Slow Consumption: Heirloom Design

Heirloom designers aim to change the world by making stuff that lasts

  • Slow Consumption

    image by Jon Reinfurt /

  • Slow Consumption

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 immediately before and after World War II, when a demand-driven economy 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.”

4/27/2018 7:44:22 AM

Of course you are more likely to maintain bespoke shoes that cost ten times as much in the first place. This analysis is completely insensitive to threshold costs as well as social class. It may cost more in the long run to buy cheap stuff, but at least we can afford it at any given moment. Without such economies of production and scale, lots of things would be simply unavailable to ordinary people. The world of the past may have been a world of durability, but it was also (much more than today) a world of poverty. In addition, there is no such thing as running out of energy. The Sun provides enough energy for millions of Earths, if we were to use it all. That's well beyond current technology, of course, but solar power is rapidly becoming the power source of choice.

thom browne_1
3/3/2010 2:45:54 PM

Where or what happens to these comments please do not ignore this,

thom browne_1
3/3/2010 2:32:42 PM

CONSUMERISM, Really we should ask the question do you really require the item, objects that we assume are necessary are as a result of not asking that question.One of the factors that breeds the appetite for consumerism is advertising, the inundation all around us beckoning to buy, as an example sitting here in front of a screen is companies selling their wares and services internet pages everywhere buy buy buy all forms of media entertainment information communication,selling products that we do not need. Companies sponser good causes and also condition our childrn into consumerism at the same time, subliminally selling we and especially our children will end up with the consumerist ethos. thank you by the way where does this comment go i would appreciate if you could come back to meon that question.

Facebook Instagram Twitter