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Bought today gone tomorrow – Product obsolescence as a challenge for sustainability
Current production and consumption patterns in industrialised countries are characterised by an immense growth in personal properties, an increasing equipment of everyday life with electronic gadgets and infinite loops of new product generations. Short-lived products play a key role in these practice formations and are a challenge to sustainable systems of production and consumption. Since 2011, the so-called product obsolescence, a term describing the premature depreciation of consumer goods, enjoys constant media attention. Common discourses around obsolescence presume a deceit of producers who are suspected to inscribe a pre-calculated expiry date into their products. The presentation goes beyond this linear cause-and-effect perspective and discusses obsolescence as an outgrowth of modern material culture and unsustainable human-object relationships. Results of various studies into modern production and consumption practices and procedures are reported, like insights from a media analysis on obsolescence communication as well as from several consumer surveys and interviews with producers. A conceptual framework drawing from practice theories and new materialism will be presented that deconstructs obsolescence as communicatively and materially constructed in interrelated practices of designing, creating, appropriating, (d)evaluating and disposing consumer goods. A main point is that both, the social significance and meaning projected onto objects and the practical understanding concerning the object’s materiality and functionality are key issues to understand and overcome unsustainable product lifetimes. Taking the repair- and maker-movement as practical examples the presentation will conclude with some reflections about how longer lasting relationships between people and their objects evolve and how repairing and do-it-yourself as emancipatory practices of sustainable consumption can be fostered.