One of this newspaper’s under-30 staff members recently witnessed an estate sale and was dumbfounded by the condition of the former owner’s furniture, knick-knacks and other household goods.
Everything in the lady’s home could be considered antique. Down to the garden hose, nothing was less than a quarter-century old. But despite the age, it was all sturdy, clean and impeccably preserved. Magazines dating from the 1960s were pristine. Thirty-year-old board games still had all the pieces, and antique bedroom sets were solidly constructed and in near-perfect condition.
It’s not uncommon for younger people to joke about the generation represented and its stubborn refusal to change home furnishings: the same old towels hanging in the bathroom for decades; the same pots and pans having cooked family meals since what feels like the dawn of time.
That “keep it ‘cause it works” worldview is hard to find nowadays, and the lifespan of our goods has denigrated from that of hearty oak to cheap pressboard. The stuff we have we don’t take care of or simply throw it away, because we’ve been programmed to believe old is bad, new is good, and newest is best. Call it the plague of the gadget freaks. “Can you hear me now?”
What too many don’t realize is the disposable society we find ourselves living in was contrived this way by conniving manufacturers who rely on a marketing strategy called “planned obsolescence.” Companies make things not meant to last, and after a short while people need to replace them. The approach equals higher profit for the manufacturer and higher costs for consumers over time.
And unlike the stuff of our grandparents’ era, the vast majority of modern goods we purchase aren’t even made in America. They ship in from across the Pacific from countries like China, which has gained a terrible reputation for product quality.
According to The US-China Business Council, America imported $365 billion worth of goods from China in 2010, up from $102 billion in 2001.
In his book Poorly Made in China, Paul Midler, who worked as a consultant to American importers dealing with Chinese manufacturers in the 2000s, says “[Chinese] factories did not see an attention to quality as something that would improve their business prospects, but merely as a barrier to increased profitability. Working to achieve higher levels of quality did not make me a friend of the factory, but a pariah.”
How sad when we so willingly and lavishly support poor business practices such as these. But even if products we purchase are of high quality, somehow we are still goaded by marketing (and conceit) into thinking we need the newest, sleekest smart phone or the latest model car. This type of consumerism plagues our pocketbooks and our world.
A 100-year-old lady once interviewed here told us her impression of people today is that all many of them want is money and somewhere to spend it, and we can’t disagree. The influx and outflow of goods in our homes is enough to produce a case of vertigo. Given the present money pinch, it is past time to invoke the spirit of our elders.
Grow a garden and reduce your grocery bill. Downsize your vehicle and buy it used. Green your home to save water and electricity. Recycle. Buy quality products and take care of them. Use public transportation to save fuel. Refuse to purchase based on fad. Shop locally to support your own community. And buy American-made products to support your country and help increase jobs here.
We all need to relearn the art of being responsible stewards of the things we own, and to not spend so much time worrying about the things we don’t.