The End of Involuntary Consumption?

This week, Seattle residents were given a chance to “opt-out” of delivery of phone books. There wasn’t much publicity, and it certainly wasn’t the top of the news, but in just 5 days, people canceled delivery of 85,000 phone books.

Seattle’s phone book experience is one of many rebuttals to the idea that Americans want to hyper-consume and waste. The argument is made all the time that particularly unsustainable practices are right and good, because a company is doing them, and if there’s a market for it, it must mean that consumers want it.

Of course, the reality is different. Very often, consumers have no choice: profit-driven systems lock us in, and the company making the money simply finds it profitable to continue off-loading the cost and inconvenience on to us, while pocketing the proceeds.

Take phone books. When a company drops a stack of them on my stoop, they are not doing me any good at all — I haven’t used the phone book in a decade. Quite the opposite, actually: I have to divert a few minutes attention to dealing with the phone books, put then with the recycling, then remember to haul them out for pick-up day. The same is true for hundreds of thousands of my neighbors. In the meantime, huge amounts of energy and materials are used to print and distribute the books; air and water are fouled, forests clearcut, greenhouse gasses emitted — the companies pay for none of these externalities — then more damage is done recycling objects that never needed to be created in the first place. All of these costs, from my time to melting ice caps, are paid for by others so that phone book companies can report higher numbers when they sell ads. This is, simply, involuntary consumption.

The idea that this is consumer-driven is clearly absurd. The compromise here — that Seattlites must opt-out, instead of companies being required only deliver if people opt-in — is illuminating.

My guess is that if companies needed people’s permission to drop stacks of phone books on their porches, they’d go out of business.

How many other systems in our lives are similar? How many things are done in the name of consumer convenience that are actually extractive business models, mining externalities for profit while offering little benefit to the people involved? I suspect a large portion of our consumption is in fact driven by these business models.

Smart places will start looking for ways to identify and make transparent these models; then make the companies involved pay the true cost of their actions and/or put the burden on the companies to prove people want their products. In the meantime, 85,000 phone books is a great small first step.

UPDATE: The City announced today that 105,000 phone books have now been canceled… in six days. That’s about 80 one-ton dumpsters full of unused phone books cut out of the waste stream.