Ellen Ruppel Shell has a small article in the Atlantic ("Buy to Last") arguing that, rather than buying cheaply-made products from Ikea (much less, one presumes, Walmart), we should be buying well-made items that we intend to keep. Some of her argument is about specific Ikea practices, which I won't address here (we don't even have a local Ikea), but I'm interested in the general idea of buying good things.
Let's talk about bookcases. I bought mine a few years ago, and they are pretty much the cheapest kind you can get - tall white particleboard ones that were, I think, something like $30 each. I like how they look, but they are definitely not made to last, and if I move often, eventually they will become casualties. (In the meantime, just sitting there, they seem to hold up fine. It's not as though bookcases see a lot of wear and tear in ordinary life. I don't even dust!)
I could have spent a few hundred dollars each and gotten bookcases made of solid wood, or I could spend even more and get glass or steel ones. Or I could do something like elfa shelving that I would install in the wall, with high-quality components that I could reuse wherever I went. I think metal or solid wood bookcases would be the most likely to last, and I could treat these as important pieces that I would keep forever.
But I'm just not sure this comes out as more environmentally sound. For one thing, particleboard is basically made of sawdust or something anyway. Perhaps it's environmentally horrible to produce - I don't know - but I don't think old growth forests are cut down to make it. And it seems to last an awfully long time despite being basically crappy. I'm not replacing my bookcases every five or even, I suspect, every ten years.
In the meantime, if I bought a nice solid wood bookcase, I might still need to replace or discard it (if I move overseas or it doesn't match my other tasteful pieces or I go completely electronic on books). Yes, in theory it lasts forever and someone else could have it and keep it, but I'm not going to spend thousands of dollars on something so nice that nobody would dare throw it away.
My general strategy for most household items is that I buy things that are pretty cheap (or use whatever I already have, like my mother's small teak dining table that she bought around 1988) and then just keep them anyway.
I guess I worry a bit that even if the "buy something nice to keep forever" idea is actually better for something like bookcases or bedsteads, it will kind of spread over my entire life to where it is just a waste of money. Corelle dishes are (reasonably) cheap, my silverware from Ikea was cheap, and towels from Walmart are cheap, and all of these things last about as long as more expensive things. (In fact I'm sure Corelle dishes outlast more expensive china since they don't break very easily.) And I don't imagine these things are more environmentally costful than their expensive counterparts, either.
I feel like the idea of buying something nice to last instead of "being part of our throw-away consumer culture" is sometimes just an excuse for spending a lot of money on something fancy or extra-tasteful. Outside of outright disposable items, are there items that need to be expensive, hand-crafted, or made of the best materials in order to last for a long time?