Tag Archives: consumerism

Consumerism Gone Utterly Utterly Mad

amazon-patent-afc

I’m not sure whether to love or hate Amazon (the online retailer). I love the one-click convenience and the mall-less shopping experience. But, Amazon’s lengthy tentacles are increasingly encroaching into every aspect of our lives. Its avaricious quest to “serve the customer” has me scared.

I don’t want Amazon to be the sole source for everything that I eat, wear and use. I don’t want Amazon to run the world’s computing infrastructure. I don’t want Amazon making and peddling movies. I don’t want Amazon tech eavesdropping on my household conversations. I don’t want Amazon owning telecommunications and fiber infrastructure, nor do I want it making phones. I don’t wish to live in a nation that has to all intents become a giant, nationwide Amazon warehouse. And, this leads me to the company’s latest crazy idea.

The company was granted patent #9,305,280 in April 2016 for an “airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery“. You got it: a flying warehouse stocked full of goodies hovering over your neighborhood armed and ready to launch your favorite washing detergent, a pair of Zappos shoes, diapers and a salame to your doorstep via missile drone.

Apparently the proposed airborne fulfillment center (AFC) “may be an airship that remains at a high altitude (e.g., 45,000 feet)”. Not surprisingly, the AFC mothership will use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — drones — “to deliver ordered items to user designated delivery locations”. But, in addition, the patent filing suggests that “shuttles (smaller airships) may be used to replenish the AFC with inventory, UAVs, supplies, fuel, etc. Likewise, the shuttles may be utilized to transport workers to and from the AFC”. The proposed airship will also deliver customized airborne advertising tied to its inventory enabling on-the-fly (pun intended) product promotions and fulfillment.

As Annalee Newitz, Tech Culture Editor, over at ars technica remarks, “sounds like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel“. Yes, and while Dick’s many novels were gloriously imagined, we don’t necessarily need them to enter the real world. Please let our androids continue dreaming (of electric sheep).

Image: Figure 2 from Amazon’s patent for an airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery. US patent #9305280. Courtesy: USPTO. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

The Curious Psychology of Returns

In a recent post I wrote about the world of reverse logistics, which underlies the multi-billion dollar business of product returns. But while the process of consumer returns runs like a well-oiled, global machine the psychology of returns is confusingly counter-intuitive.

For instance, a lenient return policy leads to more returned products — no surprise there. But, it also causes increased consumer spending, and the increased spending outweighs the cost to the business of processing the increased returns. Also, and rather more curiously, a more lenient return time limit correlates to a reduction in returns, not an increase.From the Washington Post:

January is prime time for returns in the retail industry, the month where shoppers show up in droves to trade in an ill-fitting sweater from grandma or to unload the second and third “Frozen” dolls that showed up under the Christmas tree.

This post-Christmas ritual has always been costly for retailers, comprising a large share of the $284 billion in goods that were returned in 2014.  But now it is arguably becoming more urgent for the industry to think carefully about return policies, as analysts say the rise of online shopping is bringing with it a surge in returns. The return rate for the industry overall is about 8 percent, but analysts say that it is likely significantly higher than that online, since shoppers are purchasing goods without seeing them in person or trying them on.

Against that backdrop, researchers at University of Texas-Dallas sought to get a better handle on how return policies affect shopper behavior and, in turn, whether lenient policies such as offering a lengthy period for returns actually helps or hurts a retailer’s business.

Overall, a lenient return policy did indeed correlate with more returns. But, crucially, it was even more strongly correlated with an increase in purchases. In other words, retailers are generally getting a clear sales benefit from giving customers the assurance of a return.

One surprising finding: More leniency on time limits is associated with a reduction — not an increase — in returns.

This may seem counterintuitive, but researchers say it could have varying explanations. Ryan Freling, who conducted the research alongside Narayan Janakiraman and Holly Syrdal, said that this is perhaps a result of what’s known as “endowment effect.”

“That would say that the longer a customer has a product in their hands, the more attached they feel to it,” Freling said.

Plus, the long time frame creates less urgency around the decision over whether or not to take it back.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

The Vicious Cycle of Stuff

google-search-stuff

Many of us in the West, and now increasingly in developing nations, are the guilty perpetrators of the seemingly never-ending cycle of consumption and accumulation. Yet for all the talk of sustainability, down-sizing, and responsible consumption we continue to gather, hoard and surround ourselves with more and more stuff.

From the Guardian:

The personal storage industry rakes in $22bn each year, and it’s only getting bigger. Why?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not because vast nations of hoarders have finally decided to get their acts together and clean out the hall closet.

It’s also not because we’re short on space. In 1950 the average size of a home in the US was 983 square feet. Compare that to 2011, when American houses ballooned to an average size of 2,480 square feet – almost triple the size.

And finally, it’s not because of our growing families. This will no doubt come as a great relief to our helpful commenters who each week kindly suggest that for maximum environmental impact we simply stop procreating altogether: family sizes in the western world are steadily shrinking, from an average of 3.37 people in 1950 to just 2.6 today.

So, if our houses have tripled in size while the number of people living in them has shrunk, what, exactly, are we doing with all of this extra space? And why the billions of dollars tossed to an industry that was virtually nonexistent a generation or two ago?

Well, friends, it’s because of our stuff. What kind of stuff? Who cares! Whatever fits! Furniture, clothing, children’s toys (for those not fans of deprivation, that is), games, kitchen gadgets and darling tchotchkes that don’t do anything but take up space and look pretty for a season or two before being replaced by other, newer things – equally pretty and equally useless.

The simple truth is this: you can read all the books and buy all the cute cubbies and baskets and chalkboard labels, even master the life-changing magic of cleaning up – but if you have more stuff than you do space to easily store it, your life will be spent a slave to your possessions.

We shop because we’re bored, anxious, depressed or angry, and we make the mistake of buying material goods and thinking they are treats which will fill the hole, soothe the wound, make us feel better. The problem is, they’re not treats, they’re responsibilities and what we own very quickly begins to own us.

The second you open your wallet to buy something, it costs you – and in more ways than you might think. Yes, of course there’s the price tag and the corresponding amount of time it took you to earn that amount of money, but possessions also cost you space in your home and time spent cleaning and maintaining them. And as the token environmentalist in the room, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that when you buy something, you’re also taking on the task of disposing of it (responsibly or not) when you’re done with it. Our addiction to consumption is a vicious one, and it’s stressing us out.

I know this because I’ve experienced it, having lived in everything from a four-bedroom house to my current one-bedroom flat I share with my daughter – but I’m also bringing some cold, hard science to the table.

A study published by UCLA showed that women’s stress hormones peaked during the times they were dealing with their possessions and material goods. Anyone who parks on the street because they can’t fit their car into the garage, or has stared down a crammed closet, can relate.

Our addiction to consuming is a vicious one, and it’s having a markedly negative impact on virtually every aspect of our lives.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

Green Friday

South Arapahoe Peak

To my US readers… Happy Thanksgiving. By this time you will no doubt have been bombarded by countless commercials, online adds, billboards, flyers and messages to your inbox, social media account etc., espousing the wonders of the so-called Black Friday shopping orgy.

My advice: boycott the shopping mall and the stores — both online and brick-and-mortar — go outside, breath some fresh air, and join Green Friday. It’s infinitely better for the heart and the soul (and your bank account). My home state of Colorado has joined the bandwagon this year by opening up all state parks for free on Fresh Air Friday.

Image: South Arapahoe Peak, looking East, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado. Courtesy of the author.

 

Send to Kindle

Black Friday – OptOutside

rei-optoutside

I’m not a great fan of consumerism. And, I especially detest so-called “Black Friday” — a vulgar and avaricious corporate-America-sponsored-gluttonous-shopping-frenzy that seems to infest the public psyche the day after U.S. Thanksgiving.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a recent email from the REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) co-op, of which I’m a member, declaring that all 140+ of their stores will be closed on November 27 — Black Friday — in addition to Thanksgiving Day. Now, the cynic in me detects some level of self-serving marketing spin designed to increase REI’s foot traffic when their doors reopen on November 28, and beyond. But, I must say I’m all for #OptOutside — a day for fresh air, muddy boots, enormous vistas and no shopping. I hope other retailers follow suit and consumers opt to spend their time outside rather than spending cash inside.

CEO, Jerry Stritzke, penned the following on the REI website:

REI is closing on Black Friday.

You read that correctly. On November 27, we’ll be closing all 143 of our stores and paying our employees to head outside.

Here’s why we’re doing it.

For 76 years, our co-op has been dedicated to one thing and one thing only: a life outdoors. We believe that being outside makes our lives better. And Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of this essential truth.

We’re a different kind of company—and while the rest of the world is fighting it out in the aisles, we’ll be spending our day a little differently. We’re choosing to opt outside, and want you to come with us.

So, I encourage you to do the same wherever you may be; keep your fingers off Amazon and your feet away from Walmart’s aisles, and be part of nature’s great outside.

Image: Flatirons, Boulder. Courtesy of the author.
Send to Kindle

Journey to the Center of Consumerism

Our collective addiction for purchasing anything, anytime may be wonderfully satisfying for a culture that collects objects and values unrestricted choice and instant gratification. However, it comes at a human cost. Not merely for those who produce our toys, clothes, electronics and furnishings in faraway, anonymous factories, but for those who get the products to our swollen mailboxes.

An intrepid journalist ventured to the very heart of the beast — an Amazon fulfillment center — to discover how the blood of internet commerce circulates; the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr worked at Amazon’s warehouse, in Swansea, UK, for a week. We excerpt her tale below.

From the Guardian:

The first item I see in Amazon’s Swansea warehouse is a package of dog nappies. The second is a massive pink plastic dildo. The warehouse is 800,000 square feet, or, in what is Amazon’s standard unit of measurement, the size of 11 football pitches (its Dunfermline warehouse, the UK’s largest, is 14 football pitches). It is a quarter of a mile from end to end. There is space, it turns out, for an awful lot of crap.

But then there are more than 100m items on its UK website: if you can possibly imagine it, Amazon sells it. And if you can’t possibly imagine it, well, Amazon sells it too. To spend 10½ hours a day picking items off the shelves is to contemplate the darkest recesses of our consumerist desires, the wilder reaches of stuff, the things that money can buy: a One Direction charm bracelet, a dog onesie, a cat scratching post designed to look like a DJ’s record deck, a banana slicer, a fake twig. I work mostly in the outsize “non-conveyable” section, the home of diabetic dog food, and bio-organic vegetarian dog food, and obese dog food; of 52in TVs, and six-packs of water shipped in from Fiji, and oversized sex toys – the 18in double dong (regular-sized sex toys are shelved in the sortables section).

On my second day, the manager tells us that we alone have picked and packed 155,000 items in the past 24 hours. Tomorrow, 2 December – the busiest online shopping day of the year – that figure will be closer to 450,000. And this is just one of eight warehouses across the country. Amazon took 3.5m orders on a single day last year. Christmas is its Vietnam – a test of its corporate mettle and the kind of challenge that would make even the most experienced distribution supply manager break down and weep. In the past two weeks, it has taken on an extra 15,000 agency staff in Britain. And it expects to double the number of warehouses in Britain in the next three years. It expects to continue the growth that has made it one of the most powerful multinationals on the planet.

Right now, in Swansea, four shifts will be working at least a 50-hour week, hand-picking and packing each item, or, as the Daily Mail put it in an article a few weeks ago, being “Amazon’s elves” in the “21st-century Santa’s grotto”.

If Santa had a track record in paying his temporary elves the minimum wage while pushing them to the limits of the EU working time directive, and sacking them if they take three sick breaks in any three-month period, this would be an apt comparison. It is probably reasonable to assume that tax avoidance is not “constitutionally” a part of the Santa business model as Brad Stone, the author of a new book on Amazon, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, tells me it is in Amazon’s case. Neither does Santa attempt to bully his competitors, as Mark Constantine, the founder of Lush cosmetics, who last week took Amazon to the high court, accuses it of doing. Santa was not called before the Commons public accounts committee and called “immoral” by MPs.

For a week, I was an Amazon elf: a temporary worker who got a job through a Swansea employment agency – though it turned out I wasn’t the only journalist who happened upon this idea. Last Monday, BBC’s Panorama aired a programme that featured secret filming from inside the same warehouse. I wonder for a moment if we have committed the ultimate media absurdity and the show’s undercover reporter, Adam Littler, has secretly filmed me while I was secretly interviewing him. He didn’t, but it’s not a coincidence that the heat is on the world’s most successful online business. Because Amazon is the future of shopping; being an Amazon “associate” in an Amazon “fulfilment centre” – take that for doublespeak, Mr Orwell – is the future of work; and Amazon’s payment of minimal tax in any jurisdiction is the future of global business. A future in which multinational corporations wield more power than governments.

But then who hasn’t absent-mindedly clicked at something in an idle moment at work, or while watching telly in your pyjamas, and, in what’s a small miracle of modern life, received a familiar brown cardboard package dropping on to your doormat a day later. Amazon is successful for a reason. It is brilliant at what it does. “It solved these huge challenges,” says Brad Stone. “It mastered the chaos of storing tens of millions of products and figuring out how to get them to people, on time, without fail, and no one else has come even close.” We didn’t just pick and pack more than 155,000 items on my first day. We picked and packed the right items and sent them to the right customers. “We didn’t miss a single order,” our section manager tells us with proper pride.

At the end of my first day, I log into my Amazon account. I’d left my mum’s house outside Cardiff at 6.45am and got in at 7.30pm and I want some Compeed blister plasters for my toes and I can’t do it before work and I can’t do it after work. My finger hovers over the “add to basket” option but, instead, I look at my Amazon history. I made my first purchase, The Rough Guide to Italy, in February 2000 and remember that I’d bought it for an article I wrote on booking a holiday on the internet. It’s so quaint reading it now. It’s from the age before broadband (I itemise my phone bill for the day and it cost me £25.10), when Google was in its infancy. It’s littered with the names of defunct websites (remember Sir Bob Geldof’s deckchair.com, anyone?). It was a frustrating task and of pretty much everything I ordered, only the book turned up on time, as requested.

But then it’s a phenomenal operation. And to work in – and I find it hard to type these words without suffering irony seizure – a “fulfilment centre” is to be a tiny cog in a massive global distribution machine. It’s an industrialised process, on a truly massive scale, made possible by new technology. The place might look like it’s been stocked at 2am by a drunk shelf-filler: a typical shelf might have a set of razor blades, a packet of condoms and a My Little Pony DVD. And yet everything is systemised, because it has to be. It’s what makes it all the more unlikely that at the heart of the operation, shuffling items from stowing to picking to packing to shipping, are those flesh-shaped, not-always-reliable, prone-to-malfunctioning things we know as people.

It’s here, where actual people rub up against the business demands of one of the most sophisticated technology companies on the planet, that things get messy. It’s a system that includes unsystemisable things like hopes and fears and plans for the future and children and lives. And in places of high unemployment and low economic opportunities, places where Amazon deliberately sites its distribution centres – it received £8.8m in grants from the Welsh government for bringing the warehouse here – despair leaks around the edges. At the interview – a form-filling, drug- and alcohol-testing, general-checking-you-can-read session at a local employment agency – we’re shown a video. The process is explained and a selection of people are interviewed. “Like you, I started as an agency worker over Christmas,” says one man in it. “But I quickly got a permanent job and then promoted and now, two years later, I’m an area manager.”

Amazon will be taking people on permanently after Christmas, we’re told, and if you work hard, you can be one of them. In the Swansea/Neath/Port Talbot area, an area still suffering the body blows of Britain’s post-industrial decline, these are powerful words, though it all starts to unravel pretty quickly. There are four agencies who have supplied staff to the warehouse, and their reps work from desks on the warehouse floor. Walking from one training session to another, I ask one of them how many permanent employees work in the warehouse but he mishears me and answers another question entirely: “Well, obviously not everyone will be taken on. Just look at the numbers. To be honest, the agencies have to say that just to get people through the door.”

It does that. It’s what the majority of people in my induction group are after. I train with Pete – not his real name – who has been unemployed for the past three years. Before that, he was a care worker. He lives at the top of the Rhondda Valley, and his partner, Susan (not her real name either), an unemployed IT repair technician, has also just started. It took them more than an hour to get to work. “We had to get the kids up at five,” he says. After a 10½-hour shift, and about another hour’s drive back, before picking up the children from his parents, they got home at 9pm. The next day, they did the same, except Susan twisted her ankle on the first shift. She phones in but she will receive a “point”. If she receives three points, she will be “released”, which is how you get sacked in modern corporatese.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Amazon distribution warehouse in Milton Keynes, UK. Courtesy of Reuters / Dylan Martinez.

Send to Kindle

Amazon All the Time and Google Toilet Paper

Soon courtesy of Amazon, Google and other retail giants, and of course lubricated by the likes of the ubiquitous UPS and Fedex trucks, you may be able to dispense with the weekly or even daily trip to the grocery store. Amazon is expanding a trial of its same-day grocery delivery service, and others are following suit in select local and regional tests.

You may recall the spectacular implosion of the online grocery delivery service Webvan — a dot.com darling — that came and went in the blink of an internet eye, finally going bankrupt in 2001. Well, times have changed and now avaricious Amazon and its peers have their eyes trained on your groceries.

So now all you need to do is find a service to deliver your kids to and from school, an employer who will let you work from home, convince your spouse that “staycations” are cool, use Google Street View to become a virtual tourist, and you will never, ever, ever, EVER need to leave your house again!

From Slate:

The other day I ran out of toilet paper. You know how that goes. The last roll in the house sets off a ticking clock; depending on how many people you live with and their TP profligacy, you’re going to need to run to the store within a few hours, a day at the max, or you’re SOL. (Unless you’re a man who lives alone, in which case you can wait till the next equinox.) But it gets worse. My last roll of toilet paper happened to coincide with a shortage of paper towels, a severe run on diapers (you know, for kids!), and the last load of dishwashing soap. It was a perfect storm of household need. And, as usual, I was busy and in no mood to go to the store.

This quotidian catastrophe has a happy ending. In April, I got into the “pilot test” for Google Shopping Express, the search company’s effort to create an e-commerce service that delivers goods within a few hours of your order. The service, which is currently being offered in the San Francisco Bay Area, allows you to shop online at Target, Walgreens, Toys R Us, Office Depot, and several smaller, local stores, like Blue Bottle Coffee. Shopping Express combines most of those stores’ goods into a single interface, which means you can include all sorts of disparate items in the same purchase. Shopping Express also offers the same prices you’d find at the store. After you choose your items, you select a delivery window—something like “Anytime Today” or “Between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.”—and you’re done. On the fateful day that I’d run out of toilet paper, I placed my order at around noon. Shortly after 4, a green-shirted Google delivery guy strode up to my door with my goods. I was back in business, and I never left the house.

Google is reportedly thinking about charging $60 to $70 a year for the service, making it a competitor to Amazon’s Prime subscription plan. But at this point the company hasn’t finalized pricing, and during the trial period, the whole thing is free. I’ve found it easy to use, cheap, and reliable. Similar to my experience when I first got Amazon Prime, it has transformed how I think about shopping. In fact, in the short time I’ve been using it, Shopping Express has replaced Amazon as my go-to source for many household items. I used to buy toilet paper, paper towels, and diapers through Amazon’s Subscribe & Save plan, which offers deep discounts on bulk goods if you choose a regular delivery schedule. I like that plan when it works, but subscribing to items whose use is unpredictable—like diapers for a newborn—is tricky. I often either run out of my Subscribe & Save items before my next delivery, or I get a new delivery while I still have a big load of the old stuff. Shopping Express is far simpler. You get access to low-priced big-box-store goods without all the hassle of big-box stores—driving, parking, waiting in line. And you get all the items you want immediately.

After using it for a few weeks, it’s hard to escape the notion that a service like Shopping Express represents the future of shopping. (Also the past of shopping—the return of profitless late-1990s’ services like Kozmo and WebVan, though presumably with some way of making money this time.) It’s not just Google: Yesterday, Reuters reported that Amazon is expanding AmazonFresh, its grocery delivery service, to big cities beyond Seattle, where it has been running for several years. Amazon’s move confirms the theory I floated a year ago, that the e-commerce giant’s long-term goal is to make same-day shipping the norm for most of its customers.

Amazon’s main competitive disadvantage, today, is shipping delays. While shopping online makes sense for many purchases, the vast majority of the world’s retail commerce involves stuff like toilet paper and dishwashing soap—items that people need (or think they need) immediately. That explains why Wal-Mart sells half a trillion dollars worth of goods every year, and Amazon sells only $61 billion. Wal-Mart’s customers return several times a week to buy what they need for dinner, and while they’re there, they sometimes pick up higher-margin stuff, too. By offering same-day delivery on groceries and household items, Amazon and Google are trying to edge in on that market.

As I learned while using Shopping Express, the plan could be a hit. If done well, same-day shipping erases the distinctions between the kinds of goods we buy online and those we buy offline. Today, when you think of something you need, you have to go through a mental checklist: Do I need it now? Can it wait two days? Is it worth driving for? With same-day shipping, you don’t have to do that. All shopping becomes online shopping.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Webvan truck. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Send to Kindle

Consumer Electronics Gone Mad

If you eat too quickly, then HAPIfork is the new eating device for you. If you have trouble seeing text on your palm-sized iPad, then Lenovo’s 27 inch tablet is for you. If you need musical motivation from One Direction to get your children to brush their teeth, then the Brush Buddies toothbrush is for you, and your kids. If you’re tired of technology, then stay away from this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2013).

If you’d like to see other strange products looking for a buyer follow this jump.

Image: The HAPIfork monitors how fast its user is eating and alerts them if their speed is faster than a pre-determined rate by vibrating, which altogether sounds like an incredibly strange eating experience. Courtesy of CES / Telegraph.

Send to Kindle

The Myth of Bottled Water

In 2010 the world spent around $50 Billion on bottled water, with over a third accounted for by the United States alone. During this period the United States House of Representatives spent $860,000 on bottled water for its 435 members. This is close to $2,000 per person per year. (Figures according to Corporate Accountability International).

This is despite the fact that on average bottled water costs around 1,900 times more than it’s cheaper, less glamorous sibling — tap water. Bottled water has become a truly big business even though science shows no discernible benefit of bottled water over that from the faucet. In fact, around 40 percent of bottled water comes from municipal water supplies anyway.

In 2007 Charles Fishman wrote a ground-breaking cover story on the bottled water industry for Fast Company. We excerpt part of the article, Message in a Bottle, below.

By Charles Fishman:

The largest bottled-water factory in North America is located on the outskirts of Hollis, Maine. In the back of the plant stretches the staging area for finished product: 24 million bottles of Poland Spring water. As far as the eye can see, there are double-stacked pallets packed with half-pint bottles, half-liters, liters, “Aquapods” for school lunches, and 2.5-gallon jugs for the refrigerator.

Really, it is a lake of Poland Spring water, conveniently celled off in plastic, extending across 6 acres, 8 feet high. A week ago, the lake was still underground; within five days, it will all be gone, to supermarkets and convenience stores across the Northeast, replaced by another lake’s worth of bottles.

Looking at the piles of water, you can have only one thought: Americans sure are thirsty.

Bottled water has become the indispensable prop in our lives and our culture. It starts the day in lunch boxes; it goes to every meeting, lecture hall, and soccer match; it’s in our cubicles at work; in the cup holder of the treadmill at the gym; and it’s rattling around half-finished on the floor of every minivan in America. Fiji Water shows up on the ABC show Brothers & Sisters; Poland Spring cameos routinely on NBC’s The Office. Every hotel room offers bottled water for sale, alongside the increasingly ignored ice bucket and drinking glasses. At Whole Foods, the upscale emporium of the organic and exotic, bottled water is the number-one item by units sold.

Thirty years ago, bottled water barely existed as a business in the United States. Last year, we spent more on Poland Spring, Fiji Water, Evian, Aquafina, and Dasani than we spent on iPods or movie tickets–$15 billion. It will be $16 billion this year.

Bottled water is the food phenomenon of our times. We–a generation raised on tap water and water fountains–drink a billion bottles of water a week, and we’re raising a generation that views tap water with disdain and water fountains with suspicion. We’ve come to pay good money–two or three or four times the cost of gasoline–for a product we have always gotten, and can still get, for free, from taps in our homes.

When we buy a bottle of water, what we’re often buying is the bottle itself, as much as the water. We’re buying the convenience–a bottle at the 7-Eleven isn’t the same product as tap water, any more than a cup of coffee at Starbucks is the same as a cup of coffee from the Krups machine on your kitchen counter. And we’re buying the artful story the water companies tell us about the water: where it comes from, how healthy it is, what it says about us. Surely among the choices we can make, bottled water isn’t just good, it’s positively virtuous.

Except for this: Bottled water is often simply an indulgence, and despite the stories we tell ourselves, it is not a benign indulgence. We’re moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That’s a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 81/3 pounds a gallon. It’s so heavy you can’t fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water–you have to leave empty space.)

Meanwhile, one out of six people in the world has no dependable, safe drinking water. The global economy has contrived to deny the most fundamental element of life to 1 billion people, while delivering to us an array of water “varieties” from around the globe, not one of which we actually need. That tension is only complicated by the fact that if we suddenly decided not to purchase the lake of Poland Spring water in Hollis, Maine, none of that water would find its way to people who really are thirsty.

Please read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Send to Kindle

America: Paradoxical icon of the new

From Eurozine:

Blaming the American Way of Life for the ills of post-industrial European society is a poor excuse for Europeans’ own partiality to consumer pleasures, writes Petr Fischer. On a positive note, American individualism could teach Europe a thing or two about social solidarity.

“Business–Answer–Solution” reads the advertising banner of the subsidiary of a foreign company in the centre of Prague. At first sight, the banner is not particularly interesting, in this case meaning that it is not particularly surprising. Surprising things are those that capture our attention, that shock us in their particular way. This corporate motto repeats the famous, infinitely repeated mantra of aggressive global capitalism, its focus purely pragmatic: give us a problem and we will come up with a solution that profits both you and us. “Win-win capitalism”, one could say in today’s international newspeak.

What is interesting – in other words disconcerting – is the fact that the banner covers the window of a small shop situated directly behind the National Museum, a building that – as in every other European city – symbolizes a certain perception of historicity cultivated on the old continent at least since the nineteenth century. The National Museum preserves the history of the Czech nation, and the people who work in it analyse and reflect on Czech national existence, its peculiarity, uniqueness, difference or connectedness. This activity is not governed by the pragmatic slogan of performance, of completed things, of faits accomplis; rather, it is ruled by a different three words, directed at thinking and its incessant, uncertain movement: Discussion–Question–Searching.

Both slogans represent two sides of the same coin of western civilization, two sides that, so far, have been more or less separate. The first represents the straightforward American way, leveraging everything along the way, everything at hand that can help business; the latter represents the difficult, reflective way of the old continent, left by its American child so that it could later be changed according to America’s picture. The fact that the multinational company’s motto is located just “behind” the building that, synecdochically, expresses the basic historic orientation of all European nations, is symbolic. “Behind”, meta in Greek, describes, in the European tradition, something that transcends everything we can arrive at though normal reasoning. In Aristotle’s canon, so the philosophical legend has it, such was the name of the texts found in the library behind the thinker’s treatise on physics. However metaphysics has since come to signify a system of thought that transcends the world of tangible facts and things, that represents some invisible internal order of the world. Business–Answer–Solution, the catchword of American pragmatism, is, as its location behind the National Museum suggests, perhaps the only really functioning metaphysics of today’s world.

New is always better

Since its discovery, America has been referred to as the New World. But what exactly is new about it for the Europeans? In De la démocratie en Amérique, Alexis de Tocqueville – one of the first to systematically analyse American institutions, republican political systems, and above all what today is called the “American way of life” – concluded that the newness of America consist mostly of a kind of neophilia, a love of all that is new.

“The Americans live in a country of wonders, everything around them is in incessant motion, and every motion seems to be progress,” says de Tocqueville. “The image of the new is closely connected with the image of the better. They see no limits set by Nature on man’s efforts; in American eyes, that which does not exist is what no one has yet tried.” In this extension of the purest Enlightenment optimism, the new is associated with a higher, moral quality. The gaze of the man turns toward the future, the past ceases to be important because, in the rush towards the new, the better, it loses its value, becomes inferior. The essential is what will be, or rather, what part of the future can be realized “now”.

More from theSource here.

Send to Kindle

Shopping town USA

From Eurozine:

In the course of his life, Victor Gruen completed major urban interventions in the US and western Europe that fundamentally altered the course of western urban development. Anette Baldauf describes how Gruen’s fame rests mostly on the insertion of commercial machines into the decentred US suburbs. These so-called “shopping towns” were supposed to strengthen civic life and structure the amorphous, mono-functional agglomerations of suburban sprawl. Yet within a decade, Gruen’s designs had become the architectural extension of the policies of racial and gender segregation underlying the US postwar consumer utopia.

In 1943, the US American magazine Architectural Forum invited Victor Gruen and his wife Elsie Krummeck to take part in an exchange of visions for the architechtonic shaping of the postwar period. The editors of the issue, entitled Architecture 194x, appealed to recognised modernists such as Mies van der Rohe and Charles Eames to design parts of a model town for the year “194x”, in other words for an unspecified year, by which time the Second World War would have ended. The architects Gruen & Krummeck partnership were to design a prototype for a “regional shopping centre”. The editors specified that the shopping centre was to be situated on the outskirts of the city, on traffic island between two highways and would supplement the pedestrian zone down town. “How can shopping be made more inviting?”, the editors asked Gruen & Krummeck, who, at the time of the competition, were famous for their spectacular glass designs for boutiques on Fifth Avenue and for national department store chains on the outskirts of US cities.

The two architects responded to the commission to build a “small neighbourhood shopping centre” with a design that far exceeded the specified size and function of the centre. Gruen later explained that the project reflected the couple’s dissatisfaction with Los Angeles, where long distances between shops, regular traffic jams, and an absence of pedestrian zones made shopping tiresome work. Gruen and Krummeck saw in Los Angeles the blueprint of an “an automotive-rich postwar America”. Their counter-design was oriented towards the traditional main squares of European cities. Hence, they suggested two central structural interventions: first, the automobile and the shopper were to be assigned two distinct spatial units, and second, space for consumption and civic space were to be merged. Working to this premise, Gruen and Krummeck designed a centre that was organised around a spacious green square – with garden restaurants, milk bars, and music stands. The design integrated 28 shops and 13 public facilities; among the latter were a library, a post office, a theatre, a lecture hall, a night club, a nursery, a play room, and a pony stable.

The editors of Architectural Forum rejected Gruen’s and Krummeck’s design. They insisted upon a reduced “regional shopping centre” and urged the architects to rework their submission along these lines. Gruen and Krummeck responded with an adjustment that would later prove crucial: they abandoned the idea of a green square in the centre of the complex and suggested building a closed, round building made of glass. They surrounded the inwardly directed shopping complex with two rings. The first ring was to serve as a pedestrian zone, the second as a car park. This design also failed to please. George Nelson, the editor-in-chief, was scandalised and argued that by removing the central square, the space for sitting around and strolling was lost. For him, the shopping centre as closed space was inconceivable. Eventually, Gruen and Krummeck submitted a design for a conventional shopping centre with shops arranged in a “U” shape around a courtyard. Clearly, those that would celebrate the closed shopping centre a few years later were not yet active. It was only a decade later that Gruen was able to convince two leading department-store owners of the profitability of a self-enclosed shopping centre. Excluding cars, street traders, animals, and other potential disturbances, and supported by surveillance technology, the shopping mall would embody the ideal, typical values of suburban lifestyles – order, cleanliness, and safety. Public judgement of Gruen’s “architecture of introversion” fundamentally changed, then, in the course of the 1950s. What was it, exactly, that led to this revised evaluation of a closed, inwardly directed space of consumption?

More from theSource here.

Send to Kindle