Wednesday, February 6, 2008

“Another gift for the landfill” or the potentially under-explored realm of disposal costs

I’ve posted earlier about my attention to switching costs, how economists describe the barriers to switching from one brand/service/system to another. Behavioral economists have been all over this lately, uncovering depths of hidden emotional costs to the obvious financial burdens (which telcom companies among others have tried to assuage with “pay to switch you and switch you back” offers).

My question, at the time, was whether switching costs were, in general, going up or down. As systems and services get more complex and demand longer learning curves and degrees of involvement, are we less likely to switch? Alternatively, as options multiply for just about everything, the emotional hold of any one brand/system/service might be loosening. I’m sure it’s different for different categories. I’m still exploring that.

The long holiday season and my recent car purchase, however, has me thinking about another locus of financial /emotional costs, which strikes me as less fully explored.

The title of this post comes from an environmentalist friend of mine who responds dryly to the opening of presents on xmas morning with the phrase. “Oh, it’s going to be a great Christmas for a landfill. And there's another one for the landfill!” He obviously has a grim point to make, but I'm not sure it’s fair. Because what I’ve noticed is that kids, and everyone else, has a really hard time throwing crap out. I mean a really hard time. Which is why there is a whole industry and specialized consultants devoted to de-cluttering our houses and our lives. My mother-in-law obviously feels this way too as all she ever wants for Xmas is for us to take 5 things out of her house. Direct marketers and promoters know this fact as well, which is why they are so eager to give us 30 day free trials of any product or service. Once we’re in, it’s hard to get out.

That's all obvious and familiar. But I wonder if this difficulty—a combination of some primordial hording urge plus general inertia and laziness—has ever been studied/quantified. I'm not talking about the financial costs of waste management which are, of course, well documented, but rather one of those psychological/behavioral tests of the kind I so adore which created variable pricing of similar objects according to their ease of guilt-free and effortless disposal.

Which also makes me think that there might be a value-add consumer benefit in stuff and services that automatically self-destruct. Brands are already promoting their green credentials by promoting recycling options right with the product etc.

But fair attention to disposal costs would take this service to the next level. Once your kids all passed a certain age, Hasbro or Disney or whomever would swing by with a big truck and just cart it all away. Oh, dream. Though as all the environmentally consciousness planners in the bloggersphere somewhat self-destructively insisting, it would probably have been better (for the earth, not our careers) if we hadn't bought it in the first place.

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