Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Can the G-string save us from our lust for power?

By Lorne Craig on August 1, 2008

Consulting for a retail chain, I recently had the opportunity to tour the store looking for products with ‘green’ attributes. Entering the appliance section, I was faced with a serious contradiction. Here, the message seemed clear that the MORE power the appliance uses, the better. “500 watts!” boasted one blender box. “600 watts!!” screamed another. Topping the list was the Krups Motor Technik with A THOUSAND WATTS of ice-pulverizing power!!! (Don’t bother with cubes, Honey, we can buy our ice in blocks now.) This theme continued with microwave ovens, fabric steamers, hair dryers, coffee grinders, and of course – power tools.

So how hard-wired is our need for “More Power, Scotty?” And what can replace that compulsion in an energy-hungry future?

In one article, from a 1972 issue of Time Magazine, Social Science Professor David Klein postulated that it goes way back. “The derring-do that had survival value in frontier days is still extolled in the U.S.; yet it is obsolete. In an industrialized nation where most jobs are routine, a man cannot win status through on-the-job valor. To compensate, he surrounds himself with power tools, outboard motors, high-performance cars. These give him, at play, the feelings of control, power, masculinity and risk no longer available at work.”

Lev Vygotsky, a nineteenth-century Soviet developmental psychologist, took it all the way back to Darwin: “Human evolution is altered by man-made tools whose use then creates a technical-social way of life. Once that change occurs, 'natural' selection becomes dominated by cultural criteria and favors those able to adapt to the tool-using way of life.”

Great. Not only do we secretly crave the danger and opportunity of the Old West, we are trapped in a tool-centric evolutionary path that continuously rewards this anachronistic thought pattern.

So where is our escape? What social construct could possibly convince us that less is more?

A walk down the aisle to the fashion department may provide an answer. For where else can you find a swimsuit made with eight square inches of Lycra that sells for $250? Or a rack of $100 silk ties that have no discernable performance function whatsoever? And do the famed Manolo Blahnik pumps allow one to kick more ass than a pair of steel toed boots?

It could be argued, of course, that there is an impenetrable wall between fashion and function that no self-respecting tool should attempt to cross. Certainly, efficiency needs to increase and performance must be adequate for the job at hand.

But the fashion industry has got some kind of logic-defying mojo that we could co-opt for the design and marketing of power-using products, to make them leaner, greener and more appealing at the same time. Wattage be damned.

Illustration by Lorne Craig