Curbing Consumption by Creating New Relationships with Our Stuff

Curbing Consumption by Creating New Relationships with Our Stuff

The second half of this decade has ushered in valiant experiments in consumption. There’s living off six pieces of clothing for a month. Swearing to buy nothing for a year. A year-long diet of locally-grown food.

All well-warranted insinuations that buying stuff is something to avoid, at almost all cost.

Even if we remind ourselves that we’re increasingly defining ourselves more through experiences than the things we own, it’s hard to ignore the fact that as a nation, we’re hardcore shoppers. According to the sobering online film "The Story of Stuff," we spend three to four times as many hours shopping than our European counterparts, with only about 1 percent of what is bought staying on our hands for more than six months.

Reconsidering “More is More”

After WWII, product designers were directed to create things that would stop working in the name of economic expansion. This sort of “planned obsolescence” had consumers going back to buy the same, or similar, products over and over. Even now, things like print cartridges, fast fashion and MP3 players are designed to have relatively short functional lives.

Bruce Sterling, “visionary in residence” at Art Center College of Design and founder of the Viridian Design Movement (precursor to the website Worldchanging) suggests in his Last Viridian Design Lecture that our obsession with stuff has deep socioeconomic roots, but that we may have turned the corner to a new age:

“In earlier, less technically advanced eras…material goods were inherently difficult to produce, find, and ship…They were closely associated with social prestige. Without important material signifiers such as wedding china, family silver, portraits, a coach-house, a trousseau and so forth, you were advertising your lack of substance to your neighbors…So it made pragmatic sense to cling to heirlooms, renew all major purchases promptly, and visibly keep up with the Joneses.

That era is dying. It’s not only dying, but the assumptions behind that form of material culture are very dangerous. These objects can no longer protect you from want, from humiliation — in fact they are causes of humiliation, as anyone with a McMansion crammed with Chinese-made goods and an unsellable SUV has now learned at great cost.”

Designing for Deeper Meaning

The resurgence of craft and artisanship is surely one expression of this new era. There seems to be considerable thirst for more meaningful or satisfying relationships with objects generally. The meteoric success of most anything Apple seems to be just one proof point.

In a TED talk, “Designing Objects that Tell Stories,” Yves Behar, award-winning product designer and founder of Fuseproject, speaks about this new “humanism.” From Puma packaging that brilliantly strips out excess material to leave the buyer with the gift of a bag, to the XO laptop for One Laptop per Child, to a energy efficient Leaf Lamp that redefines lighting, design becomes a way to articulate new values like sustainability, empowerment, beauty and functionality. He says:

“As designers we need to really think about how we can create a different relationship with our work and the world…I think it’s the values that we put into these projects that ultimately create the greater value.”

This is not agnostic talk. The hope is that design can continue to help reorienting us away from a strict focus on production systems we’ve spent the last hundred years investing in, and potentially back to the true meaning of things — to what we actually need and want.

Tapping Community

Combined with a healthy questioning and reexamination of objects themselves is deciding when and how we are willing to interact. Buying sometimes can lead to a sort of indentured servitude to the inanimate. As Bruce Sterling puts it:

“The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.”

Micki Krimmel, founder of NeighborGoods, has created a community lending site that allows people to lend and borrow things from friends and friends-to-be. This borrowing movement, profiled in a fairly recent NYT article, has been dubbed by author Rachel Botsman as “collaborative consumption,” or by co-founder of firm SnapGoods an “access economy” where “access trumps ownership.”

The beauty of these ventures lies in the fact that they all start with very pragmatic motivations, like, “I need a blender for that BBQ on Saturday, but I don’t want to go out and buy one,” or, “Maybe I could make a little extra cash lending out my forklift,” but then spin out to loftier benefits, like a strengthened communities and resource conservation.

This idea that stuff is an impediment to a more happy and fulfilling life is something we’ve been wrestling with, on and off, for a while. After all, Thoreau’s two-year experiment in self-sufficiency and a simple life in "Walden" was quite a while back, in 1845. Though the world is no longer big enough for all of us to have our own pond, what we’ve been seeing recently have been some increasingly elegant alternatives.

Not a bad way to go if we’re earnest about moving towards redemption on this planet.

The upcoming AIGA Compostmodern conference runs from Jan. 22-23 in San Francisco and will feature speakers like Yves Behar, award-winning industrial designer and founder of Fuseproject; Miki Krimmel, founder of NeighborGoods.net and co-author of “Worldchanging: A User’s Guide to the 21st Century;” and Jonah Sacks, founder of Free Range Studios and one of the lead writers of “The Story of Stuff.”

This article originally appeared on The Living Principles.