From Built to Last to Built to Trash

I was born into a generation which, when it comes to consuming products, built to last was pushed aside for built to trash.  In an age of disposable everything, trashing goods doesn’t mean we’re disrespectful, it’s simply all we’ve ever known.

My Grandmother polishes the same swiveling walnut barstools and brass bed frame today as she did when the day I was born. I bought a particleboard desk from Ikea, which I kept for a year and couldn’t be bothered to take with me when I moved 10 miles up the road. Not long before my grandparents generation, it was likely whatever goods you were purchasing you probably knew the person making it. This person’s reputation and livelihood depended on making quality goods, goods which were built to last. When I consider every single thing I own today, I can think of only one which I can say I know the maker of; a knit cap my neighbor knitted for my newborn son. The majority of my belongings suggest that I have succumbed to the impulse buy, the quick fix, the cheap thrill more often than I care to admit.  How is it I can have so many articles of clothing, yet nothing to wear?  At some point, I laid down hard earned money these goods! Yet every morning when I peruse my closet for something to wear, the sense of excitement I surely had the day I bought them is nowhere to be found. But my son’s knit cap, this I will cherish and keep forever.

According to Harvard professor Lizabeth Cohen, all the disposable items, the Ikea desks and Forever 21 dresses, fall into one of two categories; planned functional obsolescence, and planned fashion obsolescence. The making of products which are built to break or with design that quickly appears dated was a concept introduced in the late 1940s. After WWII, mass consumption took over and a demand-driven economy was seen as the key to our nation’s continuing prosperity, a point of view which at that point had some truth to it. You see, in the decades following WWII, there was a much closer connection, a more completed circle if you will, between consumer demand, factories, and jobs. Simply put, the goods American’s were buying were made by other American’s. But, all of that changed as capitalism took hold and policies of economic liberalization became de rigueur. Combine this with an increasingly sophisticated advertising sector, and consumer culture was born.
Beyond the economic implications of the desire to consume more, faster, lie the environmental implications. If everyone in the world consumed at the rate we in America consume, we would not only need the virtual armies of slave labor that exist to feed this demanding beast, but three to five planets worth of resources. The amount of energy it takes to make cheap goods at such rapid speeds, not to mention the inability for trashed items to be broken down leaves us all up a stream, with a broken Chinese paddle. It is not physically possible to continue producing goods at the rate we have been for the past 40 years. Our earth simply does not have the resources.  This makes change unavoidable. It’s now our time to decide what kind of change we would like.
Enter inventor, engineer and futurist Saul Griffith. Griffith proposes the romantic yet totally do-able concept of heirloom design. Heirloom design refers to design meant to last generations. Products made to be durable, repairable, upgradeable and aesthetically pleasing. Griffith encourages designers, who he says have been given a power and a privilege, to design things and experiences that will last a very long time, that have been thoughtfully designed and are very beautiful. Things people want to keep. Not only keep, but to pass down for generations because they’re beautiful, functional and timeless. Imagine that.
While sometimes it seems otherwise, we can find plenty of example of heirloom design in the world. Think of Le Creuset pots and pans, Montblanc pens, Leica cameras, Levi 501’s, Vespa motor scooters, Stetson hats. The problem is that for every one Zippo lighter, there are a hundred Snuggies. With a billion potential purchases for each and every one of us, we should explore all of them, then hone in only on the ones which make you happiest, have the most beautiful design, and the best functionality. Let all the others slip away. I promise you won’t miss them.
What about the jobs lost due to people consuming less? If products were more durable, jobs lost due to the decrease in consumption could be offset by the addition of more highly skilled maintenance and repair jobs. And whereas the lost jobs might be overseas, the repair jobs would be local. Additionally, many of the companies who make things that last a century, stand a far better chance of lasting a century themselves. Think about that for a minute.
The less ‘stuff’ the better. A clean house leads to a clean mind and when you clear your clutter, you clear your mind. It all starts with consuming less and consuming better. Our outer environment is intrinsically linked to our inner environment and it’s high time we reclaimed all our spaces. My larger purchases, the methodical ones that required a little discipline, have brought me a lasting happiness impulse buys never do. I set a goal, practiced patience, earned the funds, and acquired it. Now every time I see my hard earned prize it serves as a reminder of a goal achieved. My impulse buys end up reminding me of … well … being impulsive. To quote Griffith, “Selective consumption means you will end up owning less junk, your life less cluttered, and your stuff more beautiful and serve you with more joy.” Sounds good to me.
Each time we approach the check out counter we take a vote. What we purchase frequently we’ll see more of. More local jobs or more support of overseas factories? Timeless design or flash in the pan products? Environmental sustainability or environmental sabotage? It is true that sometimes the initial investment is larger when purchasing heirloom goods that are not only designed to be aesthetically pleasing and last a very long time, but also are made by workers being paid fare wages. To this I say we must exercise a little restraint and realize that at the end of the day the repetitive purchasing of cheaper goods likely ends up costing us more anyway. It certainly does our planet.


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