Slow Consumption: Heirloom Design
Heirloom designers aim to change the world by making stuff that lasts
image by Jon Reinfurt / www.reinfurt.com
As the middle-class daughter of a refugee mother and a Depression-era father, I was part of a transitional generation of consumers. My parents could afford much more than they were willing to buy; most things that broke could be and were repaired. By the time my own children were born, America was flooded with cheap and cheaply made goods. So while my parents continued working at the sturdy antique desks they inherited from my grandparents and sleeping beneath a hand-crocheted bedspread, my children and their friends became the first and last owners of a seemingly endless supply of plastic toys and particleboard furniture.
These days, nearly everything is produced in China and made to be discarded. According to a 2008 report by the Economic Policy Institute, the United States imported $323 billion in Chinese goods in 2007, including $26.3 billion in apparel and accessories, $108.5 billion in computers and electronic products, and $15.3 billion in furniture and fixtures.
The manufacture, distribution, and disposal of an ever-growing mountain of short-lived consumer goods have taken an enormous environmental toll. We can’t, however, only blame the quantity and quality of Chinese goods for the consequences of this transoceanic factory-to-waste stream. For that we can blame the two horsemen of the modern consumer apocalypse: functional obsolescence and fashion obsolescence.
Functional, or planned, obsolescence is the intentional decision by designers and manufacturers to ensure that things don’t last, so that consumers must buy new ones. Fashion obsolescence is the related decision to offer new features and aesthetic changes to entice consumers to discard their old items in favor of updated and supposedly better ones.
Ironically, product obsolescence was once seen as the remedy for what ailed our country. Lizabeth Cohen, chair of the history department at Harvard University and author of A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, traces the origins of mass consumption to the period immedi-ately before and after World War II, when a demand-driven econ-omy was seen as the key to our nation’s recovery and prosperity.
“Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption,” retailing analyst Victor Lebow said in 1955. “We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing pace.”
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