By Lacey Szczepanik, LuxEco Living Editorial Assistant
I was born into a generation which, when it comes to consuming products, ‘Built to Last’ was long 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 brass bed frame and swiveling walnut barstools today as she did when 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, which were built to last. Looking again at my own consumer habits, a peek through my closet reveals 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 for all of these goods yet few evoke anything other then a blasé attitude. There are, however, a few particular items, my Italian Fioretti & Baker leather boots, my Hudson Jeans, by little black Dries Van Noten dress scored from a second hand store, which I will have altered, patched, re-soled, hemmed, taken in and/or let out until the cows come home.
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 which would quickly appear ‘dated’, was a concept introduced around the 1940’s. After WWII mass consumption took over and a demand-driven economy was seen as the key to our nation’s recovery and prosperity. And at that point in history, it was true. There was a much closer connection, a more ‘completed circle’, between consumer demand, factories and jobs during that era. When people were buying things, they were buying things that were made by American workers. It does not however, take a Harvard professor to know it’s now hard to find a product with out ‘Made in China’ stamped on the bottom.
Beyond the economic implications of our desire to consume more, faster, lie the environmental implications. If everyone in the world consumed at the rate we in America consume, not only would we need a whole army of Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese factory workers, but also three to five planets to sustain our demand. 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. I mean, hey… if we’re gonna be looking at it for the next 50 years it better be pretty, right? 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, I assure you Heirloom Design is currently in play in the world. Think of Le Creuset pots and pans, Montblanc pens, the Hermes Birkin, KitchenAid products, Leica cameras, Levi 501’s, Chuck Taylor shoes. Heirloom design surrounds us. The problem is that for every one Zippo lighter, there are 100 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 we can send a man to the moon, we can design a vacuum that lasts longer than a year. If products were more durable, jobs lost due to the decrease in consumption would 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. Hence the seamstress and cobbler I employ to repair my beloved boots and dresses. Both of which, work within three miles of my home. Furthermore, 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 acquire 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 may be larger when purchasing goods designed to be aesthetically pleasing which also last a very long time and were made by workers being paid fare wages. Hopefully one day in the near future, it will be de rigueur for designers and companies to make beautiful, well made, heirloom products that aren’t expensive. Until then we must exercise a little restraint and realize, at the end of the day the repetitive purchasing of cheaper goods likely ends up costing us more. It certainly does our planet.