Sunday, March 27, 2011

Consumer reparations

I recently spent about six months in western China (I have a sister-blog about environmental issues in China here), and I once again noticed the pervasiveness of specialized fixers and menders in Chinese cities. I bought a used bike for about $15, not too nice, but functioning. The bike broke about every two weeks, and when that happened I would walk it to a bicycle repair man who had a small shop right around the corner from the classroom building I was in most mornings. I never spent more than 12 kuai (a little less than two dollars), and that was for a new tube. The cost to patch up a blown tube was only 1-2 kuai.

There are repair people all over Chinese cities, for every different type of appliance, and also for clothes. On my campus there was a seamstress who sat on a street corner with a chair and a sewing machine and a pile of commissioned mending. I'm aware that here in the US there are tailors and menders that can perform these services, but they're far less numerous and accessible, plus the pervasive attitude seems to be that if it's broken, buy a new one. (Unless it's something like high-end electronics or a car or bicycle, although with electronics most people would agree that if it keeps breaking, it's probably defective and the company should replace it.) 

So other than lamenting the dearth of "menders" in America, which I could speculate is based on 60 or so years of a consumer-driven economy, I want to know why there's not more of a public movement--like the rising "foodie" and "locavore" movements--based around the idea of mindful consumption. This thought was inspired by a Wendell Berry article, bluntly titled "Why I am NOT Going to Buy a Computer." His main reason for abstention is the desire to be as free as possible from the energy corporations and the environmental destructiveness of coal mining. He also explains how his current writing system is an integral and meaningful part of his life--in order to avoid the use of electricity he writes primarily in the daytime, and his wife is his typist and editor. He argues that changing this system would make him further dependent on coal energy, and would disrupt the balanced creative relationship he shares with his wife. The "curmudgeon" tone of voice that Berry and many other environmental writers use is for some readers delightful, and for some very grating and off-putting. I suppose it's hard to be pleasant and ingratiating when you're criticizing mainstream culture, and it might be some writers' compromise to affect an affably grouchy tone. (This tone only really works for men. "Grumpy Old Woman" isn't a positive or humorous cliche, as far as I know). In any case, I think that Berry's thoughts on computers exemplify his consumer mindfulness, and I think we could use his example to develop consciousness in our own consumer habits. Before we add possessions to our life, we could examine the significance of those objects with larger social and economic systems, and also look at the possible impacts of those objects on the rhythms of our daily life and the people we share it with. 

This is why my computer runs on power generated by hamsters fed a sustainable vegetarian diet. Just kidding. But I have been teaching myself to consider each purchase, even little things, for days, weeks and even months before acting. This has lessened my overall desire to acquire things, and also increased the value I feel for the things that I do acquire (and the things I already possess). I've also tried to eliminate clutter by getting rid of many (but not all) of the decorative objects I've been toting around for years. I found that over time I've invested these objects with significance that they never had--things like candles, picture frames, tchotchkes--things that were not gifts or souvenirs, just...things. I realize that my throwing stuff away doesn't really make any kind of environmental impact, nor am I trying to elevate myself as some kind of moral figure of austerity, I'm only talking about the way that I've tried to let Berry's idea of mindful consumption play out in my own life.

But back to mending...I currently live in Seattle, which is the home of the large outdoor-gear company REI. REI promotes itself as a forward-thinking environmentally-friendly company, and it's run as a co-op. For $20 a customer can buy a lifetime membership to REI, which includes an annual dividend for each member (10% of what you spend that year). Another perk of being a member is that you can return any item you buy, for any reason, for a full refund. The unwanted or damaged items are then sold in the REI "basement" at a pretty good discount. It's obvious from looking through these items that a lot of these things have suffered only from buyer's remorse or minor, normal wear-and-tear. But how great would it be if instead of just returning these items, you could have them repaired? There could be an in-store repair person to patch up your damaged gear (and really, if your outdoor gear isn't getting damaged, how much fun are you having?) I'm no expert on the economics of running a company, and I suspect it's probably more profitable to replace a few things, knowing the majority of people will just buy something new if their gear gets damaged. But it seems like prolonging the life of the gear and decreasing the amount of discarded, often Gore-Tex-coated items would jive better with the company's ethos. 

No comments:

Post a Comment