A newer, cooler, shinier column

September 26th, 2013


A few weeks ago, I decided to start using lip balm again (this isn’t a column about cosmetics, I promise). I began applying vanilla-scented Softlips a few times a day, because I found it under my dresser, and because I wanted to have soft lips – duh. But I began to notice something absurd: my lips started becoming drier more quickly, causing me to reapply on an hourly basis, or more. Perplexed, I did some quick research, and I hardly believed what I found. You’re going to want to sit down for this.

It turns out, manufacturers of lip balm put ingredients in their products – camphor, phenol, menthol, silicone oil and salicylic acid – that actually dry out your lips, causing you to reapply time and time again, and then when your supply dwindles, to buy more. You get addicted to the temporary relief you get from applying, and end up in a vicious cycle of dependence and a constant need for a hit of your Eos. And you thought heroin addiction was bad.

In my 21 years, I’ve never felt so betrayed. And to think of all the allowance money that my 10-year-old self spent on LipSmackers … I’ve been conned. We all have.

I’m not actually going to write an entire column about lip balm addiction (though I absolutely could). Lip balm is only one of various everyday products that are strategically built to fail in a way that keeps consumers coming back for more – an evil business tactic called planned obsolescence.

A classic example is the technology giant, Apple, who just released the iPhone 5 (oh, that was in 2012 – ages ago!) and is already rolling out new, “better” models. But when they designed the iPhone 5, they performed a textbook example of planned obsolescence by changing the connector on the phone. Practically, there was no real reason to do this. The 30-pin connector Apple has used since its third-generation iPod seemed to be working perfectly fine. But once we all purchase the iPhone 5 – and we will – we’ll also need to purchase a new car charger, speaker dock and basically anything else that ever connected to the ancient iPhone 4 or 4s.

To go a bit broader, consider the entire fashion industry. Fashion is based on the constant demand for designs that are new, groundbreaking and different. What results from this concept are trends. One year, crop tops are in; the next, you shouldn’t be caught dead in one. One season, faded denim is in; the next, dark jeans are the only way to go.

There isn’t a neurological change that occurs in our brains that alters our preferences for clothing and accessories. It’s an idea put into our heads by those in the industry who want us to continuously buy the latest and greatest – to buy more. We’ve all heard someone say the phrase “that’s so last year” – whether sincerely or in jest. If we wore the same clothes each year, only replacing them when they were damaged or worn out, the fashion industry would dramatically deflate.

But we don’t. Marc Jacobs and Vera Wang – or in my case, whoever makes the clothes sold at T.J. Maxx – keep concocting trends, and we keep following wherever they lead us – usually to a shopping mall. It’s all the result of ingenious manipulation by a multibillion-dollar business. And it’s working.

Maybe planned obsolescence helps drive the manufacturing economy and keeps more people employed, but it has instilled in us the mindset that whatever we have at any given time is not good enough. The minute we finally save up enough to afford the latest model, another version is just around the corner. We’re never satisfied with what we have, because we’re constantly being told that the next one will be faster, sleeker, prettier, cooler, more efficient, etc.

While some products require us to constantly update and upgrade, others are more sustainable, despite the “you’ll die if you don’t buy this now” message advertisers tell us. Next time you feel that nagging urge to buy the latest model, ask yourself whether yours still works. To manipulate an old cliche, if it ain’t broke, don’t buy a new one.