Film Review: To Buy, To Throw Away, To Buy; the Secret History of Planned Obsolescence

Last month, Catalan TV3 just aired a new documentary called "comprar, llençar, comprar", meaning "to buy, to throw away, to buy" in Catalan, right on time for the christmas shopping and the winter sales which started this week. You can now watch the documentary in Spanish on RTVE (Spanish national TV). It tells the secret history of planned obsolescence, which was designed in the 1920ies but with which we still struggle in our current lifestyles. If you are wondering how consumption became our way of life and why we are throwing so much stuff away all the time, this documentary looks behind the scenes of things and shows the shocking truth about why we have become a throw-away culture and where obsolete objects end up at. The film has assembled some interesting stories with unique footage from Spain, France, Germany, the USA and Ghana.

The documentary starts with Marcus from Barcelona, who has a printer that suddenly stopped working and tries to get it fixed. Technical support however recommends him to better get a new one since it's not worth fixing. It seems he's another victim of planned obsolescence, but all I can say is watch til the end (I don't want to spoil the movie for you). The film tackles the question why we have " the desire to own something a little newer, sooner and better than necessary all the time". It takes us to Livermore in California where the longest burning lightbulb shines on and on. It has been doing so for 109 years and has already outlasted 3 web cams they have set up so you can see the bulb online during 24h.


Footage from the documentary "comprar, tirar, comprar" in Livermore

A shocking story is that of the Phoebus cartel and how the industry in the 1920ies started to control the consumption and manufacturing of lightbulbs by making it shorter-lived on purpose to sell more. Engineers at the time were given instructions to make Edison's lightbulb design more fragile to not outlast 1000 hours.

American writer Nicols Fox believes that "it is the duty of everyone to complain about products that don't work properly". She even wrote a sonnet of complaint about some flashlights that don't last long. Lawyer Elizabeth Pritzker simply sewed Apple for selling iPods that only lasted 8 months due to irreparable battery failure.

The documentary also takes us to Ghana showing the nightmare of e-waste that is simply dumped there by the rich countries.


Footage from the documentary "comprar, tirar, comprar" in Ghana

In the end, the film seems to offer two ways out. The first one is an industry based on the concept of Cradle to Cradle, following the principles of nature and abundance. Here we can keep on consuming as we do as long as we change the way we make things. It is about clean energy and recyclibility or rather upcycling. The other approach, presented by Serge Latouche from the University of Paris, would be to rethink our values and our habits of consumption. It is about more free time to do better things (family, friends, health,...) instead of shopping.

I definitely recommend seeing "comprar, tirar, comprar" if you understand Spanish, although, for those of you who don't, the movie is subtitled rather than dubbed, and quite a few presenters speak in English. Let's hope they translate it soon into more languages as this is a film all of us should see.

Tags: Conspicuous Consumption | Cradle To Cradle | Disposable | Documentaries | E-Waste | France | Germany | Ghana | Movies | Reusability | Spain | United States | Upcycling | Waste | Waste Not Want Not