Sunday, August 4, 2013

consumerism and the durability of things

In 1998, the bike shop I worked at sold US-made messenger bags by a company called RELoad. The bags were made one at a time on industrial sewing machines by one of four sewers based in Philadelphia. Each bag used high-grade Cordura on the outside and was lined with thick, tough truck tarp, making the bags not only bombproof but waterproof as well. The bags were not cheap -- starting prices for a basic messenger backpack were $175.00, ridiculously expensive in 1998 -- but they were very popular and sold well for quite some time.

An enterprising fellow who worked for RELoad took the scraps left over from bag production and started making them into wallets and checkbook covers, which he sold under the name Randl. I bought one of the wallets in 1998.  It is still the wallet I use, 15 years later.

Here is a photo of someone else's Randl wallet, very similar to mine, though a little dirtier:

The wallet fits perfectly in my pocket, holds everything I need (and I admit that, without credit cards, I don't need to carry as much as the average American), and has remained bombproof.

And therein lies the rub.

Randl sold these wallets for a few years, but because they were bombproof (as well as style-specific in a way that can only be described as niche), sales fell off and eventually he stopped making them. Today, they are hard to find anywhere. I have only seen one other Randl wallet in my city, and that was seven or eight years ago.

What happens if a manufacturer makes a product so durable that people don't need to buy another for a long time? Obviously, there are questions of fashion and utility as well; but if a product is so durable that people don't replace it every so often, sales fall off and the maker eventually goes out of business. That is as pure a capitalist model as I can think of. And I think it's an issue that lies at the heart of our troubled consumerist culture today. Stuff should last -- but only for so long. After that, it should have the decency to wear out quickly so that people will have to go back to the store and buy more things. This is how jobs are created and preserved, this is how people earn paychecks and provide for their families -- in an ever-growing sea of stuff. Marketing and advertising support this model of buying things and using them until they fall out of fashion -- just to make sure we're not using a thing until it truly wears out, I suppose.

This model translates to many aspects of life, including the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and even the food we eat. Capitalism thrives on UNsustainability -- the notion that things must wear out more quickly and NOT be recycled, because recycling or repurposing lengthens the usefulness of a thing and that keeps us away from the store longer.

I buy things; we all do. But I also repurpose things. Earlier entries at this blog have included photos of Judaica (ritual Jewish objects) that I've made from bicycle components. I began making those things for myself because I wanted ritual objects for home use, but could not afford -- or even, frankly, justify -- the high prices of commercially-made items in the catalogs. The items have been a hit with friends (I've since given several as gifts), and the originals remain in use in my home today.

Right now, I am sitting on a small pile of cycling musette bags -- feed bags used in road races -- that I plan to turn into something else. I want to make a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl. In light of my increased out-of-town work, I need a prayer shawl that is smaller and will travel easily. I also want it to reflect the journey I've been on and where I came from. After nearly two decades in the bicycle industry I decided it would be cool to cut up those musettes and rearrange the pieces of fabric into a prayer shawl.

Sweetie thinks it will look odd -- "there'll be logos all over it," she said. Well, that's okay. I'll rearrange the pieces so the logos aren't quite as obnoxious, and perhaps I'll cut up the shoulder straps into tiny strips that can be tied into tziziot, the fringe that hangs from the corners. In the end, I'll have a one-of-a-kind tallit and I won't have had to buy anything to make it happen. I like that.

Perhaps if there's leftover fabric I can make a kipah (skullcap) to match...

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