Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Material World, Consumer Culture

I came across an offhand comment in a book the other day - it was a novel set in Paris.  The line talked about how the French love material objects, but aren't consumers in the American sense.

A light bulb immediately appeared over my head.

If there's something that has always irked me about Going Green, it's that it sometimes means Going Ugly.  One frugal friend comes by her eco-cred via a very small income.  While there's nothing wrong with the clothing she and her kids wear, there's also not a lot of choice.  Their budget dictates the thrift store and hand-me-downs.  I've also known families who are simply crafty and artistic - they could sew dish towels into couture, could make garage sale castoffs look like a room from Architectural Digest.

We're not broke, and we're not good with our hands.  And we do truly love some of our material possessions.  I think that makes us fairly average, actually - able to afford some luxuries, unlikely to craft superior substitutes and unwilling to go without every single time.

Maybe that's part of the key, though.

Let's dish.  Actually, let's talk about dishes.

At 20-something, I moved into my first apartment.  So did my husband.  We each acquired dishes - mine, a set of cheap Correlle; his, a marked-down set of Sango from a discount store.  Other dishes found their way to our homes - four dessert plates on clearance at Pottery Barn; soup bowls from a French onion soup making phase; new cereal bowls bought on sale.  I eventually purchased a set of "good" plates.  Then we married, registered and received a whole new set.

About three years ago, we looked up.  With the exception of the Correlle, we still owned pretty much all of it.  And none of it worked.  We wanted a set of dishes that we could add to, enough to serve six, possibly eight, maybe even more.  None of our sets were easy to augment.

After some thinking, we settled on Fiesta Ware.  At the time, we lived fairly close to the Fiesta Ware factory, so it was pretty common to see it around.  We decided that it met all of our needs, as follows:
  1. It is well made.  While it's not fine bone china, it's sturdy, serviceable stuff that can withstand daily use.
  2. It will likely be available into the indefinite future.  If we break one dinner plate, we replace one dinner plate - not the whole set.  As our family grows, we can add another few dishes.
  3. It is reasonably timeless.  While colors come in and out of vogue, the overall look is Basic Dinner Plate - nothing exciting, but with a bit of fun thanks to the vibrant mismatch of colors.
  4. It has a secondary market.  If we did decide to get rid of our Fiesta Ware, it would find a good home.  If we keep it until we go to that Grand Perhaps, then it's just as likely to find a home.
I get pleasure from noting which new colors are being released and from plotting which pieces to buy next.  We hosted Thanksgiving dinner last year and got to buy a gravy boat.  It's just about time to add a few more dessert plates to the collection, and I'm scanning our shelves to see which colors we don't own.

It's a modest acquisition, and one that isn't green by its own merits.  It's green because it passes a test for longevity.  Odds are it will be in our cabinets for the next 50 years.  Plenty of families probably go through five or six sets of dishes in that time span.

And so I start to wonder - what if we can flip the conversation so it's about buying better quality?  Spending more to get something that you'll want to keep for decades, not just a season?

It's not a popular way of thinking, but as we've bought many of our more recent purchases, it has informed my thoughts.  Freddie's Svan high chair, for example, is such a lovely thing that I anticipate it may well be a high chair that serves my grandchildren, or at least my nieces and nephews.  The wood fits in just fine with our dining room - you don't know there's a high chair in our big open space until you're watching me plunk a kid in the seat.  The same can't be said for all of those white plastic and vinyl contraptions on the market.  Yes, the individual chair costs $70 - a third of the Svan's price tag.  But it isn't likely to have as long a useful life - and so there's a price to consider in that sense, too.

Modern life is necessarily a material one - we sit on chairs, we work at desks, we eat from plates, we wear clothing.  Material goods are not inherently bad.

Perhaps it's time to separate brainless consumption from intelligent materialism, and embrace artistry and craftsmanship - and to stop feeling guilty about loving the built environment.

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