Learning to value the value of goods

Räderwerk einer Uhr
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A different kind of appreciation of products, of the invested labour and resources is a way out of the resource-devouring consumption trap. We reward ourselves and others, both economically and aesthetically, with truly appreciative, material-loving consumer behaviour.

A plea by Christine Ax

(Translated from the German by Lara Nettekoven, Theresa Lupek, Susanne Mollen, Ruthild Gärtner, Bianca Gerards and Miriam Eckers)

As capable of circulation as products may be, the aim of a product can never be the enabling of economic growth by becoming ‘recyclable’ or ‘capable of circulation’. Its purpose can only ever be the profit or the pleasure that a certain good provides; its usage and not its wastage. Even when it comes to recyclables: less is more. After all, the production of all artefacts and their preservation also requires, in addition to energy and resources, human 'living time' during production and during usage. It requires living time that is valuable. 

Anyone who wants to appreciate products, the methods of their production and natural resources needs to ask for the products’ utility, their purpose. Which things really give us satisfaction? For this purpose, we do not have to ponder obsessively over the question of what is truly of use. On the contrary, we can face the world in a different way, ‘lovingly materialistically’, in a positive sense, as the poet Pablo Neruda suggests. In his praise of small and the big things, Neruda conjures up their great variety of shapes, colours and materials. To him, every single thing has its own value, and together they form a defining part of his life. “I have a crazy, crazy love of things (...), not just the grandest, also the infinitely small (...). Oh yes, the planet is sublime! It’s full of (...) everything (...) that is made by the hand of man,” Neruda writes. “No one can say . . . that I loved only those things that leap and climb, desire, and survive. (...) [M]any things conspired to tell me the whole story. [T]hey were so close that they were a part of my being, they were so alive with me that they lived half my life and will die half my death.” Only that which we truly love is to us worth the effort of using and preserving it.

Things as life-long companions

Would it not be more reasonable to temper our consumer behaviour and possess fewer, but better things? Things that are good for life and made for life? Objects to which we feel related in a personal way? Things that, with age, gain in value or patina, for us or for others. And should we not consider more carefully what things actually mean to our lives before we allow them to play a role in them?

Ivan Illich, for example, shows us how these alternative measures of value work. In his writings, the author, philosopher and theologian has provided some basic approaches to thinking things against the grain. In 1978, he was one of the first to show in his book Energy and Equity that cars are consumers of living time or 'life time'. By no means do we save 'life time' or gain spare time, as one would assume, by using them. Illich factored in the time we spend financing the car by means of earning our income as well as the time needed for financing its use, for fuel, repairs, insurance, etc.

According to Illich’s equation, working time equals life time. Not only does this equation help when considering buying a car, but also in the case of consumption in general. Almost as soon as we have bought something, we are already looking for the next bargain. Because it is fun, because we persuade ourselves that we really need this and that, or simply because we can afford it.

The things we do not buy do not have to be produced and earned by us. The less we purchase and produce, the fewer jobs have to be safeguarded or created again and again by the economy. For the more productive we are, the more we have to consume to be able to work.

Calculating marginal utility

In order to obtain a different appreciation of things and our consumption, we can also argue in a brutally economic way. Economists have come up with the notion of a ‘marginal utility of things’. It means that the utility of a product cannot be increased in proportion to its number. If we buy ten rolls for breakfast but have had enough after the second one, every additional roll loses value for us. A similar experience is shared by a thirsty reveller who confirms a “highly positive marginal utility” after his first beer, which declines to virtually zero after the fifth one, while after the tenth one, his pleasure reverts to the opposite.

The same calculation can be applied to the purchasing of products. If we buy twenty T-shirts, we are still only able to wear one of them at the same time, and the utility of the other T-shirts in our wardrobe is reduced accordingly. A growth-oriented consumer industry has to always react to this tendency of market saturation. It attempts to keep consumption running because it is neither the products that are scarce, nor the money, but the needs. Today, marketing and advertising specialists as well as designers are responsible for rising and permanent sales. Since the function of a new thing or device remains basically the same, it all depends on the look and the image, on the attitude towards life conveyed by the product. These factors have become the decisive driving force for new purchases, even if the old toaster, the old car or the winter jacket are still in good shape. Peer-group pressure is exerted on consumers, a gain in distinction and prestige is suggested and increased social esteem is promised to them.

Technical obsolescence also has the purpose of sales promotion. A long period of use by consumers has contra-productive effects on economic growth. The list of examples for planned obsolescence is long: it starts with light bulbs that originally were much more durable and fine panty hose that do not survive even the first wearing, and it goes on with printers or washing machines that upon expiration of their warranty usually show the same defects.

Some camera and mobile phone batteries stop working after two years. After they stop working, it is either impossible to replace them or the model can simply no longer be delivered. The question of whether this problem is planned by the industry in advance or is rather a mere coincidence is a matter of debate between consumer protectionists and manufacturers. In order to clarify how electrical and electronic devices are marketed, the German Federal Environment Agency has initiated a new project. The fact is that manufacturers are not doing anything to change the situation. And why should they? The principle of planned obsolescence ensures the manufacturers that there will be a continual demand for their products. Due to the industry’s very nature, they are disinterested in product sustainability.

Marginal Costs of Consumption

If we have come to understand the principle of marginal utility and its consequences, then we are in a position to value things differently and, thus, to change our growth-oriented consumer behaviour. If we consider the marginal costs as well, the lack of common sense in our previous behaviour becomes obvious. In business administration and microeconomics, the marginal costs are the costs that result from producing one additional unit of a good. We, as consumers, have to take them into account as well. The more things we purchase, possess, maintain and have to dispose of later, the higher the psychological, social and ecological costs related to that kind of abundance are. If we understand our economy as a flowchart, resources like energy, raw materials, workforce and time have to be invested on one side in order to produce goods on the other side. It is like a huge machine that has to be kept going – the faster it goes, the faster we have to work and consume, wasting more and more energy and resources – just so we acquire things we don’t really need, let alone appreciate. Understanding the principles of marginal utility and marginal cost we take one step further towards changing our valuation assets. Now that we know about the constraints on consumption, we can do better. Still to be considered is the factor of the workforce. In order to achieve a sustainable society, let us undo the Gordian knot that links the valuation of one's own work to that of someone else.

A Gift in Exchange for the Remaining Debt

Already today, many people combine their work with high ethical standards and are proud of their abilities and achievements, and not without reason. The price that someone is able to establish plays a decisive role. But when you take a closer look, you understand that something appears behind the monetary dimension that has nothing to do with money and that cannot be regulated by it either. Actually experienced enjoyment on the job doesn’t need to be paid for; its remuneration exists in feeling pride and joy for successful, appreciated and sense-giving work. In return, the burdens which sometimes come with working have to be paid for; but money isn't the one and only currency for it. The relative value of work is determined by the market price, but never the absolute value of a human being who carries out this work for us. To pay a fair price for the work and one's working time is as important as to understand that the monetary remuneration for an effort comprises an aspect of depreciation of the work and the human being. This is because all the abilities, the enjoyment of work and all the good things someone has put into work remain a part of the person and is, therefore, priceless. A certain debt remains as a part of every acquisition, which is only to be paid off through appreciation, respect and gratitude. Subtle sentiments are part of our culture and are expressed through polite gestures, such as a gift or a tip. It is a form of mutual appreciation, on one side by the person who has provided the service and on the other side by the person who has received the service.

Christine Ax, philosopher and author. The main topics of work, consumptions and appreciation are discussed in her books ‘Handwerk der Zukunft’ (the future of crafts), ‘Die Könnensgesellschaft – Mit guter Arbeit aus der Krise’ (the capability society – how good work will lead us out of the crisis) and ‘Wachstumswahn : Was uns in die Krise führt und wie wir wieder herauskommen (co-authored with Friedrich Hinterberger)’ (The mania of growth : what has led us into crisis and how we can get out of it.

More aspects of appreciation of humans, their work and of nature you will find in Topics and more detailed in the factory-magazine Value-ation. The free PDF-magazine contains additional citations and numbers, is  finely illustrated and optimized for readability on screens and tablets.

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