June 11th, 2010
the culture of disposability

After I gave birth to my son I bought a brown printed dress to accommodate my size at the time. I loved the dress but now it just feels too big and frumpy on me. So I hauled out my old portable Sears/Kenmore circa 1960 sewing machine and fashioned the dress into a skirt. And I made a hair scarf with the extra fabric. My, I am pleased with myself for doing that. Don’t you love it when you make something new out of something you were going to give away? And the smell of the old sewing machine! How I have missed that smell, it brought me back to summers at the cottage with my mom sewing up new green jumpsuits for my sister and I.

We’ve been having a lot of conversations on the disposability of our current culture and how people don’t really (or aren’t able) to repair things anymore. This issue comes up as we pack our things and ask the question “what do we really need/use?” So in our house we are making an attempt to only purchase items that will last for years and years and are capable of being repaired (hopefully by us), and that we love.

This may sound easy, but it can be challenging given that many items are now designed to be disposable (razors, appliances, technology to name a few). It can take a bit of work to seek out items that will last a lifetime, but I feel it is an important and worthy endeavor. My husband is currently researching the old fashioned razors, which are $65 at the low end, but the replacement blades run around 15 cents (as opposed to paying over 10 dollars for a package of 6 replacement blades for the modern day versions). The handle itself will last for the rest of your life. The simplicity of this is a beautiful thing.

Other items that we have acquired that can last for many years and/or be repaired, leather shoes, wool mattresses, wool bedding, hemp clothing, bicycles, canvas quilts, cast iron pans/pots, canvas bags, the 1960′s sewing machine, guitars, amplifier, wooden furniture and more. Interestingly these are all things that we love and care for on a regular basis and in turn we enjoy using them so much more than things that are not designed to last. There is a solidity to them, they are often more tactile (feel good in the hand), and the necessary process of caring for them (oiling them, or cleaning them) causes us to be mindful and appreciate them on a regular basis. This leads to greater enjoyment in the long run.

If only the technology realm would get into this. What about making wooden “cases” that hold laptop components, so you could keep the same case for years and just replace the innards? Or some kind of permanent “shells” for cell phone parts.

If you have any experiences with objects that last, or some suggestions for alternatives to disposablity please feel free to share them in the comments above.

Jun 11 2010
8:27 pm
Christina writes:

Yes I totally agree on trying to remodel/recycle almost anything, cloths, house hold furniture etc. My first degree was in fashion, so that is probably easier for me than most. I then studied film and I became even more resourceful. I now teach at a University in Melbourne Australia and try to pass this message onto my students, it seems like a hard thing for some people to get their head around. My 2 kids love reusing things in different ways.


Jun 11 2010
8:59 pm
paula writes:

it is really hard for me to find great shoes that truly last. i’ve been thinking about having some made for me, but i would appreciate any advice about shoes that anyone has found that last for years.

i agree completely. i used to be anti-materialist, but really what we need is to love our things and take better care of them.

Jun 11 2010
11:20 pm
chelsea writes:

cotton reusable menstrual pads!

Jun 11 2010
11:31 pm
Julie writes:

Oh I do like the idea of a nice cherry-wood laptop cover! But more than that I’d like the assurance that, when the technology has died, the toxic innards are not shipped to Africa to be pulled apart by kids on rubbish tips!
I still enjoy a 30 year old radio casette player that has outlived many more recent radio/CD players and hold my breath every time my iPod is slow to start because I know it has a limited life-span
And I actually take pleasure from embarassing the kids by pulling out a 10 year old Nokia phone in public. I tell them, it’s a phone, it works even if it doesn’t look cool or take up all my spare time with Apps I don’t need.
They sell us gadgets along with the idea that we need them when in reality we’re simply slaves to it all

Jun 12 2010
2:05 am
Ariel writes:

I saw this video and thought of you. It is worth the 10 minutes!

Jun 12 2010
2:25 am
nina writes:

yes. yes. yes. I re-use everything I can. I make rugs from old t-shirts and still use the buttons from my great grandma’s button jar. Just last night I used some old wooden spools to organize my thread scraps. I store most of my art supplies in old jars. I think I have a razor like you’re talking about. I remember from living in old houses that the medicine cabinets used to have slots in the back for disposing of the used blades. When I was little, I didn’t know what that the slot was for; I used to write love notes to the houses we lived in and drop them in there!
And I’m thinking pyrex was a great invention. All my dishes are pyrex. I buy them at thrift stores, even the old leftover containers that are pyrex or something similar. They last forever and no scratching! I’ve also been looking for shoes that can be worn and worn. I have two pair of Chaco sandals that have lasted me for what seems like forever, at least 10+ years so far on one pair.

Jun 12 2010
6:03 am
Caroline writes:

This man, Datamancer, makes and is a prominent artist in the Steampunk art community which are a group of people who enjoy modifying computers and technology and modern day things to look as if they belong in another time that never was. http://datamancer.net/ I find his work incredibly beautiful, and really respect his art as it is something I find very difficult to do myself but realize it is something that I could learn how to do.

Jun 12 2010
9:44 am
Emma writes:

Saddleback Leather produce some beautiful and robust briefcases with a 100 year warranty.
I’m currently saving for mine.
Advertising includes “the last bag you’ll ever buy” and “they’ll fight over it when you’re dead”.

Jun 12 2010
2:19 pm
Alex writes:

While I was a quick sewing drop-out myself, I am very much drawn to the voluntary simplicity movement. In recent years I feel I became a typical consumer-drone and I feel like I have ten sacks of potatoes on my head! I wonder how you deal with furnishing your home? We live in a time with so many fabulous artists selling so much. How do you limit and select and non- select the non-essentials? Some would say art in fact is an essential, but in terms of nesting and decorating, where and how do you set your priorities?

Jun 12 2010
3:54 pm
Charlotte writes:

In germany we have a shop, it´s called MANUFACTUM, they only sell products which are supposed to last a life long.
I thought of them when i read your post. I am sorry my english is very broken otherwise i would find more words to describe it.


The good things in life still exist.

Jun 12 2010
3:58 pm
kerismith writes:

I love this idea for a shop! Someone should do that in North America.

Jun 12 2010
4:07 pm
Herb writes:

Hemp is the definitely a good way to go. Fun fact: Did you know the word canvas comes from the word cannabis.

Jun 12 2010
4:57 pm
susanna writes:

Trippen shoes- handmade- Greman, you can have them re-soled entirely they are beautiful, comfy, incredibly solid and of course, expensive, but last for a very long time. So far I’ve only managed one pair but I’ve worn them hard for 3 winters and they are still perfect!

Jun 12 2010
5:57 pm
Kirsten writes:

Once you are in the Vancouver area, check out Mr. Lee’s General Store and Haberdashery http://www.mrleesgeneralstore.com/
as they sell a bunch of things that are long-use, repairable type things. Your partner can even get his razor there, as they have a whole shaving shelf.

Jun 12 2010
6:07 pm
tifanie writes:

i love the new look of things. i always love visiting here. sweet post. :::

Jun 12 2010
6:50 pm
Caroline writes:

I went away and thought about it some more, and the company Snowpeak http://www.snowpeak.com/ makes a lot of high quality items, very often out of recycled materials for camping and home use, with the specific intent of keeping your camping gear and such items out of landfills. I have their “collapsible” chopsticks, which they make out of titanium and wood that is reused from baseball bats used for practice in Japan. They also make things like titanium sporks, which I bought one of specifically for lunches I make for work to reduce buying or reusing/throwing away plastic silverware that breaks easily.

Jun 14 2010
1:09 am
pixie writes:

i love this post! brandon has used the metal razor for over a year and it was a bit of a rough shave compared to slicky new blades and we also found shaving bars wrapped in paper or no wrap(all over etsy). he’s quite proud of himself. i love the idea of cases for tech innards. shouldn’t we be able to fashion them out of old wooden boxes or tins? they would also look much nicer.

Jun 14 2010
2:52 am
caitlin writes:

They just like to make people spend money. They don’t care about if it lasts, it’s all part of it: planned obsolesence. They make things that don’t last on purpose because they only care about making money. :(

Jun 14 2010
9:28 am
Simone writes:

I know what you mean. I feel the same. I blame the new profession: productmanager. Because why mess (slash change) with something that is good?
I once bought shoes from this brand in Paris: http://www.cydwoq.com Handmade in the US.
Really sturdy shoes. Still have them.

Things nowadays are made to break (what a shame).
I guess thats why Eames furniture is so expensive, It looks like brand new for 30 years (at least our elliptical table does).

Jun 14 2010
10:20 am
kerismith writes:

I am loving this thread. My husband and I both have two pairs of Cydwoq shoes. While they are expensive, we decided a few years ago that we wanted shoes that would last at least ten years (which these do). They are our main footwear and we are able to just replace the soles as they wear through. It is a perfect system (we have no need for anything else). In fact, I think it is the Cydwoqs that got us thinking in this way, looking for things that work as well as they do.

We have acquired a free razor from a generous reader!!! Let’s hope the learning curve is not too bloody.

Jun 14 2010
1:17 pm
Jennifer writes:

I’m really interested in seeing all the ideas you get trying to live a life using sustainable objects.
Admittedly I do waste quite a lot of things all the time, but I would like to reteach myself replacing old habits with much better ones.
There’s a company called Sukie (based in Brighton) who do handmade recycled notepaper by using the backs of old flyers and other things.

Jun 15 2010
12:23 am
Helen writes:

Keri, the new site is beautiful and this thread is close to my heart! As I have begun to sew more lately, I committed to no new fabric. So far, I have repurposed a threadbare linen duvet cover into summer pants for the son and a couple of their friends. I’ve made dresses for little ones from pillowcases courtesy of Saint vinnie’s. Stylin’ toddlers in grey linen. Also, with the baby, I sewed diaper covers from a couple of wool sweaters I had shrunk slightly. Free patterns ab0und on the web for this and I am so proud to not have paid a penny to have a wardrobe of wool diaper covers.
On a broader scale, we have a lot of cooperative systems in place for living in our community. We share larger home maintenance necessities among many households.
In general, when contemplating adding something into our home, I love to apply the permaculture principle: it has to serve three uses (e.g. is it beautiful? Is it useful? Does it empower its maker?) to pass the test.

Jun 16 2010
12:03 pm
Susanne writes:

School has been out for 2 weeks and I’ve been sewing every day. I used to love to smell my mom’s Singer machine while it worked. Hard to describe- kind of metallic and warm. Thanks for the reminder and I’m proud of your repurposing the dress.

Jun 16 2010
12:30 pm
Adam Siemiginowski writes:

I love this message, and live my own life on this principle: live simply and conservatively.

However, Keri, you missed a point… this doesn’t help GDP! What are we to do!? :)

Jun 20 2010
8:53 am
Nina #2 writes:

Wish I were as cool and crafty as Nina #1. Or crafty in general, it’s something I’m working on: how to build my repertoire of useful skills. The current list involves sewing, knitting more than a scarf, being a certified doula and gardening.

Menstrual cups are great. I fear they’re getting their feet wet in consumer culture though. They once claimed to last for years upon years and now advise you to replace them annually. :-(

Jun 26 2010
10:04 am
Kathy G writes:

A few years ago I purchased a lot of 5 vintage 1950′s cotton skirts on ebay. All of the skirts are handmade and all the skirts have been repaired in some way. Surprisingly my favorite skirt is the one that has the most repairs, visible repairs. I like that the owner of these skirts was active(hence the large rips where the skirt may have caught on a fence, say, in the garden while picking tomatoes) and also frugal, she just stitched up those tears and kept going. All the skirts are wonderful lively patterns that always get comments when I wear them…they are still after 3 years my summer favorites…so Buy Vintage and Make Repairs!

Jul 5 2010
6:11 pm
emilyk writes:

I think about this a lot… especially now as we prepare for our first baby. There are so many baby things that are disposable or huge and plastic and only used for a short time (either b/c the baby grows out of it, it breaks, or it’s meant to be interesting only for a few months of development, unlike blocks or dolls). I hate the thought that this new life is immediately accosted by so much junk and waste. We’re trying to reuse (craigslist, thrift stores), and make our own things out of natural materials. It actually offends people sometimes, though, when we don’t want to use the “normal” stuff. The marketers have done their job well, I guess. Your post made me think of Albert Borgmann’s book “Power Failure” and the chapter “The Moral Significance of Material Things” where he talks about our different relationships to items that are disposable and items that are more permanent (disposable vs. commanding reality is how he refers to them). Don’t let the “christianity” bit in the subtitle worry you – it’s well worth reading, at least that chapter, no matter what your background.

Jul 17 2010
9:19 pm
Sylvia writes:

As a family, we’ve been making small changes to reduce our carbon footprint. It’s hard with kids (I think) to get them using less of anything.. toilet paper, napkins, all the disposables, but we’re making progress. I liked some of your ideas, especially the razor. Thanks.

Aug 5 2010
5:37 pm
T writes:

I love the way you think. Simply hilarious and “out of the box.”

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