. Does consumerism fill the spiritual practices once filled by acts of devotion? As noted on CNN:

"For Apple fans, the brand triggers a reaction in the brain that's not unlike that of religious devotees, according to a BBC documentary series that cites neurological research.  The neuroscientists ran a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test on an Apple fanatic and discovered that images of the technology company's gadgets lit up the same parts of the brain as images of a deity do for religious people, the report says.”

Slade notes how a Lehman investment banker named Paul Mazur about how obsolesce itself is a god “elected by the people” (as all false gods are):

"…the high-priests of business elected a new god to take its place along with-or even before-the other household gods. Obsolescence was made supreme”.

The Quran discusses the issue of false god, warning us from following those that have made desire their god – which is essentially what consumerism does:

“Have you seen he who has taken as his god his [own] desire, and Allah has sent him astray due to knowledge and has set a seal upon his hearing and his heart and put over his vision a veil? So who will guide him after Allah? Then will you not be reminded?” [TMQ 45:3]

The 99 Billion Pound Gorilla in the Room: Mindless Materialism. The current approach to economics is sheer madness. We have a society that is producing things for the sake of production. In Capitalism, price is equated with value. Meaning that if there is a price to pay for something is valuable. Therefore, if you can trick people into exchanging their perfectly good working phone for, say, a phone with retina display – is that value? What this reality illustrates is how Capitalist have no vision for society. They don't care that psycho-supply chains are causing people to jump off buildings into embracing arms of suicide nets. They don’t care that there are 99 billion pounds of e-waste being generated and sent to the “former” colonies. They don’t care we are perpetually made miserable by the 24/7 ads trying to convince us we would be better off if we had the latest blob of materialistic trash designed only to last a few years.  All they care about is the mindless march of money: increased market share, greater profitability,  higher stock prices and so on. 

As we have discussed, Islam offers a comprehensive economic system that will work to meet the basic needs of human beings, including food, shelter, clothing as well as health care. However, what is more, important is that it offers a vision of what it means to be human: to worship one's Creator and not objects. Not objects in the form of the idols that the pagan Arabs used to worship. Not the objects composing Lenin’s dead body. And not objects in the shape of an apple logo. These are all false gods that will not bring tranquillity to anyone. Only connecting to Allah (swt) and renouncing these material gods will bring contentedness. Tranquility will only come through decisive belief in Allah (swt) and understanding our purpose in life. Innovation, science and technology should be driven by such purpose – eliminate poverty, disease and improve the quality of people’s lives. It should not be driven by consumerism that results in the pointless plunder of the people and the planet.

Going through this material I had a new appreciation from what RasulAllah (saw) taught us. He (saw) said:

‘Whoever among you wakes up physically healthy, feeling safe and secure within himself, with food for the day, it is as if he acquired the whole world.'" [Ibn Majah]

He (saw) also said: “Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a traveller along a path.” [Bukhari]

These two ahadith bring the current era of mad materialism into perspective. The first hadith speaks to the reality of how little we need to be content: health, security, and for the day — people who have gone on hunger strikes for months just drinking water and salt. Even the recent health trend of intermittent fasting; people can go for seven days with only drinking water, coffee and the like.  The second hadith is more related to the topic of consumption and psychological obsolesce. When one travel – especially business travel – you only take a few things to fit into the carry-on suitcase. That way you can avoid baggage claim, making it easier for you to get to your destination and back home again. And that's the point. By having the perspective of a traveller, there is no need for accumulating things and the crushing debt that comes along with it. Moreover, why be distracted by the neon signs, the glittering packaging, and the boxes that house the flavour of the month? That's not why we are here.