A few months ago, Martha Stewart broke her iPad. And, as one is wont to do in our socially-networked age, she tweeted about it. In response, The Internet did what it is wont to do in such a situation and fired back with its trademark level of totally irrational venom. As Martha tweeted about the state of her broken iPad and wondered aloud about getting it repaired, first responders were quick to point out that, Martha, you can probably afford a new iPad. Stop complaining. As I read through these various responses, though, I couldn’t shrug the faint feeling I had of shameful self-recognition. My preliminary reaction to Martha’s initial tweet wasn’t Wow! Good for her for getting things fixed! It was, why would somebody who could clearly afford to simply replace her device go about trying to repair it? And then, in that moment, I realized how truly sick my entire generation is. While Martha, bless her heart, still seems to be operating under the WWII-era “Waste Not, Want Not” mentality into which she was born, more recent generations tend to subscribe to a—let’s face it— “Waste A Lot, Want A Lot” world view.
This month at Design*Sponge, we have been pondering the idea of “mindfulness,” especially as it applies to our area of expertise—design and the home. For me, the idea of mindfulness at home begins with the understanding that the “home” expands well beyond the walls of our respective dwellings—it is the outside world, the environment we live in, the air that we breathe. Too often, I see myself and others around me falling into the trap that snares many a post-Baby Boomer American—the idea that our world (and our home) is only what we see in front of us. And this idea is surprisingly, terrifyingly easy to accept. As consumers in the western world, we are wildly separate from the items we consume, live with, and ultimately dispose of. Objects arrive on sanitized store shelves as if by magic and we grab them up, caring little about their point of origin or method of manufacture. At home, we use these objects until they fulfill their purpose, they break, or we simply grow tired of them. Then—more often than not—we put them out on the curb where they are taken away just as magically as they appeared. The average person sees only a tiny fraction of an object’s full life span. We don’t see the sweatshop conditions within which our heavily marked-down products are made. We don’t see the finite landfills where our trash is ultimately hauled off to. We often speak of purging or decluttering our houses at this time of year—but what does that really mean? We are simply handing off our things, displacing them from the visible part of our home to the part of it that we’d rather imagine doesn’t exist.
So. What is the solution? Believe me, I have been trying to figure that out for years. But mindfulness—that term we keep coming back to this month—mindfulness seems like an awfully good place to start. Being mindful of where your products come from, mindful of how you will use them, and mindful of what you can do to fix them if and when they break. Most especially, though, mindful of whether you really even want them in the first place, because this seems to factor into all of the above. I realized a little while ago that many of the products I purchased in the past where placeholders—shoddy constructions that I bought for their low price tag and the fact that they simply did their job (until breaking, that is—which they were bound to do sooner than later). The thing about buying things in this way, though, is that once one of these “placeholder” items break—you don’t really want to fix them. After buying it on the cheap (oftentimes because its costs had been externalized to the environment and underpaid workers), the time or cost involved in repairing it just seems silly compared to simply replacing it. This is, when you think about it, clearly not sustainable.
There is, however, a little trick I’ve been using to avoid this pitfall and curb my own wasteful consumption. All of my purchases, or at least most of them, are made with this simple equation in mind: NEED + WANT, or better yet, NEED+LOVE. When I make a purchase with just one half of these equations in play, whether out of necessity or lust, I will likely only contribute to the ongoing cycle of needless, wasteful consumption. Purchasing with both sides of these equations, though, assures that I will likely use my purchase and hold onto it for a long time.
Here’s a good illustration. Over the past several years, I’ve gone through countless winter coats. Purchased at any one of the faceless stores in the shopping mall, they are easy on the wallet and, for a short time, on the eyes. Without fail, however, after a good winter of wearing, these poly-blend coats will have all but disintegrated, their toggles missing and their fabric misshapen into an unrecognizable, faux-wool blob. In the end, I realized that this was no better for the environment than it was for my own wallet. In an effort to spend less money, I ended up spending more money in the long-run on products I only sort of wanted—products that are now cluttering my closet… or a landfill. In an effort to kick this bad spending habit, I finally bit the bullet and invested in a wonderful coat that I can actually get behind—in terms of quality, comfort, aesthetics, origin, and manufacture. The fact that I actually invested thought, time, and saved pennies into this item makes me actually care for it, so much so that when it frays or breaks, I am quick to repair and maintain it. It should also be noted—something need not cost a lot for it to be a treasure. I have found dozens of things I hold equally dear in thrift shop bins, sale racks, and vintage stores—the key is waiting for what you love!
Over the past few years, I have put these consumption equations into effect around my home. Do I really love this couch? This lamp? This coffee maker? No? Well, I suppose I can make do without a seating area, a reading light, and coffee—at least for the time being. Patience is a virtue—especially, as it would appear, in one’s living space. Learning to wait for the right item (and saving the necessary pennies if it’s expensive) can be difficult, especially for a Gen-Y-er like myself! The pay-off, though, can be great. I can now say that, with few exceptions, I love and care for just about everything in my home. Few purchases have been made without consideration and love (or, if you will, mindfulness) and my home couldn’t be happier!
One of the keys to mindfulness, I think, is self awareness. The ability to see one’s flaws, to know that one will always have flaws, and to confront and claim responsibility for these flaws on a daily basis. I didn’t want this post to come off as too didactic, because in all honesty, I’m not sure how much I have to teach in this regard. I don’t pretend to be perfect or to know all of the answers. What I do know is that we’re all in this together. The important thing is to keep an open mind, to learn as much as you can, and to actively move towards making yourself a better person. Here’s to mindfulness at home, at work and everywhere in-between! —Max