Getting rich by making things we don't need
China and globalisation make possible the creation of new kinds of useless products, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE
I ALWAYS forget my toothbrush. I travelled to the US last week and did it again. So the first thing I had to do was to go to one of those giant pharmacy chain stores. In the fug of jet lag, I gazed at row after row of brands and types, the raw abundance of American consumerism.
Unable to stay afloat in this torrent of choices, I just grabbed the nearest two-pack. It struck me at the checkout that it seemed slightly expensive: $14 (about €10.65) for the pair. But I thought nothing of it.
It was only when I went to use one of the toothbrushes that I realised it is a little different. The handle has two tiny bumps, one with a plus sign, the other a minus. When you press the plus button, the whole thing starts to hum like a trapped bluebottle and vibrate like a food mixer. I looked at the packet. I had purchased an Oral B Pulsar: in effect an electric toothbrush.
But not just any electric toothbrush – a disposable electric toothbrush. As the package boasts: “Fully disposable. No need to change the battery or brush head. The non-replaceable Duracell battery is designed to last the lifetime of the brush head, approximately three months.”
And then you dump the lot. There is no mention of reusing or recycling.
Now, at one level, the Pulsar is a testament to the ingenuity of consumer capitalism, a fiendishly clever piece of industrial design and engineering. Thousands of hours of highly trained brainpower have gone into its creation. It is a small miracle of global capitalism that such a thing can be sold for around €5, while Proctor and Gamble, who developed it, the factory that makes it and the retailers that flog it can all turn a buck.
And it is utterly and undeniably insane. The entire point of the object is to spare the consumer the unbearable pain of having, every few weeks or so, to plug in a rechargeable electric toothbrush, leave it for a few hours, and unplug it. The labour it saves is about the same as that involved in making one cup of tea a month. The basic appeal lies in the unspoken assumption that the hassle of manually brushing your teeth is compounded beyond endurance by the grief of having to recharge a battery.
To spare the consumer this pain, the Pulsar uses and destroys real and limited resources. The battery runs on zinc, manganese oxide and potassium hydroxide. The motor presumably uses precision-engineered steel parts. The plastic presumably requires various kinds of polyethylene. All of this is proudly disposable.
The immediate problem here is that the toothbrush I thought a little expensive is actually insanely cheap. The micro motor alone ought to be worth at least three times the cost of the whole machine.
There is actually a small cottage industry of people on YouTube who will show you how to extract the motor from the Pulsar so that it can be used for all sorts of great things, including amateur robotics.
What’s happened is the outsourcing of manufacturing industry, which means that much of the cost of making the thing is borne by other people’s environments and by the cheap labour of faraway workers.
The packaging doesn’t actually say where the Pulsar is made, but I’ll take a wild stab in the dark and guess China. And in this, my little toothbrush is a microcosm of what has happened in globalised capitalism. It is not so much that an American product is being outsourced to China.
It is, rather, that China makes possible a product that otherwise would never be created by American consumerism.
If this little thing were made in the US or Europe, it would almost certainly (because of labour costs, social protections and environmental regulations) have to retail at something more like €20 than €5. And this would make it literally inconceivable. Since no one is going to pay
€20 for a toothbrush you throw away after three months, the product itself would be unimaginable.
The demand would simply not exist: the market for electric toothbrushes is adequately served by rechargeable devices. So it is globalisation itself that creates the conditions in which a €5 disposable electric toothbrush can even be imagined as a viable consumer product.
But the product itself is worse than useless. Its unique selling-point is that you can throw it away and not worry about the consequences. Waste is not an unfortunate side-effect of the process, it is the whole point of the process. And this is what is called “prosperity” – the infinite capacity to “choose” products that are worse than useless.
But the whole discourse of American politics is still based on the impossibility of questioning this absurdity. The underlying narrative is that of an infinite amount of stuff that an infinite number of people can get rich from inventing or selling.
To suggest that prosperity might be based, not on endlessly exploiting resources but on distributing them more fairly is worse than crazy. It is un-American.