Making something pretty by re-using what would otherwise be wasted is a nice idea, and there are loads of projects and websites on making funky clothes, jewellery and desk tidies from reclaimed waste. But how often are you likely to wear a newspaper dress, how many pen holders could anyone really need, and how much jewellery would you avoid buying new if you mastered the art of making bottle-top earrings instead?
We’re so hooked on consumption that we’re coming up with ideas to reduce it by essentially consuming more. We’re inventing more “needs” that we can satisfy with ideas borrowed from sustainable solutions, while forgetting that we already have real needs far more deserving of our efforts to meet them more sustainably.<
Along with this, almost all products which are actually useful have just about succumbed by now to the natural state of decay known as the Shoe Event Horizon, which caused global societal collapse on the planet Brontitall in “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams:*
“The foundation of the Shoe Event Horizon theory is that when depressed, people tend to look down, and when they look down, they see their shoes. To cheer themselves up, they might buy themselves a new pair. Thus, in a generally depressed society, demand for shoes will rise.
In the critical condition, demand for shoes rises faster than the capacity to make good quality footwear. As shoe quality decreases, the demand increases further because shoes wear out faster and need to be replaced more often; as the demand for shoes increases, cheap mass production causes shoe quality to drop even more. What results is a spiral of increasing shoe demand and decreasing shoe quality. Eventually, this destabilises the economy to the point where it is "no longer economically viable to build anything other than shoe shops", and planetary society collapses.”
It seems to me that it is no longer economically viable to manufacture anything much other than cheap, shoddy products that don’t properly withstand normal wear and tear, that are deliberately designed not to be repairable by the average user and that are inherently disposable, thereby ensuring the future purchase of replacements as often as manufacturers think they can get away with. The result is that we’ve stopped expecting anything to last, we don’t expect to have to form the habit of maintaining anything, it rarely occurs to most of us to even attempt to fix anything that breaks and we’ve largely lost the skills we need to do so even if we wanted to.
How come so many people who grow their own vegetables don’t know how to sharpen the tools they use? Why, when everyone knows they should only boil the water they need, do they not also know to regularly de-scale their electric kettle to prolong its useful life? How many people use an energy efficient light bulb in a lamp, but throw the lamp away when it stops working because they don’t know to check and change the fuse? How many of those designing exciting “eco” clothing ranges throw away good versatile T-shirts from their own wardrobes when they don’t know how to get rid of a stubborn stain?
Instead of making very beautiful bottle-top earrings and pen holders, perhaps we should concentrate on things we couldn’t just entirely do without – basic clothing, tools, lamps, kettles, bikes, taps, everything that serves a useful purpose and is a solution to a real need rather than an invented one. We then need to teach each other about how these things are made, which designs are most durable, how to fix them when they break and how to maintain them so they break less often.
Why has learning simple repair and maintenance techniques yet to become fashionable the way "eco chic" apparently has, and where are all the reduce-reuse-recycle-but-see-if-you-can-REPAIR-it-first sites?
I’ve made myself a new “repair and maintenance” tag for this kind of thing and I hope you all have nice sharp garden shears now. I'll try to find something else to fix while you're busy descaling your kettle.
* Sorry to stereotype but I imagine I’ll now get Douglas Adams fans commenting that they’ve memorised the entire text of HHG and the planet Brontitall isn’t in it, so thought I’d better just mention that it’s only in the original BBC radio show and that memorising the entire text of HHG isn’t likely to get you a girlfriend.