We live in a world full of ‘things’. Drawers stuffed with dated electronic devices that take the type of battery that you never seem to have; kitchen cabinets overflowing with seldom-used banana slicers and tuna presses; bathrooms stocked with cosmetics that make us sick (if you haven't, be sure to check your favorite beauty products on the Skin Deep Database).
These ‘things’ do little to improve our overall quality of life and their quick and unceremonious disposal is contributing to our ever-growing landfills, leading to what can best be described as an ecological crisis. To make matters worse, it is increasingly cheaper to throw things away than it is to get them repaired, and even if you do attempt a repair, it can be nearly impossible to find the right parts or people.
How Did We Get Here?
In 1954, American designer Brooks Stevens explained in a presentation at an advertising conference that “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary” should be a key consideration in design. His presentation, titled “Planned Obsolescence”, argued that design should always leave the consumer wanting something new, an idea that quickly evolved into the practice of knowingly shortening the lifecycle of products in order to favor manufacturers. This idea, fueled by an ever-growing throwaway culture, seems to have been taken to heart by an increasing number of brands, the result of which is seen in our overburdened and toxic landfills.
The concept itself was born of necessity. During the great depression, it was used as a way to invigorate the economy by getting people to buy more stuff. During that time, there were empty factories and unemployed people, but most people who could afford to buy things already had them. By the 1950s, mass production accelerated, and demand for some of our favorite mid-century designs grew alongside a burgeoning advertising industry. Modern-day consumerism was born.
The role of design and the designer is intrinsic to the culture of consumerism in the world today. As a species, we have always been ingenious and at least somewhat aesthetically motivated. After meeting our most basic needs for food and shelter, we quickly turned our attention from 'needs' to 'wants' and began a complex relationship with things. Early designers (like those belonging to the Arts and Crafts Movement) directed their energy to creating things that were long-lasting, aged gracefully, and showed the hand of the craftsman. Over time, designers grew from practical engineers to magicians, with designers like Raymond Loewy reinventing everyday items and creating desire for products that most people already had. Today, many designers simply apply cosmetic tweaks to established designs, and in doing so contributes to a cycle of consumerism that has had led to the current state of things.
Sustainability in Japanese Design
During the Edo period, Japan was recovering from a time of civil war and economic and military expansion overseas. It's growing population quickly outgrew its means and the country was on the verge of environmental collapse largely driven by deforestation and overpopulation. Realizing change was needed, they instituted an isolationist foreign policy called sakoku that severely limited outside trade and they placed emphasis on their people's traditional wisdom. Agricultural and regenerative forestry practices were applied and the country began to recover from the brink of collapse. It was during this time that many traditional arts and crafts flourished.
As an island nation, self-sufficiency was a necessity and the efficient use and reuse of materials became a key design consideration. Couple this with a cultural reverence for nature and frugality and it's obvious to see how sustainability is ingrained into Japanese design. Kintsugi, the act of repairing broken ceramics (and in the process making it more beautiful) is a great example of this. Efficient use of materials and space inspired traditional architecture and can be seen in the multi-use design of Japanese interiors and the ingenious methods of wood joinery that allow structures to be built without nails and be easily taken apart for reuse. This tradition of minimizing waste is still alive today, and there is even a city in Japan that has achieved near zero-waste. If you are interested in this subject, we highly recommend Azby Brown's Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green From Traditional Japan.
Ways to Reduce: What We Look For In Our Products
Now that we have seen that it's possible to break the cycle of waste through careful consumerism and design, here are the five key things you can do to make sure you love the things you own. By making a small paradigm shift in the way we buy, we can make lasting change.
Remember The Three R’s: Reduce, reuse, recycle. Three simple concepts that can greatly reduce your environmental impact. Reducing the number of things you own is probably the most important. Think critically about your immediate desire to purchase something. Be resourceful and challenge yourself to fashion an alternative.
Transcend Trends: Trends come in and out of fashion every season. Instead of latching onto the latest fad, buy things that speak to your own personal individuality. You’ll stand out from the crowd and be less likely to quickly throw your belongings away when your new purchase is no longer en vogue. When in doubt, just think of all the avocado-colored acrylic shag carpets from the 70s that are still sitting in your local landfill.
Beware of Perceived Obsolescence: If a product is still useful, do not throw it away. An entire industry of advertisers and marketers will try to make you think you need a new one.
Buy for Life: What traits would you look for in a product that you intend to use for the rest of your life? Readily available aftermarket parts? Strong, long-lasting materials? Minimal moving parts? A timeless design? Keep a mental list of these criteria and run every important purchase through it.
Don’t Let Your Things Own You: Finally, it’s important to remember that we are not our things. Embrace the concept that we receive more enjoyment from experiences rather than things.
WORDS BY SAM GEAN