Thursday, July 23, 2009

Buying to Last?

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?


Susan Williams said...

Ikea and stores like it fill a need for people just starting out and not having much money to set up house. It wouldn't make sense to spend all your money on one or two really good pieces of furniture and not have anything else.

There is also a huge segment of our population that earns barely enough to pay bills and get groceries. I guess these people should buy the one "good" thing and give up eating or paying bills.

Sally said...

The article poses the question: "Can we afford to keep shopping at places where an item’s price reflects only a fraction of its societal costs?"

When my co-worker and her husband dropped 3 grand on a patio set at a fancy store instead of a couple hundred at Wal-Mart or a few more hundred at Ikea (and she admitted that they don't even really use their patio and didn't start doing so once they bought it), they were not paying $2000 - $2800 extra to cover its "societal" costs.

A lot of stuff that is positioned as environmentally sounder (often by vague criteria like built-to-last in the article) or inferred to be better because of where it's purchased and then bought up by (well-off, possibly guilty) people is priced higher due to price discrimination - the ability of the seller (and occasionally the manufacturer) to take a larger amount of the surplus at the expense of the customer.

Perhaps for many of these people it is legitimately worth it since it turns conspicuous consumption into (conspicious) green consumption. Sorry, this is a pet theory of mine I talk about at every opportunity.

Like you, I find that stuff lasts a long time, even when I do purchase it at Wal-Mart (or at Target or Ikea). I have the same kind of bookcases you do, only in black, and they have held up very well. We'll see how they do on a move across the country.

One thing I do feel rather good about: because they are so lightweight, I will be wasting a lot less gas moving them to NC than if I had the solid wood with glass cover bookcases of my dreams. Also, higher cost / quality furniture can be pretty damn fragile too; ask anyone who's tried to move a spindly leg table or combine one in a household with a big dog.

I can't tell if this article was written because the author thinks Ikea is greenwashing or she wants to open the eyes of the kind of people who already know that the Wal-Marts of the world are evil to the fact that Ikea is also bad despite all the Euro-gloss of the brand.

Sally said...

Susan - excellent points. There is no way I could have afforded to buy high-quality hardwood stuff to fill my apartment. Luckily, I was able to combine secondhand things from my family with cheap Ikea/Wal-Mart purchases.

In fact, before I decided to go to grad school and R and I had more income, we actually put some serious thought into purchasing some new, nicer furniture to replace the hodgepodge we have now. But this isn't because our stuff is falling apart - it was about the desire to have "nicer" things that all go together. (It makes me think of the scene in Pulp Fiction in which Mr. Wolf bribes the guy with money to buy furniture: "Oak is nice.") But once we started pricing furniture, and thought about how quickly we would adjust to the new furniture anyway, we nixed any such plan.

I wonder how much of the nice furniture thing is a weird cultural holdover from periods when people in "good" families filled their houses with heirloom antiques from their ancestors (and didn't move very often). Is having cheap furniture an admission that you don't come from the "quality"?

Also, if you move frequently, which a lot of younger people especially do, it's not practical to buy heavy, expensive furniture. It's pricey to move and often won't fit in your new place.

Tam said...

I guess these people should buy the one "good" thing and give up eating or paying bills.

Just think how much smaller their environmental footprints would be!


Yes, you both make many excellent points.

Sally, like you and Robert did I occasionally think about getting some nicer furniture that would match and stuff. And...god, it just isn't worth it. Furniture is expensive, and that also means you have to kind of decide in a semi-permanent way how you want your place to look, because it would be wrong to change your mind in 10 years and buy a whole new set of expensive things.