‘Heirloom Design’ as a Cure for Consumption

| 12/3/2009 3:16:19 PM

In These Times Nov. 2009Concerned about the environmental impact of consumerism? Don’t just point a finger at the factories that pump out abundant, crappy goods, Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin writes for In These Times. We should also be holding responsible “the two horsemen of the modern consumer apocalypse: functional obsolescence and fashion obsolescence.”

Bloyd-Peshkin joins a growing group of voices intent on reminding us that consumption hasn’t always been the principle expression of American culture. (Look for some great related articles in our Jan.-Feb. issue, on newsstands later this month.) The snapshot story is familiar: In the pre- and post-World War II United States, a demand-driven economy was seen as the road to prosperity. Bloyd-Peshkin, a journalism professor at Columbia College in Chicago, quotes some language from the era, however, that puts a finer point on the strategy:

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.

It just makes you feel a little gross, eh. But the notion of “citizen-as-consumer runs deep,” Bloyd-Peshkin writes, and even the conscientious among us aren’t immune. As “frugal as I am and as green as I try to be,” she confesses, “during the recent economic downturn I’ve found myself feeling that every major purchase I make is a perverse kind of civic duty.” I can relate.

So what’s the solution? Part of it could be heirloom design, a term coined by Saul Griffith, an inventor and, as it happens, 2008 Utne Reader visionary. Heirloom products are durable, repairable, and upgradeable. In other words: They last.

There are plenty of complications, of course: The cost of paying upfront for a durable product, or the calculation that favors replace over repair. “Policy would have to play a key role,” Bloyd-Peshkin writes. The big challenge, however, could be getting people out of the obsolescence mindset: Bloyd-Peshkin mentions a recent survey of British homeowners about longer-lasting dishwashers. Twenty-three percent were concerned about the price, but 30 percent feared the products would become “out of date.”

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