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Slow Consumption and Heirloom Design: I Want to Be a Slow Shopper

4/20/2010 12:00:00 AM

Tags: slow consumption, consumerism, shopping, heirloom design

I get a little excited every time a new “slow” movement comes along. I thought Slow Food—linking enjoyment of food to sustainable communities—was the coolest when it came over from Italy more than a decade ago, and the concept of paying a little more time and attention to our communities, our money and a slew of other daily habits always made sense too me. Whether I’m eating dinner with my family or choosing where my 401K money should go, I’m drawn to the idea that slowing down to consider and savor will lead to more satisfying choices. (Full disclosure: I’m the most deficit-disordered multi-tasker I know.)

broken washer dryer
Tired of products that don’t last? It’s time to return to heirloom design. Photo By Will Luo/Courtesy Flickr. 

I read last week in our sister publication, Utne, that the “slow” conversation has progressed to consumer consumption—a habit we’ve all been bullied into cultivating, whether we want to or not. Our diet of cheap, short-lived products; functional and fashionable obsolescence and this year’s colors has turned us into submissive consumers who buy fast, use up fast and discard fast. Buying and living with mass-produced, shoddily made goods has left us feeling both empty and bloated—like we feel after eating fast food.

Slow Consumption is nothing more than returning to what our grandparents knew — that investing in and taking care of solid, built-to-last goods was the most frugal and conservationist thing to do. Tim Cooper, head of the Centre for Sustainable Consumption at Sheffield Hallam University in England, coined the term to promote buying solid, durable goods, built to what Saul Griffith, a 2007 MacArthur Fellow and serial inventor, calls “heirloom design” standards. Making products repairable and upgradable, Cooper says, is the best way to lower their energy footprints and would also create maintenance and repair jobs in the United States (but mean a reduction in mass-production jobs overseas).

Body Shop founder Anita Roddick said you could never underestimate the power of the “vigilante consumer.” While “slow shopper” sounds softer and gentler, I figure my dollar is one of the best tools for change that I have. By repairing my dryer (which should not have broken down after only two years) instead of dumping it, I put a local repairman to work. Plus, hiring a local cabinetmaker instead of buying a formaldehyde-infused off-the-shelf bookcase is just smart. I may pay a little bit more for things, but not having to worry about limited warranties, lead content or recalls is worth it. Maybe I can just buy fewer things. (That sounds so simple.)

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