Thursday, July 03, 2008

Material Culture

Regular readers know I'm a great fan of thrift shops. One particular store in my area holds a singular fascination for me: The Diggers Outlet, run by St. Vincent de Paul Society. Diggers Outlet is the last-chance store for merchandise that has run through the other thrift shops. Most goods are sold by the pound with only the most cursory sorting: clothes in giant boxes, household items of every type in another section, etc. Diggers Outlet is where you see first-hand the cast off material culture of modern American society: the clothing fads, the electronics that were cutting edge and now are obsolete, the particle board furniture that self-destructs after 5-10 years of regular use, the must-have kitchen gadgets of yesterday, and so on. A trip to Diggers Outlet jars me into thinking about how short our collective attention span really is.

I'm a textile nut. If you read this blog, you probably already know that. For most of human history, textile production has been slow and labor-intensive. Spinning was done on drop spindles and later, by hand on spinning wheels. The Industrial Revolution started the change that continues rippling today: toward higher efficiency in production, cheaper goods, viewing laborers as part of the machinery, toward ever-changing cycles of fashion and the disposable culture they foster. I'm not a rosy romantic about life in the years before the mid-18th century. I know that life was often nasty, brutish, and short, to borrow a phrase. But it was, by and large, more sustainable than the life we now live.

Textile production used to be so labor intensive that textiles had to be preserved and used up. Only the very wealthy could afford to have several sets of clothes. If you have ever made a garment, from fiber to fabric to finished object, either with knitting or weaving, you know how you feel about the resulting item: it's a treasure! If one use doesn't work out, you find a way to reuse it in another that does: unravel the sweater and reknit the yarn into something new or give it to a person it will fit, or something. Handmade fabric from handmade yarn is not something you want to discard easily.

Mass-produced fabric is so cheap that we generate tons (TONS!) of excess textiles in our society. Unbelievable excess. We shop for and replace clothes with little thought. Some items find their way into the landfills, though they are perfectly usable. Many get donated to charities for resale or distribution to the needy. While searching for images of baled clothing, I found this article.

In particular, I was struck by this quote:
The need to minimise all waste is more apparent when you consider that :

More than 80% of materials are consumed and waste generated by less than 20% of the world's population.

The growth in the world's population and the spread of wealth is rapidly exacerbating the problem.

In order to sustain human life under the present system, global environmental efficiency will have to increase by as much as 50 times.

The whole concept of product life cycle, design, fashion and the responsibility for re-use have to be reassessed. A culture built on the idea of wastage needs to be dismantled and a new way introduced.

Further search led me to another eye-opening article.

What if we all tried to stop thinking like Consumers and redefined ourselves in other terms? What if all our textiles were produced in ways that did not exploit the laborers or the planet? And what if we all recognized that the cost of a basic outfit would be higher, but our expectations about our clothes would be different? We would spend more, but spend more wisely. We would seek quality. We would reuse and re-purpose our textiles. We would choose clothes that wouldn't look dated next year at this time; clothes constructed with future alterations in mind; clothes from quality fabrics that stand up to hard use.

I wonder what our society will look like in 10 years. Or 30. Will we be buried in the excesses of the Industrial Age? Or will we learn to live as though our resources matter?

Note: image found on Buffalo Export website.


Anonymous said...

Well said.

Marcy said...

Interesting. I was just thinking today about all the clothes that used to get used in the paper business that doesn't anymore. Remember A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. You had to gather up those rags, ie old clothes, and sell them to the junk dealers who sold them on. The paper lasted longer. The clothes had a life after death.
Are any paper manufacturers still using old rags?

dale-harriet said...

Elizabeth - kudos. I don't understand the whole "fashion" concept and am puzzled by the idea of "new wardrobes for the new season". I also have no idea what happens to everyone's stale clothing; I guess now I know where SOME of it goes. As you know, I wear one of some dozen identical dresses & always will - not sure if I'm too poor or too lazy to "keep up". I'm reminded of the mantra of the Depression: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." Time to bring it back, no?

Lynn said...

Worthwhile thoughts. I am so easily led by others, unfortunately, that even as a professional conservationist, I find it hard to let go of consumerism. Shall we look at my yarn and fiber stash, for example? Although, I am very seriously thinking of selling off my six or eight bins of quilting fabric - it's been a decade or more since I had time to quilt; someone else should be enjoying these fabrics.

T said...

Excellent article Elizabeth - it's so right on. As I type this I realize that sitting on my sofa in the family room are 27 pairs of pants that my husband can no longer wear (results of recent chemo/radiation treatments and weight loss) and that I'm thinking of making a quilt out of. At least we can keep ourselves warm this winter when the fuel bills go through the roof!

Tora in Chagrin Falls, Ohio

Bezzie said...

So true. I like to pretend that the rest of the nation is crafty/thrifty like me...and takes my husband's old jeans and cuts them up to make patches for the knees of my son's jeans. Or that when I do buy the $2 pair of Chinese made knit shorts for my kid, when the crotch rips after a week (poor workmanship, but $2--you get what you pay for!), they sew the crotch back together like I do. But I don't think they do--I think they just get thrown away.

Kathy Kathy Kathy said...

I like new clothes and I cannot lie. I struggle with the gene/inheritance thing I got from growing up poor where I buy things when they are cheap even if they are not exactly right. A person needs to make do, right? It can be part of a creative process, but it can also lead to waste. I think I'd actually spend less if I only bought stuff I need when I need it. I may be reaching the point where I've given more things to Goodwill, Purple Heart, etc. than I've bought there.

Emily said...

I think about this SO MUCH. So much that I should probably not even comment here, I should write a post on my own blog and try to come to grips with it.
There are a lot of different parts of this consumerist impulse-- I don't think it is at all a simple thing to unravel. I think you can't discount the emotional factor in any of this, either. And really, some things I make I feel no pain in never seeing again, almost like destroying a sand mandala. Maybe the joy was in the making, not in the having.
Anyway. Too much to say. Expect some posting on the topic from me in the near future. Good one Elizabeth.

Emily said...

ps, you might like this book: The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade by Pietra Rivoli
I checked it out of the library a while back-- didnt get a chance to read every chapter but I thought it was really interesting.

Batty said...

Great post. I think about this a lot and have been focusing more on a small-scale, sustainable approach to things lately. I've switched to all organic food, am selling off all the clothes I haven't worn in a year, and am not hoarding so much any more. It feels so good! I feel strangely... weightless, if that makes any sense. The house is still full of stuff, but knowing that it's not just stuff added to stuff, and that most of the new stuff is sustainable, is a great feeling.

Marji said...

Well thought out article, and hopefully something that many more people are beginning to think about too. I'm linking to this today.

Kristina B said...

Hi Elizabeth: a very thought-provoking "rant" indeed. Given my propensity for hoarding luxury yarns, I feel rather embarrassed to comment here. Funnily enough, it's rare that I buy brand-new clothing, and I also engage in crafts which involve repurposing found stuff (mosaic, felting old sweaters, etc). So perhaps one day I'll manage to evolve somewhat.