A Brief History of Our Throwaway Society

Life Magazine. August 1, 1955

Life Magazine. August 1, 1955

In August 1955, Life Magazine ran an article called “Throwaway Living” that celebrated the new disposable society and featured a disposable dog bowl, disposable duck decoys, a “Disposa-Pan” and a throwaway barbecue grill, cost: .79 cents.   

The future was so bright, and ready for the trash.  

In The New York Times, we see the use of “throwaway society” in a 1967 story about the luxury leather goods maker Mark Cross expanding to California. The reporter cites some ad copy from the company: “It’s a throwaway society, man. Buy it. Break it. Chuck it. Replace it. Do you believe that? Mark Cross is not for you.”

There’s also a reference of the term “throwaway society” from a 1970 edition of The Christian Science Journal. “The healing of a throwaway society began. The generation gap closed a little…” That is all I can see on Google, but it's doubtful it’s meant to describe consumer habits. 

Whatever the term’s origin, it’s one we’ve heard, internalized and embraced conceptually. A walk down any cleaning supplies supermarket aisle will prove this point. But it’s gone way beyond swiffers and diapers.

Over the years we’ve come to expect that everything we buy has a lifespan. This is sad and wrong.

Technology devices may be the worst when it comes to decreasing life expectancy. On average, Americans replace their mobile phones every 22 months, a rate that is actually slowing. 

Twenty years ago, it would be hard to imagine a phone lasting less than five years. Of course cell phones are not just phones anymore, and technology is moving so quickly that to keep up, we need new phones more frequently. Still, our expectations have changed.

When it comes to non-tech devices like bicycles, knives and surfboards, I say we're better off investing more to buy items that will last. Thankfully it seems we're moving away from a throwaway society. There's renewed interest for quality goods that are made to last. Look at the success of Patagonia or the current interest in well-made vintage watches. I'm all for moving to a “pass along” society, where we pass our possessions down to a son, daughter, friend, wife, husband or whomever, when we no longer have use for them.

Let’s buy the antiques of tomorrow, the things that will last longer than us. It may mean spending more, but it will certainly mean buying less.