Built to Break

My parents still have the same kitchen appliances they received as wedding gifts 35 years ago. The toaster, waffle iron and popcorn popper are still perfectly functional despite faded logos. Contrast this to the toaster and clothes iron I bought when I moved into my first apartment, which each lasted approximately two years.

Things are simply not built to last anymore. Even high-priced luxury items rarely stand the test of time.

In a recent podcast, Seth Godin talked about quality and wab-sabi. He argues that quality can be defined in one of three ways: consistency, luxury, or right effort. When manufacturing appliances with interchangeable parts, meeting specifications is the priority. Someone trying to impress a prospective partner may call upon the quality of deluxeness. Finally, an appreciate for uniqueness and handcrafting ties back to right effort.

The irony of this current era is that people go into debt buying things they don’t need with the aim of impressing people that don’t care. The plague of consumerism has led people to believe that they must upgrade their car, renovate their home, and update their wardrobe on a continual basis.

This consumerism has fed into the mass production of products that are highly consistent, but not built to last. Cars dent more easily than ever, vacuums malfunction the day the one-year warranty expires, and three-year old smartphone is considered highly outdated.

We’ve seen a parallel rise in lower prices and lower standards when it comes to products and services. What I find most disturbing is that this idea of mass production is seeping into other areas of life, from the Tinder dating app to 1-click job applications. Life has become highly convenient, but at what cost?

As the idea of convenience has become more pervasive, I have also noticed a small but growing trend in the opposite direction—towards unique, hand-crafted, or thrifted goods. In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi is an idea centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The small faction of individuals seeking to break from cheap and trendy instead embrace asymmetry, roughness, and simplicity.

I love the idea of cradle-to-grave and appreciate the brands that confidently back their products with a lifetime warranty. I will gladly pay a little extra for Darn Tough socks, Patagonia outerwear, and Briggs and Riley luggage knowing that future wear and tear will be met with free repairs or replacement.

Yet, few people demand that products be made well and backed with promise of quality. Few people conduct the research necessary to identify whether will last; with new products constantly being released, there is limited information available to conduct such research anyways.

I enjoy visiting my local farmer’s market every week. I enjoy bringing home fresh, organic, local veggies, but just as importantly I appreciate seeing the product of hard work. The asymmetrical strawberries, small zucchini squash, and the splotchy snow peas recall the beauty of imperfection.

I hope to see the trends towards both handcrafted and built-to-last products accelerate, though I imagine the trend will likely plateau and recede to the new norm of low-cost, mass production.

Over the past five years, I’ve purchased a new oven, dish washer, washing machine, dryer, and car. The initial gloss and excitement wore off quickly as scratches, glitches, and malfunctions sept into the equation.

It is my hope that one day, I will be able to buy a suite of appliances that will last me a lifetime. It is my wish that I will be able to shape a home and wardrobe that are immune to the passing of trends and the wear of time.

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