At what point did brand names become more valuable than the craftsmanship that goes into making something? When did the importance of trendy design trump that of material quality?
And what the hell does this have to do with sustainability?
Given the fact that our society has become afflicted with bottomless over-consumption, these are all important questions to consider. Consumption, in itself, is not the problem. We need to consume in order to survive; water, food, clothes, shelter, health care, and the occasional beer or three. But at what point did we go beyond the point of consuming things to satisfy life’s essential needs, and were enchanted with the idea that more is better?
History would suggest that this point came when the industrial revolution took place. In the Global North, the standard of living increased steadily, giving people more and more disposable income. At this point capitalists threw a big, fancy party, invited some economists, and tried to come up with ways to get people to keep on spending their hard earned money (at least that’s how I like to imagine it went down). The result? Seasonal trends, aspirational advertising, and a never-ending pursuit of more. Boomers like to refer to it as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. We might know it as ‘retail therapy’.
All that said, we do have a choice. We can decide to not buy the next iPhone, Supreme drop, or whatever it is Kanye wore at fashion week. Noone is forcing us, after all. We can, instead, decide to buy less, but better. To start investing in things, rather than consuming them.
Let’s run with this investment analogy for a minute. The fundamentals of smart investing are rooted in researching whatever it is you are buying. Doing your due diligence. What if we applied those same fundamentals to all the things we buy, not just stocks? Understanding the product, as well as the process and materials used to make it. Looking into the brand or person behind it all, and the values that drive them. Imagine how drastically this would change our relationship with the things we spend our money on.
Let’s put this into context. You could impulse-buy a cheap set of 6 mass-produced kitchen knives from a brand that you know nothing about. You end up only using 2 of them, and don’t think twice about throwing them in the bin when they’re not sharp anymore. Or you could start reading up on the art of making japanese kitchen knives. Go down a few YouTube rabbit holes and discover the effort and dedication it takes to master the skill of crafting a perfectly balanced chefs knife out of folded high-carbon steel. When you finally find a knife maker you like, you save up some money to buy a beautiful, handmade knife and a maintenance manual to go with it - because your new prized possession is worth taking care of. Preparing food with this tool becomes a more conscious ritual, and you discover a new found appreciation for cooking.
‘Why would I spend €250 on one knife if I can get 6 for €40?’
Yes, you can look at it that way. But isn’t it more logical to spend €250 on something that will last you 10+ years instead of €40 on something that you will have to replace on a yearly basis? Over the course of 10 years those cheap knives will cost you €400. Short term thinking will cost ‘ya.
But yes, cost always plays a big factor in the perceived value of something. And it should. If it’s expertly handcrafted using high quality materials then a higher price point is justified, no? I certainly think so, especially if it helps build a sentimental connection to whatever it is you’re buying. Yes, you will have only 1 knife instead of 6. But if you absolutely treasure it, and you are invested in taking care of it - keeping it sharp and making it last so that one day you can pass it on to your kids - then less is definitely more.
As far as sustainability is concerned, this whole idea of investing in fewer, yet higher quality things might sound basic. It’s no innovative technology or groundbreaking material that will solve climate change. It’s a matter of buying more consciously, and as a result, using the things we own for as long as possible. And although this might sound simple, if it prevents you from constantly having to buy new things then it is one of the most sustainable options out there.
So next time you think about buying something, ask yourself a few questions;
Do I love this item?
Am I buying it for the right reasons, or just because it’s a good deal?
Will I use/wear it for the next 5+ years?
Do I really need this?
Oh, and sleep on it. If the answers to the above questions is still ‘yes’ after a good night’s slumber then you might have just found your next investment.