Thinking About ‘Things’

“You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet.” -The Story of Stuff (2007)

More than 65% of Americans are somewhat or extremely stressed about the climate crisis. I don’t know about you, but I am definitely in that percentage. Because of this stress, it can be hard to remember that, while unnerving, the climate crisis is an opportunity.

The human race is collectively using more resources than the planet can replenish. Even renewable resources are struggling to keep up with our consumption. If we are going to continue to live comfortably, or at all, on this planet we need to dramatically change the way we treat our planet. Don’t Look Up, now one of Netflix’s most viewed movies of all time, showed us a, yes exaggerated, but all too real look at how we treat our planet: as if it is disposable. This attitude of disposability has been acknowledged as occurring in relation to cleaning products, fashion, food, etc. but it is frightening to think it extends to the whole planet.  

A Brief History of Consumption in the United States

Humans did not just spontaneously start to consume more. A few things led us to where we are now. Of course, technological advancements in every step of the supply chain have made it possible to produce “stuff” at the rate we do, but the culture of consumption we have seems to have its roots in post-World War II economic rebuilding. Americans were encouraged to spend and shop to help the economy– shopping was patriotic. This effort was spurred along by the fact that Americans had been living under wartime rations and dealing with scarcity for years and were ready to be done with it. In 1953, President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors Chairman went so far as to say that the American economy’s “ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” 

This was not the only time that consumption was encouraged as a patriotic act. In more recent years, just after 9/11, former President Bush told a country reeling from loss and tragedy to shop and spend. The reasoning behind this is that national crises can lead to a recession resulting in job losses which can further harm an already hurting nation. This shows that we are constantly bombarded with messages to consume more from all directions: advertisements, peer pressure, and sometimes even from our President. 

There are a few other reasons that consumerism has continued to rise at an astonishing rate in recent years. One is advertising. It is estimated that we see ads between 3,000 and 10,000 times a day. The problem with this is, as is said in The Story of Stuff, “what is the point of an ad except to make us unhappy with what we have?”. This means that thousands of times every day we are made to feel as though everything we are and have is inadequate.

Two other contributing factors to this rise in consumption are planned and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is when items are designed to break or become unusable on purpose. This is a strategy businesses use to keep customers buying. Perceived obsolescence, sometimes also known as psychological obsolescence, is when a product is still usable, but consumers feel as though they must get the new version of a product. Both lead to us shopping more. 

You've probably heard about electronics companies building their products to break or become unusable after only a short time on purpose. But planned obsolescence comes in many forms: it is any time a product is deliberately designed such that customers have to buy it as often as possible. A great but lesser-known example of planned obsolescence is nylon stockings. In the mid to late 1900s nylon stockings became extremely popular and were a part of many women’s daily attire. But after only a few wears, sometimes even one, the stockings would get runs, laddering, or holes in them. I think most of us thought this was unavoidable and just came with the territory of thin fabric, but it turns out manufacturers of the tights actively avoided looking for alternative fabrics or innovating the fabric because they wanted the stockings to wear out. 

Perceived obsolescence is seen in fashion by how much our society judges people for outfit repeating. Fast fashion relies on perceived obsolescence. Consumers see their clothes as things with expiration dates or a fixed amount of wear or Instagram posts in them before they are ‘used up’. The planned obsolescence of cheaply made, low-quality garments and the culture that leads to us perceiving obsolescence too quickly work together to feed the fast fashion shipping cycle. By being aware of this, we can disrupt it.

Reframing Materialism & Our Relationship to Things

Reflecting on the above, you may feel as I do, that we need a collective mindset shift when it comes to our ‘things’. We can no longer view everything as disposable. I once read that saying “throw out” or “throw away” removes us from the reality of what happens to our trash, and that saying “send to landfill” instead, better reflects reality and makes us more conscious of how much garbage we produce. While it is not realistic for everyone to live a zero-waste, zero trash lifestyle, contemplating where something may end up when you are done with it can help to make us wonder if it’s worth it or if we really need it. Of course, a society-wide mindset shift is easier said than done, so here are some suggestions and action steps we can all take to contribute to the solution. 

Quality over Quantity

One thing we can do is put a greater emphasis on the things we don’t buy rather than the things we do. It is common to hear people say that ‘the most sustainable garment is the one you already own’ but this extends to every aspect of life. Advertising and influencer culture would like us to think we need all these different 'eco-friendly' products to live a life of sustainability, when in reality simply buying less is far more important than anything else. Even sustainable products are not sustainable if they are over-consumed. 

Image via Fashion Revolution

Buying things is inevitable and necessary. Reframing purchases through the lens of quality over quantity is the first step toward conscious consumption. To read more on the complicated relationship between sustainability and financial means check out my article Can Sustainable Fashion Ever Be Financially Accessible to All.  

Proud Outfit Repeating

Combating perceived obsolescence by not falling victim to what the fashion industry wants is a powerful tool. Wear what you love for as long as you love it. 

Support Thoughtful Companies

Voting with your dollar can feel like a drop in the bucket, but it is so important in a capitalist society like ours. Support companies who are trying, ones who don’t feed into disposability and consumption culture, ones who have alternative sales and marketing, ones that don’t make you feel dissatisfied with the life you already have. At Two Days Off we believe the little things add up. We don’t buy into sending constant marketing emails or promoting an unattainable aspirational lifestyle on social media. We believe that taking our time to make pieces you will truly love, selecting the best fabrics, avoiding plastic packaging, and taking intentional breaks in the business are the culture shifts that will make the greatest impact over time. 

Advocate for Legislation

Paying attention to state and local legislation is another way to work within the system. Supporting consumer protection bills, new regulations concerning plastics and single-use plastics, progressive labor laws, and most importantly supporting leaders who are on the side of the people and not industry is one of the best way to make systemic change. You can also join the Two Days Off LAB where we share exciting news about legislation and events along these lines, which brings us to our last suggestion…

Learn to Lessen Your Apparel Burden at The LAB

We have launched a new project at Two Days Off! The LAB is a community for sustainable fashion enthusiasts and beginners alike to learn from each other, share resources, and make connections. In the LAB, we share podcasts, mending tips, articles, and more, as well as host special online events and live sessions all for free! Join us in exploring how to reduce the environmental and mental burdens of our clothing together. Join the LAB via this link.

In the end, the most important thing to remember is this quote from sustainability expert and climate activist Shelbi Orme (@Shelbizleee on Instagram) inspired by lyrics from singer Jana Stanfield

“You cannot do all the good that the world needs. But the world needs all the good that you can do.”

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published

"We will be more successful in all our endeavors if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and re-center ourselves. And we'll also have a lot more joy in living."

Thich Nhat Hanh