Overproduction sucks! Rethinking Recycling & Responsibility

by Katja Bartholmess

Admitting that you’re not a fan of recycling is up there with admitting to kicking kittens. And yet, here I am. Hear me out, OK? Recycling is fine. It’s just vastly ineffective. We’re living in a world of systematic overproduction. A lot of product never ends up in the hands of the consumer and we can’t recycle what we don’t own. (We’re also living in a world of insufficient recycling infrastructure where only about a quarter of household recycling is actually put to the intended use. But that’s for another time.)

I want to focus on the overproduction and why we should ask manufacturers and marketers to do better. Much better.

Let’s put things into context. Products have been produced in excessively large numbers because manufacturing in excessively large numbers has become so cheap. Outsourcing production predominantly to China and Southeast Asia was quite visionary in the beginning and then it started to become commonplace in the 1970s. The sole focus of these manufacturing plants was to maximize efficiency and yield of production--and boy, were they successful! The longer the machines can hum and whirr making one kind of product, the better. The money is made when nobody needs to touch the machines. That’s why it’s cheaper to make hundreds of thousands of exactly one type of blue shirt or tan handbag than attempting to align production with actual consumer demand and inventory needs.

Companies don’t expect to sell all of the products they manufacture. In the fashion industry, for instance, a whopping 30% of product is never sold.* Every third of those blue shirts and those tan handbags is destined for landfill or the incinerator from the start. Are you feeling queasy yet? And even the products that do sell only find owners because a lot of resources are spent on getting people to buy. Subtle and not so subtle advertising creates the desire where there is no need. And the sales that are going on everywhere at all times hope to tempt even the most frugal of shoppers with 70% discounts.

But let’s keep our focus on the 30% overproduction. For some time now, companies have done everything from clandestine back channel dealings to more above-the-fold techniques to get rid of their massive amounts of “overstock.” (It’s a bit of a euphemism when companies know they won’t be able to sell it from the start, isn’t it?)

When it comes to above-the-fold techniques, entire second market businesses have been established around this product overflow: For example, many premium brands develop affordable diffusion lines just so they can be sold at outlet malls and numerous online platforms are dedicated to selling steeply discounted products.

When it comes to clandestine back channel dealings it boils down to the fact that a lot gets burned. We’ve all been outraged reading stories about luxury manufacturers setting their garments on fire to the tune of double digit millions. But it is absolutely everyone’s practice. Everyone has rationalized why they’re doing it: It’s often because they don’t want to see their esteemed brands in undesired environments because they’ve paid billions in advertising and marketing to position their brand this way or that.

All brands rely on knowing a few people who can “disappear” goods for them. Those buy their overstock for pennies on the dollar and it’s now up to them to sell it at a profit. The rest usually goes to charity. So much goes to charity that the charities don’t want it anymore. Let that sink in: Charities that are receiving these goods for free so they can distribute them amongst those in need are so bombarded with “stuff” that they throw up their hands and say: Enough!

Before recycling can make any difference at all, manufacturers have to slow down production. There is no other way. If we’re taking a look at the sustainability mantra “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle,” we have to note that this is written in the order of importance. If we don’t stem the overflow at the source we never stand a chance to make a difference further downstream. It would be as if we are standing there with teacups in our hands, ready to save the day as the water is crashing through the Titanic. Whatever we can shovel out with our cups is just not going to make a difference.

A shift in perspective might help. Manufacturers have to rethink their relationship to the products they manufacture, brands need to rethink their relationship to the products they have manufactured. Right now they think of their products as only temporarily in their possession and they think of themselves as only temporarily responsible for them. Once a product is sold or offloaded otherwise they wash their hands clean. Responsibility for the product is transferred to the new owner with the purchase (minus a few temporary warranty obligations).

But what if we locate responsibility not in the act of purchase and the resulting ownership but in the act of manufacturing? What if the burden of responsibility would forever lie with the manufacturer? Much like one is forever responsible for one’s children. It’s only fair, isn’t it? You decided to make stuff because you thought it would turn a good profit for you. While it’s perfectly fair that you get to make a good profit it is absolutely not fair that you get to burden the planet with your overproduction in the process. And it’s even less fair because demand-driven manufacturing would be possible. Inventory technology has advanced to the point that it can give pretty clear predictions of how many blue shirts and tan handbags it is likely to find owners for. The problem is that overproduction is so easy and that there is so little downside or regulation around it that deciding to self-regulate and be guided by actual demand seems excessive and economically foolish.

How about adding a little downside to excessive overproduction?

On the policy side: Would a company rethink their production habits if they knew they would be prohibitively taxed on their surplus production? The surplus usually ends up in landfills and our atmosphere one way or another so it’s fair that companies who contribute to the public burden, also contribute to the public coffers.

On the consumer side: Would a company rethink their production habits if they knew they would be responsible to take back, repair, replace, reuse, and generally deal with every single one of their products until the end of time--and to communicate their responsibility effectively to the people who buy from them?

A combination of the two paths would likely show positive effects. It’s reasonable enough, isn’t it? (And it would be great to hear from brands with their perspectives.)

Social media has been a great force in getting the attention of brands and policy makers alike. Why not asking them a few questions and declaring some expectations?

Here are some copy&paste-able tweets and instagrammable comments:

  • How much of your production volume is never sold? #overproductionsucks

  • How much of your production volume is incinerated? #overproductionkills

  • How much of your production volume is landfilled? #overproductionpollutes

  • Overproduction is a #climatekiller. How do you hold companies responsible? #taxoverproduction

  • Overproduction contributes to the #climatecrisis and we need to make it unattractive. What policies exist?

And on that note, I’d say: Keep up with recycling! But do let the brands you buy from and your policy makers know that you’re not cool with systematic overproduction and that you don’t believe the yarn that it’s a necessary evil and the whole economy would break down if we insisted on production that’s better aligned with demand.

Talk & Workshop for Agencies: Designing for a Sustainable Culture