Weighed Down by ‘Gangnam Style’

By China Water Risk 10 January, 2013

With fads that come and go, we look inward at our team's consumption of silly items over Christmas

Pathological consumption is at odds with limited resources & landfill space
Non-compatible chargers and short shelf life of toys, electronics etc fuel never ending consumption
Simple policies like no wire-ties for toys for ASDA saved up to 80 tonnes of metal resources

The second half of 2012 seemed to have been dominated by the K-Pop’s PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’. The song first released in July, is now the most viewed music video online – yes viral, fad springs to mind but so does pathological consumption. It is a brilliant illustration of how “silly things” like ‘Gangnam Style’ dance moves permeate our lives. But at least this fad exists largely in the cyberspace (for now) … what about fads and silly things that litter our lives that end up in landfills?

“For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.”

George Monbiot

We were inspired by George Monbiot’s article “The Gift of Death” in December (read here) on gift waste. Monbiot rants that “there’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder …” You get the picture. To him “they seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill”

“For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.” Too true! We said before Christmas we would sift through at our own gift universe for useless gifts and here’s what we found …

Debra succumbs to ‘Gangnam Style’

OK, despite trying hard not to buy silly gifts, I succumbed. I was stuck looking for a gift for my brother when PSY-doll caught my eye and YES, this doll does dance ‘Gangnam Style’ (check out the video).

It did provide lots of amusement on Christmas day but whether it remains amusing remains to be seen. However, you could argue that this has value as it is currently prominently displayed my brother’s apartment. So technically, this isn’t a throw-away-gift. But is it unnecessary? Absolutely. Want to weigh in on whether this is a useless-gift violation? Vote here

So is the fad cashing in on merchandising? I am pretty sure this isn’t officially endorsed. The doll was not only hawked in the streets in Hong Kong, it had blue eyes with long brown eyelashes underneath the sunglasses – definitely not made to match the mop of jet black hair. Also it’s definitely not “dress classy” in cheap polyester. So on the bright side, it’s clever recycled use of factory doll run-offs … but then again you can see where this cyber phenomenon is heading: mass production.

Mark has his own toy story

Conscious of the fact that 41% of toys that children receive at Christmas are broken within three months, I decided this year, I would buy my nephew gifts that would last – books.  Unfortunately, my Dr. Seuss books did not excite or hold his attention as much as toy planes and Buzz Lightyear. However, by dinner, unlike some of the toys, the books were still intact and I knew I made the right gift decision. It makes me wonder how long Buzz would survive the onslaught before he is in the ‘landfill and beyond’!

There are some estimates that 84% of children are disappointed with their Christmas presents which means that GBP1 billion is wasted. The toy business is huge – just to illustrate: A reduction in 80 tonnes of metal waste was made as a result of ASDA (the UK supermarket chain) eliminating wire ties across all branded and own-label toys this year. Think how much more waste we can save if other retailers did the same. And that’s just wire ties…. Can you imagine the amount we could save from the other layers of unnecessary packaging?

Lisa finds an inconvenient Apple

For Christmas, someone in my family received a fifth generation iPhone. I won’t name names so as not to embarrass, but even though I was responsible for the gift, it ended up being the most profoundly irritating present of the season – enough so that I have promised never to buy another Apple product. It’s the obsolescence built into each new model that is irresponsible in a world quickly heading toward urgent resource scarcity.

I guess a company that sells 400 million iPhones doesn’t feel it is bound by the usual constraints. We have seen similar arrogance in its previous refusal to acknowledge pollution problems in its supply chain, or even to acknowledge troubled suppliers until forced to do so by Chinese environmentalists.

Basically, the new, slim iPhone 5 means that users are left with many accessories, including chargers and docking stations that are no longer usable – unless an expensive adapter is purchased that may or may not work properly!

Of course, Apple is not the only company with this approach to making us buy ever-more product. Another irritation has been the Cannon point-and-shoot cameras that change chargers with each new model. In a family of five, sadly these small cameras get lost or broken but the useless chargers hang around forever.

Sophie stumbles on Secret Santa

Having also read George Monbiot’s article, I was a little nervous about receiving fun, but resource intensive, useless gifts that may head straight to one of Hong Kong’s three landfills (which are all bursting at the seams and creating a nightmare for the government). I felt a little smug then, when all said presents served a purpose and will certainly not be disposed of in the near future. It is fair to ask however, just how many shoes and bags does a girl need.

Unfortunately, my smugness was short lived as I remembered the presents that I purchased earlier in the year in anticipation of Christmas. The driving force being – ‘Secret Santa’ – where group giving revolves around the idea of trading gifts; a sure motivation for the most ridiculous presents. My two contributions were a Christmas tree that shimmies and hulas to the dulcet tones of ‘Jingle Bell Rocks’ and a dog dressed in Santa gear, with ears that flap ferociously in time to some X’mas song; a song that I can’t even remember. Both are made-in-China and have likely been produced with a fair amount of pollution and will equally be short lived as regards the amusement and therefore usefulness of their existence.

So, next year vows to be different and creativity in giving will be required. We could do away with secret Santa altogether, or maybe Santa’s theme will be recycled gifts and we can see what surprises that can bring.

Katie’s practical-but-useless gift

Smartphone cases are almost essential for smartphone users and some of them have an extra function of carrying tiny bits such as cards. This Christmas, I received one of these as a gift. Whilst practical and sometimes quite trendy, you can only use one of these at a time. The one I’m using is still in very good condition so a replacement is not necessary and now I risk upsetting the friend who gave it to me if I don’t use it.

This brings me onto another point of contention: reusable green products such as coffee tumblers to cut down on paper cups and plastic lids and eco-bags to replace plastic bags. In theory, we only need one of these so as to consume less disposables, but in practice we keep on buying coffee tumblers of different colours and styles. Surely this behavior undermines the original intention of being green – are we not just shifting our consumption from one product to another?

Pathological consumption: hooked on fads

So Monbiot is right, we are indeed pathological consumers!

Our consumption patterns also drift with fads. Apple products once seen as a sure-win Christmas presents, are now at the bottom of the league – 5 out of the Top 20 unwanted gifts this year are Apple products. If we didn’t buy these presents, we would have saved the hassle of shopping, money plus we would end up with less waste. Needless to say heavy metals, water, copper, nickel and a host of other ores, plastics and chemicals and vast amounts of water went into making these electronics items.

The problem with fads is that as one fades another surfaces. ‘Gangnam Style’ will be eventually replaced and we will be dancing to a different tune and before we know it, we will be weighed down by more trash and the next ‘Gangnam Style’. We will be persuaded to upgrade/buy new products every year not through necessity but choice. This is the power of advertising and media (traditional & social). So for those of you skeptics, who claim that it is difficult to change consumer choices towards more green products, answer this: why do we have a huge multibillion dollar advertising industry?

Doing away with Christmas presents = more resources, less waste

Of course the more important question here is whether we have enough resources to fuel our addiction. There is also limited landfill space. Should we be taking a hard look at packaging, removing wire ties and other unnecessary fluff? Or should we just do away with Christmas presents? Or like Monbiot says “bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.” Harsh but true. Or perhaps we should take on the Chinese tradition of red packets and just swap money instead? And no, don’t then spend it on something silly, save it for a rainy day.

Further Reading:

China Water Risk
Author: China Water Risk
We believe regardless of whether we care for the environment that water risks affect us all – as investors, businesses and individuals. Water risks are fundamental to future decision making and growth patterns in global economies. Water scarcity has emerged as a critical sustainability issue for China's economy and since water powers the economy, we aim to highlight these risks inherent in each sector. In addition, we write about current trends in the global water industry, analyze changes occurring both regionally and globally, as well as providing explanations on the new technologies that are revolutionizing this industry.
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