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Everything you own is (probably) junk

Ms. Bessie Brown, the (apocryphal) story goes, once wrote to the Maytag Washer Corporation, informing them that she received one of their machines as a wedding gift, way back in 1925. She’d put a load through it every single day since, and it had never once given her any trouble, running now just as sweet as the first time she’d fired it up.

The boss at Maytag called up an underling, and handed him the letter, with a blank cheque. “Find Ms. Brown and buy the thing back from her,” he said. “Let her name her price. Bring it back here and crack it open. I want you to figure out how we built a washer that can run for the better part of a century without breaking down. Then I want you to make damn sure we never do it again.”

I was in my early teens when I noticed what we now refer to as inbuilt obsolescence. It wasn’t a particularly dramatic revelation: I was fiddling with a bit of hi-fi kit that had failed for no apparent reason, and in hunting for the problem I discovered that the thing was made from materials so low-grade and fragile that normal use was likely to break it. A flimsy plastic tab on the cassette door had snapped and could not be glued back on; a similar epitaph awaits most consumer-grade appliances.

This is in fact called contrived durability, which is the most common, and least sophisticated incarnation of inbuilt obsolescence. Businesses require that products be manufactured as cheaply as possible to maximise profit; an inevitable side-effect of cheap manufacture is that products are less durable. That much is clear. Less intuitively, however, manufacturers don’t seek to counteract the effect: they have discovered that durability doesn’t rate as particularly desirable to a consumer base who enjoy buying things more than they enjoy owning them. It turns out that most people don’t mind that their possessions don’t last as long as they ought to: it means they get to go shopping more often.

I don’t need to tell you that our geometric rate of consumption is unsustainable for reasons that include environmental devastation and literal slavery, and a huge part of the problem is that we view consumer products as inherently disposable.

That may be the majority opinion, but it isn’t mine and I’m not alone. A number of companies know this, and have adopted the opposite strategy: their products are designed to last for the user’s lifetime, and they back this up with unusually long and comprehensive guarantees and repair-replace services with no-questions-asked policies. As welcome as these products are, they come with one inevitable drawback: they are expensive, often prohibitively so, because they’re made in small batches, from high-quality materials, by skilled craftspeople in developed countries. Most people struggle to afford their kids’ clothes, let alone clothes their kids will inherit. Buying durable and ethical products is certainly sustainable; it remains nonetheless a non-starter for anyone on an average salary.

I don’t need to tell you that our geometric rate of consumption is unsustainable for reasons that include environmental devastation and literal slavery, and a huge part of the problem is that we view consumer products as inherently disposable. With few exceptions we throw our broken possessions away rather than fix them, and select their replacements based more on how trendy they are than how well they’re made, or whether we actually need them in the first place. The tech boom has exacerbated this behaviour to a worrying extent: there’s a good chance you’re reading this on a smartphone that you will soon replace with a slightly newer one for no better reason than that the upgrade is built into your contract, and despite the fact that this phone still works fine. Indeed, that’s probably how you acquired the phone you have. If so, you’re a victim of perceived obsolescence: the idea that the mere existence of a newer iteration of the same product renders the previous ones worthless. It’s peak unsustainability, a business model that relies on customers periodically discarding huge quantities of working technology to justify the roll-out of incremental improvements that further exceed an average user’s already far-surpassed requirements.

Would you say you have a reasonable idea of how your shoes were put together? How your sofa was made? What year was your home built?... Do you know how to find out? Do you care? If you don’t, why not?

More and more, it strikes me how little we know about the things we use every day. There are the obvious things such as computers and cars, which are such complex machines that most people can just about manage their intended use, and surrender immediately to an expert in case of anything unexpected. It’s why we just nod obediently when we’re told the next smartphone is better than the last – we know next to nothing about the technology. But how much do you know, for instance, about denim? Would you say you have a reasonable idea of how your shoes were put together? How your sofa was made? What year was your home built? How about that table, is it solid wood, or veneer? Is it veneer over ply, over MDF, over MFC? Is it real veneer or melamine? Do you know how to find out? Do you care? If you don’t, why not?

The solution to my stereo woes presented itself in the form of an old (I believe the term is now vintage) Bang & Olufsen system, given to my father by an emigrating colleague. It was a beautifully engineered combination turntable, cassette deck and AM-FM radio, and though it was built sometime between ‘77 and ‘80 it was in fine fettle a decade and a half later. Put “Beocenter 4600” into an eBay search today and you’ll find a few of these handsome classics, going strong at forty years old, and around 5% of their original price. No CD player? So what.

When my wife and I first moved in together we were, as most young couples are, dirt-poor. In need of affordable furniture, we nipped into the YMCA charity shop on the Preston high street, and there we found a 1950’s G-Plan credenza in solid African mahogany. The trend for “mid-century modern” antiques hadn’t found its way this far North by then, so we were able to buy this British-made design classic for all of £60.

I decided to push our luck: I set about trawling auction websites, charity shops and car boot sales, every time it seemed coming away with items that, while a little worn and dusty and perhaps in need of the odd minor repair, were nonetheless far better-made than their modern equivalents and therefore with years of life left in them; and each time paying a fraction of what they would have cost when new. The evidence was telling me that it’s possible to have the things you want, and more importantly the things you need, on a reasonable budget without compromising on quality and durability; that in some cases it’s even possible to have the very best of something, but without the luxury price tag. So I thought to myself, how far can I take this?

Making a success of buying second-hand wherever possible requires two things: one is a patient tenacity that borders on the obsessive; the other is insatiable, indiscriminate curiosity. You need to love learning, because every item you purchase will require you to gain a certain amount of expertise in its category to ensure you buy the best you can get and don’t end up with a dud; you must devote time to painstaking searches, and weather the frequent disappointment of fruitless expeditions, because there might not be one of what you’re after for sale anywhere this week, or this month. You have to know what you’re looking for, and what it’s worth: if you don’t, you will waste a lot of money on useless crap. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, paid too much for absolute lemons, walked away from incredible bargains; every time it was because I hadn’t done my homework.

I suppose a third requirement is the will to actually own and use items that were owned and used by others before you. I’m always surprised to find out how many people are put off by the idea, usually because of some irrational hygiene-based concern, but sometimes over the deplorable belief that second-hand things are beneath them. Now, it’s true that I often find myself cleaning a generation’s worth of gunk off a find, but after that it’s as clean as anything you’ve owned from new; it’s not difficult to eradicate any trace of previous ownership, should you choose to, even from clothing – although let’s agree to draw the line at second-hand underwear. If however you really think you’re too good for used items (and I do know of people who have bought new houses – bland, cramped, cheaply-built, overpriced – because they wanted to be the first people to sleep in them) then frankly I’m not sure how you made it this far into the article.

I could sit here and list the items I’ve acquired over the past five years – roughly the time since I’ve made a conscious commitment to deliberately steer my buying power towards the second-hand market – and by all means feel free to drop me a line should you have any specific questions about a good approach to buying used clothing, kitchenware, tools, books, furniture or musical instruments; however I really want to tell you about the rewards beyond a houseful of beautiful and well-made stuff for a fraction of the cost of buying new, mass-produced equivalents.

Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.

Bertrand Russell

Mindfulness is a word that gets thrown around a lot, to cover everything from a traditional form of Buddhist meditation to the more modern concept of, like, just, you know, being in the moment, dude. As a philosophical materialist, and therefore having limited tolerance for pseudo-spiritual woo-woo, my own definition of mindfulness is less nebulous, has its roots in strategic psychology, and can be loosely defined as “not not thinking”.

By that I mean recognising the subjects that you tend to avoid thinking about, and instead actively engaging with them. My theory is that people are crippled in their ability to make good decisions because of their unwillingness to dedicate mental space to problems which they find too difficult, too boring or too distressing to contemplate. Mindfulness, in this sense, is the act of enforcing that contemplation. For example, lets’s say your cheap microwave breaks down: the “normal” response to that is to buy another one; most people will commit to a life of cheap microwaves without considering the alternatives – a better microwave, something other than a microwave, no microwave at all. Just as they will throw away their working phones merely because someone waves a new one at them. As we’ve seen, commerce needs people to abdicate their judgement and act against their self-interest; they can be relied upon to do so as long as they don’t start to think for themselves.

A more poignant example: a friend of mine has been in an unhappy marriage for some time, and has done nothing to remedy the situation because he can’t bring himself to think about it. Ironically, if he thought about it he would discover that his relationship is broken for the very reason that he’s not a thoughtful person. For as long as he refuses to look squarely at it, however, it will continue to disintegrate for reasons he can’t quite fathom. When it finally implodes, it will come as a complete surprise to him that, although technically he did nothing wrong, it’s still all his fault.

In the words of another great non-thinker: Sad.

What does mindfulness have to do with buying second-hand stuff? Well, constructive thought is a skill like any other, and therefore requires practice. Simply put, you can’t be an effective thinker in one field if your brain is on standby the rest of the time. Taking the time and making the effort to apply advanced problem-solving to shopping for used bargains certainly has the advantage of filling your home with desirable items, but it also has the benefit of keeping your mind unusually sharp for those times in life when you need to call on such skills as quick study, attention to detail, cost-benefit analysis and confident decision-making, and bring them to bear on less trivial matters. The tenacity I mentioned before is vital, too; the simple will to work at a problem until it’s been brought as close as possible to a solution can often be your most effective tool, and the one you’ll be best rewarded for in a World where what matters, above all else, is results. Since I’ve been doing this, I haven’t just got more nice stuff; it has immeasurably improved my life. I know more. I feel smarter. No word of a lie.

And the downsides? There has to be at least one, right?

Well yes, there is: when you mention to people that a large part of your possessions were bought second-hand, some of them give you funny looks. When you explain that it’s because you’ve decided to pay closer attention to the stuff you buy, the looks get funnier.

It’s okay though: all those people have brand-new Maytag washers.

I’ve got Bessie Brown’s.

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