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We Are Not Materialistic Enough

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When a friend of mine inspected the damage from a fender-bender, what upset him most was the discovery that his bumper was nothing but a brittle plastic husk supported by three pieces of styrofoam. The vehicle was new and probably cost about $35,000.

In the documentary Minimalism, sociology professor Juliet Schor articulated something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Essentially she said our society is drowning in needless possessions and consumer debt not because we’re too materialistic, but because we’re not materialistic enough, at least in the true sense. (Direct quote is here.)

In the everyday sense, the word materialism is used interchangeably with consumerism, a preoccupation with buying and consuming goods. We hear all the time that Western society is vapid and materialistic, meaning that it cares far too much about things, and not enough about spiritual or interpersonal values.

But using the word “materialistic” that way implies that the things themselves are what we value most, as though we consumers are connoisseurs of fine handiwork, attention to detail, and inspired design.

Looking closer, it’s clear our rampant buying has little to do with a taste for nice things. Our shopping culture does not suggest a close relationship with the physical and concrete parts of our lives. In fact we have very low standards for what physical objects we trade our money for, and for the quality of the sensory experiences they provide.

So much of our stuff is so crappy. Seams on brand-name clothes undo themselves under normal wear. Our grocery store vegetables are bland. We drink coffee that was roasted a year ago. Everything that can conceivably be made of plastic is made of plastic. (Seriously, who wants to sit in this?) We might be in love with buying, but we are not in love with things. 

If we were things-lovers we’d have better things, and few things we don’t use. Market competition would drive products to become better and better, instead of just more plentiful. The typical item produced by the most productive economy in history is a plastic piece of crap. I remember having to buy four standing lamps before I found one whose dimmer switch lasted a full calendar year, and I wasn’t buying the cheapo ones.

Good material things are available, but they’re the exception. Increasingly, if you want something durable and well-designed, something that feels good in the hands and is a joy to use, you’re looking into the high-end boutique market.

Last year I bought a stapler at an artsy gift shop for $63, and nobody I’ve disclosed that to hasn’t laughed at me for it. But I enjoy every single act of stapling, it’s made of thick gauge steel, and it will still be operational eight or ten presidents from now. How many flimsy mass market staplers had I gone through before I made a point of buying one whose physicality I actually respect? And how few things like that do I own?

I’m not sure when people started saying “They don’t make them like they used to”, but it is certainly true today. Something happened at some point that left us preferring more things over better things, and acquiring over using or owning.

Selves for Sale

Part of it has to do with a big shift in marketing that happened in the mid-20th century.

Ads used to be straightforward appeals to material needs: the product does this, it costs this much, and you can buy it at these stores. Products were marketed as solutions to acute material problems: dirty clothes, itchy feet, unruly beards.

Taking inspiration from wartime propaganda, advertisers began pandering to a different set of their customer’s needs—not straightforward material desires for a cleansing product or a smooth brandy, but their deeper psychological desires.

The modern truck commercial isn’t offering trucks exactly, it’s offering manhood. Ads are typically set in the badlands or on construction sites, or some other manly domain. The narrator is deep-voiced and talks to you like a knowing fellow man, and at the end a truck performs some act of heroism, dragging a tree out of a blocked roadway or something.

Laundry detergent ads aren’t offering laundry detergent, they’re offering the identity of a suburban mother who’s on top of her household. Booze ads are offering inclusion into a group of attractive friends. Vacation ads are selling rekindled relationships and a spell of freedom from adult responsibility.

Marketers began to sell products in a way that suggests you are buying something deeper and more abstract than a material thing: a sense of freedom, belonging, security, virility, popularity—any of the non-material qualities we perpetually seek and never have enough of. They sell us what we want to be, not what we want to have.

Unlike the practical needs of a working family, our desire for self-actualization is bottomless, and so when we try to buy it, we buy endlessly.

(This topic is fascinating and horrifying, and described in detail in the documentary The Century of the Self.)

The materiality of the product—what you physically receive from the transaction—is often an afterthought. Because most of us have lived our entire lives being sold products based on their symbolic value, we don’t find it that unusual or offensive when the item itself is cheaply put together and doesn’t evoke our respect or gratitude.

Even big expensive things, like my friend’s (briefly) new car, are as plastic and shitty as the customer will tolerate, and we tolerate quite a bit. A three-quarter-million-dollar “McMansion” isn’t a Nice Thing. It costs a lot but it’s still cheaply made, the product of numerical calculations made by some distant development firm. It represents nobody’s artistic vision, nobody’s best work. But it does come with status, and probably a sense of arrival at a particular socioeconomic rung, or stage of adulthood.

A lot of the stuff we buy we don’t even use, which would strike our pre-consumer ancestors as very bizarre. Almost everyone reading this owns clothing they’ve only ever worn in a fitting room. Why? Probably because what was purchased was the glowing feeling of moving up, of improving the self, and that feeling was generated by the shopping experience rather than the item itself. The sense of improving one’s personal image a little further is probably a bigger motivator of most clothing purchases than the physical virtues of the garments themselves—the material quality, the tailoring, and the design.

Living on solid ground

There are other factors in our disconnection with the material world. The information age has given us too much to think about, too many abstract places to put our attention.

Today many of us work very abstract jobs, requiring little bodily awareness, and much mental effort tracking abstract things like processes, policies, formulae and schedules. More and more occupations emphasize an awareness of personnel rather than people, production rather than craft, maps rather than territories.

Contrast this with an agrarian life of plowing, chopping, knitting, gardening, cooking, building. These are all highly sensory experiences that require ongoing attention to your body, tools and other material aspects of the world around you.

It is normal now to spend most our lives preoccupied with what’s going on in places we’ve never been and will never go, and the actions of people we’ll never meet. That kind of “global” awareness may have its uses, but we’ve certainly never been so out of touch with the materiality of our experience—the concrete, the physical, the present.

The shoddiness we tolerate in our material goods is a symptom of our extreme preoccupation with the abstract and symbolic side of life. The hallmark of stress and unease is rumination—unconscious, uncontrolled thinking about things you aren’t really doing and conversations you aren’t really having.

The remedy is to make our relationship with the material world our primary concern, as it once was. We should be animals using abstract thinking as a tool, putting it down when we’re not using it purposefully.

Buy less, buy better. Notice the materiality of the things you use. Live in your body. Feel the ground when you walk. Chop wood, carry water.


Photo by Dimitry B

Sandra January 30, 2017 at 1:34 am

Excellent article! Thank you for these reminders!

Ingrid January 30, 2017 at 2:22 am

Fantastic article. Thank you.

Zoe January 30, 2017 at 2:22 am

I’m standing in my soon-to-be ex-kitchen as removal men pack all our stuff into a van, and this certainly rings true. We had to build an IKEA wardrobe the other day and not only was it a nightmare (and we’re both seasoned flat-pack furniture builders – this one was the worst) but it was obvious how bad the quality was.

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 9:23 am

IKEA occupies a strange place. The design is often very competent and thoughtful, but the materials are often cheap. Many non-furniture items are very good though. I love my chef’s knife and frying pans from there.

Ralph Conrad February 3, 2017 at 6:18 am

Whoop!! There it is! “We had to build an IKEA…” See, IKEA caters to the exact group David is speaking of. I call them, the “do whatever the hip, cool people ae doing.” It’s trendy to shop at IKEA, so you can say to you fiends, wow! look at what we got at IKEA. IKEA doesn’t focus on quality, thats the last thing.
You would have been better off to copy the design of the wardrobe, and constructed one by hand. Then you would have had a true one -of a kind piece. And think of the self pride you would have gotten from doing it yourself.

Aga February 3, 2017 at 12:55 pm

i would disagree. as a european living in north america, i find ikea to be one of the few stores that caters to my desire for form AND function. sure, i could spend 50k on a custom kitchen, but i really don’t think most people can afford that. i’ve had many ikea kitchens that lasted and lasted and lasted and were a pleasure to use. like david, i don’t think ikea is good for all things – couches and chairs simply don’t stand up to daily use – but their bedding and kitchenware are outstanding.

my husband built us a gorgeous one of a kind coffee table and we have some very high quality pieces in our house, but when it comes time to get a kitchen, i will always go to ikea. and i’m hardly a cool and hip person, though i sometimes like to think of myself as marginally passable in both departments.

i wish that north america gave me options of quality that didn’t cost an average annual salary, but that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.

Paul Davies January 30, 2017 at 2:34 am

Beautiful. Reminds me a lot of this TED talk from Alain de Botton, which contains the superb passage: “I don’t think we are particularly materialistic. I think we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. It’s not the material goods we want; it’s the rewards we want… The next time you see someone driving a Ferrari, don’t think this is somebody who’s greedy; think this is someone who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love. Feel sympathy rather than contempt.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtSE4rglxbY

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 9:23 am

Ah I love Alain de Botton. Thanks for this.

Neon Neautiful February 14, 2017 at 8:34 pm

Wow. I watched that TED talk by Alain de Botton years ago. But I got a new insight about this now.

One customer I had, arrived in a very expensive BMW. He himself seemed very “out of touch” with his body, both in the way he moved and the way he talked. But when he pushed the button to raise or lower the backdoor of the car automatically, he was the happiest kid in the city. I saw how he struggled to hid his grin.

Then he turned to me to talk business, and I saw how the joy was gone. I think he is a person that believe that happiness come from things, rather than from within. So he bought the best car there is, to get the best comfort there is (from himself).

Annie January 30, 2017 at 2:36 am

Very well-written! I’ve been thinking more and more about my relationships with things, and it’s certainly a popular topic these days, not just because of Marie Kondo for instance. I would only add that, naturally, many companies don’t want to build lasting products – because then you would buy only once instead of every year. It’s called planned obsolescence. It’s certainly at work with almost every printer and every laptop I’ve ever owned.

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 9:27 am

The worst offender is probably inkjet printers. Never get an inkjet. They are stupidly cheap (sometimes under $20) but the print quality is terrible from the beginning and only gets worse. The ink is so expensive most people will buy a new printer. I love my Brother laser printer, but I’ve only had it 18 months.

Planned obsolescence is definitely a thing though, especially with electronics. It’s one of the most cynical and destructive commercial practices and I wish there were competitors in the big electronics companies who would offer an alternative. However, in the fast-moving realm of personal electronic stuff, it’s hard to see anyone making a go of selling a phone that’s supposed to be with you for five years. Things improve too quickly.

Francisco January 30, 2017 at 10:56 am

The planned obsolescence is one thing. Our desire to have the best available product is what drives us more. I have a 2011 Dell notebook, I use it every single day since I bought it, and it costed me $700. Of course there are dozens new better models out there, but this one still handle my daily tasks with excellence. Why do I need to buy a new one?

People usually buy stuff not because their electronic is obsolete, but because they want to run the newest operating system on the newest hardware even though they don’t actually need it!

DonnaB January 30, 2017 at 12:46 pm

I had an older Dell that I loved, and my 15-year-old son kept telling me that I needed something newer. I informed that it suited my needs even when he was claiming he studied Windows 7 in history class (ha ha). Alas, the screen started going black on me at random, often inconvenient, times, and I had to get a new one, but I keep my old one as a backup and my daughter sometimes uses it.

I like my new one, but there’s no way I would have spent the money and the time researching it and setting it up had I not needed to. I’d be plugging away with my old one.

Samuel House January 30, 2017 at 1:12 pm

I design electronic devices in one of the very few fields were engineered obsolescence is not a goal; pacemakers. In most other fields it really does make more sense to plan for one to two years of operation. A phone designed to last five years will likely cost more than twice as much to produce as a phone designed to last half the time. There are significant diminishing returns in electronics longevity.

Annie January 30, 2017 at 1:14 pm

You’re absolutely right with electronics, that’s a tricky field. Although I can see alternatives emerging. Shift phones (a German startup that aims to produce fairtrade phone), for instance, let you work on your phone, exchange parts, improve the technology as you go along. You kinda have to know what you’re doing though and invest some time – certainly not for everybody!
And I agree with Francisco and others, this externally created desire for the newest and latest product or technology is exactly the point of criticism in the article. But that’s maybe something we can change more immediately than planned obsolescence. Or maybe they are on the same level but on different sides of the free market equation. As a side note: I don’t own a printer anymore, I go to the copyshop or otherwise use digital copies. And I own a 2012 Acer Aspire – take that consumerism!

Welmoet January 30, 2017 at 3:05 am

Thank you for voicing my own thoughts and more. Seems to me we’ve become so comfortable with mediocrity in our lives, but at what cost? Not t only is it in the stuff we surround ourselves with but it’s often in how we relate and what we expect from ourselves and others . Why do we settle for it in the first place? Why don’t we even recognize cheap and shoddy when it shows up? So interesting and sad in away, too.

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 9:29 am

Yeah, I think we accept crappy stuff because it’s just so normal to us. If I think back really far, when I was a little kid in the 1980s, there were still toy cranes and dump trucks that were made of metal, but they were carryovers from the late 70s and plastic was already the norm.

Mel February 1, 2017 at 4:11 am

This reminds me of my childhood in the ’80s. We lived as white European family in poor Western Africa. My Mum still complains today that the natives were always stealing the good metal toys from our garden but never touched the crappy plastic ones. Natural human sense for quality among the native population maybe.

Jordan Didier January 30, 2017 at 4:16 am

I think about this all the time. We have too much stuff, not enough quality. So true about the effect on conversations and relationships too. “stages of adulthood” comparing people with what they “own” and what they “have” to me seems an irrational measurement. buying “status” more often than not means people are in a perpetual state of purchasing. If someone owns very little but actually owns it who actually has a better life status?

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 9:31 am

That “perpetual state of purchasing” is the great achievement of 20th century marketers. Before the self-based ad boom, a lot of companies ran into natural ceilings in their market — everyone who wanted what they sold had one already. So once they figured out how to generate indefinite desire, they had to make products that didn’t last, otherwise they hit the ceiling again.

Madhulica January 30, 2017 at 4:51 am


Thank you. I really loved reading this article. And I plan to re-read it every now and then, lest I forget the essence of it.

Allan Fein January 30, 2017 at 6:05 am

Thank you David, I was just reading something else about minimalism yesterday and when I woke in the middle of the night 02:40 AM with my bronchitis cough, I snuck a peek at my phone and saw this masterpiece of yours. I have owned all the “stuff” one could possibly ever want (thousands of items), and only have been immensely satisfied with a tiny percentage. I’ve been steadily working my way towards a life of minimalism over the last 8 years and the final step is occurring right now. Eight years ago I got divorced to one of the most wonderful people I’ve had the privilege of knowing and I gave her most of my parents high-end furniture and lots of other stuff that fit into our well appointed 3,000 square foot, 5 bedroom home when we separated. I moved into another home that we owned as a rental and took a fraction of “Stuff” with me. I now lived in a 2,300 square foot 3-bedroom home, but instead of every room decorated with “stuff” on every wall and all the furniture with all of the perfectly placed decorator items, I had rooms that were mostly empty. I had a 17’ x 22’ living room / dining room that I turned into my music listening room, a stereo, a reclining chair, a coffee table and a table with a lamp. It was perfect. This was my first introduction into minimizing my life. Next, I went on a trip around the world 2 years ago and put my home up for rent and put all my stuff in storage, after selling and giving away 1/4 of what I owned at the time. Packing everything you own and putting it all into a storage unit is another very helpful step. You get to see everything all in one place at one time. Before I packed everything I spread it out over the entire 2,300 square foot house including the garage and this was how I began the sorting process. Then I emailed my friends and told them I was giving away lots of my stuff and included photos. I told them that in one week I would be taking what ever was left and bringing it to Good Will. My friends came and took most of the stuff and Ironically a year later I was helping one of these same friends move and she offered me back the same massage table I gave her a year earlier. I’m 8 weeks away from heading out on another long-term trip and this is the final round. I’m picking up each item I own holding it in my hand and deciding, do I use this item? Does this item bring happiness and joy into my life? If the answer is no, it goes. I will say that I am attached to some items that I collected in the past (coin collection, post card collect, miniature liquor bottle collection, Starbucks card collection, and some plus 100 year old magazines and books) that all fit nicely into two boxes. I decided I’m keeping those for now. I also just whittled down my 35 mm color slide collection from over 7,000 slides to 2,531 and they will arrive in Indianapolis at ScanCafe today 1/30/17 to be digitized and eventually uploaded to my Dropbox account. I love DropBox, I scanned my entire 4 drawer file cabinet and it’s now all electronic and available to me any time, any where. I can’t tell you how refreshing it feels to get rid of “Stuff”. In the beginning of this long response I said I was reading another book about minimalism and I have not quite finished it yet but it has some more great ideas and tips. The name is “The slavery of extreme minimalism”. This was a free iBook. Going back to sleep now…

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 9:40 am

Hi Al! There is a really specific kind of catharsis that comes from getting rid of the inessential. It’s like opening a window.

The size of our homes has a big effect on how much stuff we have. Home sizes in the USA are significantly bigger than in Canada, which are significantly bigger than in Europe, and I would be the number of useless possessions follows those ratios proportionately.

Dean Wilson January 30, 2017 at 8:06 am

Great topic, many considerations. Spending much of my working career getting folks to part with their money I came to accept that for most the perception of the deal achieved became more critical that what was actually being acquired. Retailers marketing plans specify what percentage of product will sell at what price right down to the end of season clearance blowout. The sale tag is king, customer lists compiled to inform “the special clients” when the article they need (sic) is on sale. They now have your permission to contact you with other great opportunities for ownership you never thought you needed. Customer satisfaction surveys to keep you feeling connected, important. It is all about the art of bamboozlement.

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 9:45 am

This is one of the big criticisms of capitalism… the more capital an organization acquires, the more efficiently they can acquire more. Big companies can hire teams of math people to make all those price calculations, and psychologists to decode the customer’s mind, which only generates the means to add more expertise to the bamboozlement department. No need for the product to be good.

Terran January 30, 2017 at 8:07 am

This does not make your underlying point any less true (and it absolutely is true!), but in fairness to your friend’s car, the broken plastic bumper he saw is actually a sacrificial bumper cover that is primarily an aesthetic thing and the styrofoam is there to absorb some of the impact (much like it is used in packing materials). Chances are that beneath that is a fairly substantial piece of steel (the actual bumper) and even that is meant to crumple and absorb force under a substantial enough impact to lessen the severity of the crash and protect the frame of the car which would be very expensive to straighten if it were damaged. Basically, these parts did exactly what they’re supposed to by giving in to the impact, and since they’re fairly replaceable, your friend gets back an almost as good as new car for not that much money after his accident.

If the bumper (cover) were made of something more substantial like metal, it would be hard (or impossible) to mold into some of the shapes of modern cars, it would (probably) be more dangerous to those involved in accidents, and it would cost more to repair those accidents. There would also be a fuel efficiency penalty since metal is heavier than plastic.

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 9:46 am

Good to know! Perhaps it was not a great example.

Liz January 30, 2017 at 9:51 am

Thank you Terran for this post.

Ari February 7, 2017 at 9:49 pm

A few other thoughts on the bumpers from a car nut:

Bumpers are really difficult, design-wise. You need to create a good that’s light as can be, absorbent, aerodynamic, somewhat protective of various components, strong enough to support various lighting and sometimes cooling elements, fits the shape of the vehicle overall, and is relatively easily replaceable AND paintable AND durable all at once.

Oh, and it has to meet requirements in multiple countries for not killing people, not kicking up debris if broken, accident protection, and being relatively pliant if a car strikes a pedestrian.

That’s actually an interesting proposition.

I know people like to crap on the automotive industry, but if you really want to see some of the best material science today, look at cars. Amazing work with metals, plastics, and ceramics can be seen in one car, and at a price that would be prohibitive in nearly any other consumer products.

Cars today are absolute marvels and people really don’t appreciate it enough.

Tonya January 30, 2017 at 8:25 am

I just watched this movie (again) last night. Great movie! My grandparents were depression-era babies and I can remember how much they valued things they owned, unlike our throwaway culture now, my grandpa repaired on his own this toy piano I had for years as a kid. I also things were made slower and with more quality even back when I was a kid. And now it’s infiltrated our food as well. It’s junk! But it’s fas and convenient. I’m trying to re-teach myself to go slower and be more patient. I’m slowly trying to learn to cook things from scratch. To research goods I need more thoroughly so I don’t just buy the cheapest thing on amazon. I admit it’s hard. We are so used to getting everything NOW!

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 9:49 am

I think developing skills like cooking and others that hone our tastes is a great way to fight back against the torrent of bad products. The craft beer movement, “third wave” coffee culture, and foodie-ism are wonderful because their primary values are quality and present-moment attention to the virtues of the product. They are serious market forces now, and resistant to the shrewder end of marketing.

luxagraf January 30, 2017 at 9:05 am

You might like this, slightly counter argument:


“both ideas and material possessions should be tools that serve us, rather than things we live in service to. When that relationship with material possessions is inverted, such that we end up living in service to them, the result is consumerism. When that relationship with ideas is inverted, the result is ideology.”

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 9:57 am

That’s for sharing this. I don’t think I’m making the same point as Dustin Curtis here, and I’m not really convinced by the counter-argument to it. He is identifying some possible advantages to buying the worst stuff and some disadvantages to buying the best stuff. I don’t think I’d advocate either, only that better stuff puts us more in touch with the physical aspects of our lives.

luxagraf January 31, 2017 at 8:13 am

Definitely didn’t mean to suggest that you were making the same point as Dustin Curtis.

I also don’t always advocate buying the worst, but I do find quite often that there isn’t as much difference in quality between best and worst as price would imply. I find that buying neither and improvising with what I already have is generally the best solution.

Joshua January 30, 2017 at 9:13 am

Great insights, David. It’s a lot for many people to absorb, though. Myself, I buy little, but buy quality. Or I’ll buy low-quality things that I don’t plan on using frequently, but still need on occasion.

As I think of it, though, most of my purchases have been for quality. I bought a very nice set of cookware, because I cook 3 meals per day, enjoy cooking, and want my pots ‘n pans to last quite a while. I have a very limited supply of comfortable clothing. I spend too much time at my desk, so I have a very nice setup there, as well. I write constantly, so I invested in a fountain pen (that I’ve used for well over a year without losing like any of the Office Depot pen packs), the list goes on.

I’m sure the list goes on, and I could certainly let this expand into other areas of my life. I’d rather not see myself as a consumer – I’d rather buy it for life if it’s available.

So…hank you for the article and food for thought.

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 10:00 am

Better stuff is often cheaper if you take lifetime into account. Cookware is a great place to start. Over time I want to replace almost everything with high quality lasting versions. It will be interesting to see where that’s possible and where it’s not. You’ve got me thinking about fountain pens for the first time, at any rate.

Genevieve January 30, 2017 at 10:06 am

So thoughtful! Reminds me of Animism in eastern cultures where things are imbued with a spirit. Though that hasn’t helped Asians resist the lure of crap either…

Rebecca January 30, 2017 at 10:21 am

I really appreciate your thoughts on this and so many things, David – I really enjoy Raptitude and am so happy when I see a new post in my Feedly list.

There needs to be such a fundamental paradigm shift in how we view our possessions (agree with Dr. Schor – and, funny aside, I watched ‘Minimalism’ with my sister-in-law and it reminded me of how much I loved the 90s PBS doc ‘Affluenza’ and a younger Dr. Schor is heavily featured in that, too, as well as my favorite nonfic book, ‘Your Money or Your Life’ by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin).

Setting aside the very real problems with the conditions in which many disposable consumer goods (from tshirts to smart phones) are made, it makes me really upset to spend good money on something that is supposed to be BETTER all around and suffers more from a single use/laundering than something cheaper. Your stapler is a wonderful thing, but it has become so hard to know whether the $63 stapler will actually work better than the $10 one, and it doesn’t make sense for us all to buy $63 staplers if we’ll throw them away or not use them and just demand their production for the right to call it ours.

At the end of the day, I’m ALWAYS an advocate of defining for yourself “enough” (in a big picture way) and then getting the thing that works best for you for the longest time possible. But I’d love a better way to figure out the last bit, especially with clothes. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been prepared, for example, to “invest” in a pair of shoes I can plan to own for years instead of months only to find out that in the recent past, manufacturing has been relocated to X place and now they are utter crap but just as expensive.

It’s a LOT of work for the average consumer to wade through. It’s important work, but the services of blogs and reviewers who help me narrow down what is worth every penny and what will last is worth so much to me to help me in this regard!

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 10:43 am

Totally agree. Time will deliver a verdict on the sensibleness of my stapler, and everything else I buy. But whatever the verdict on any given product, it will give me more information to move towards better physical experiences and better products, as well as a healthier influence on the market. If we all gravitate towards durable over cheap, physical over symbolic, the market will respond.

Angie unduplicated January 30, 2017 at 10:28 am

Well said. The modern printer is an exercise in waste and sabotage. The best inkjet I ever had became instantly obsolete because of a software conflict with an unrelated but necessary program. My computer is age 8 and has service bays for upgrades but is incompatible with Win 10, as is my little-used but essential printer. Few new computers can be serviced or upgraded.

After years of driving older vehicles made of sturdy stuff, I got a deal on a ragtop. Bad news: it’s plastic and those junk plastic parts are $100 and way up.

I.Have.Had.Enough. If we want plastic, we can 3D print our own. Time to boycott outsourced plastic. Is anybody else ready?

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 10:46 am

Consumer 3D printing didn’t catch on like they thought, and so it remains to be seen how it will affect our attitudes towards quality. On one hand I’m not sure we want everyone creating large volumes of plastic objects in their homes, but on the other hand it gives us a closer relationship to the physical, and most printings would cancel the need for a packaged consumer version that’s probably flimsier. I’m interested to see where it goes when home 3D printing finally does become widespread.

Terry Woods January 31, 2017 at 3:40 pm

I’m amazed that you want to pay almost nothing for a printer that will print, copy, fax scan, is wireless and includes a document feeder and you whine about the cost of the ink. These printers are a great bargain. I used to sell printers for $5500 so the $80 all in one is a pretty good bargain. As for plastic, most of the space shuttle was plastic. That sturdy car you had, that weighed in at 2 or more tons got 12 miles to the gallon and didn’t need a 6 digit odometer because they rarely made it past 50,000. Does it make sense to drag around tons of metal to get you where your going. You all sound like your parents, they just don’t make them like the used. That’s absolutely correct and thank your luck stars.

chephy February 15, 2017 at 4:38 pm

The reason printers are so cheap is because the ink prices are artificially inflated to absolutely crazy values. Apparently printer ink is the most expensive liquid on earth. It is really cheap to make, but it is placed in proprietary cartridges and sold with absolutely mind-boggling mark-up. So, um, no, pointing out the cost of the ink is ridiculous is not “whining”.

Harv January 30, 2017 at 10:48 am

One other thing many of us consume with no regard as to its quality, is news and information, now packaged as “infotainment” much of the time.. The same goes for TV entertainment…mostly vacuous brain candy.. One has to seek out alternative, independent outlets, mostly on the internet, and then filter it out of all the trash content, to find good quality, non-commercialized, unbiased information and intelligent entertainment.. TV and internet could be such powerful tools to facilitate learning and enlightenment, but it’s seemingly used to produce the opposite effect, to dumb-down the population.. And it appears to be working in that regard..

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 3:31 pm

Definitely on board with you here. Luckily high-quality products of that type are very much available. Making them popular is a different story.

lynn January 30, 2017 at 11:25 am

Just lovely, David! Thank you, I needed this today after dementedly watching all my screens this weekend in Fahrenheit 451 excess, sporadically venting frustrations into the ethers; while my own physical environment is in shambles, my obligations neglected, my body reacting to all these perceived threats as though they were here in the room with me.

I’m sure you didn’t plan this article for the week the world gets plowed over and under, but now that the ground is broken, I see awareness growing, and I will pass this on, to my admittedly limited social network.

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 3:35 pm

My strategy for dealing with world issues this week has been to keep my attention on one or two offshoots of the main issues, learn a lot about them, and see if I can do something about them. Sanity mostly intact so far. Best of luck to you!

Tracy January 30, 2017 at 11:58 am

I inherited my grandparents’ home 21 years ago, and it’s like I live in a research lab for the longevity of older things. My refrigerator is 40+ years old, my dryer is from 1968, and all the “old junk” that people sneer at has been working fine for decades. My mixer mixes and my blender blends! Very seldom have I had to replace an appliance, and when I do, it has earned its right to retire with honor. So it’s no myth that things used to be made better.

There’s a snobbery about owning new things, I’ve discovered, even if the old one is in perfect working order. But I’d rather save my money for experiences.

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 3:39 pm

Dryer from 1968 sounds pretty far out! Luckily there is an opposing kind of snobbery about vintage things that can battle the new-thing snobbery. In any case, nobody is buying a dryer today that will be drawing the same criticism 49 years from now, because they all will have been in landfills for decades already.

Gary January 31, 2017 at 10:41 am

Manufacturers have done the research to determine how long the average consumer expects the appliance to last and build them to last that length of time.

I have a refrigerator built in 1972 that still works just fine. I recently remodeled my kitchen with 3 new appliances.. They came with a 5 year parts and labor warranty. All three have needed service within the 5 year time frame. The stove came broken from the store. The repairman said it was cheaper for the manufacturer to pay for the repairs than to test them at the factory.

DonnaB January 30, 2017 at 1:01 pm

I had a similar experience to your stapler purchase. We moved houses a year and a half ago, and one of the things I replaced was the old kitchen garbage can. The new one was a two-piece plastic can with a detachable top. We had a party a month after we moved in, and I never found the top of the garbage can after we had the party. The lid it sometimes fell into the garbage can, and I assume one of the guests (kid or adult) knocked it in without realizing it and it went out with the trash.

I didn’t want to spend a lot of money replacing a month-old garbage can, so the next one I got was not expensive and functioned as a cheap device does. Our new dog had no problem getting into it, and it was a strange shape that made removing the garbage bag difficult.

I finally buckled and spent more than $100 for a nice metal one that the dog can’t get into and that allows me to remove the full trash bag without a fight. I dreaded the investment at the time, but I love it and think about how much I love it whenever I take the trash out. Like your stapler, it should last a long time.

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 3:40 pm

The difference in lifetimes between near-disposable plastic versions and solid metal versions can be extreme. It will easily last ten years, which is ten bucks a year, and makes you feel better that whole decade.

Pippa January 30, 2017 at 1:53 pm

Feel free to remove this comment if it’s inappropriate. A girl I went to school with started this website – http://www.buymeonce.com – to promote durable products. Never used it (so not a recommendation of any sort) but thought it might be of interest.

David Cain January 30, 2017 at 3:45 pm

Love this idea. Thanks Pippa.

RG January 30, 2017 at 11:26 pm

Thanks, David. There are many reasons why I loved reading this.

The provocative, counter-intuitive title was more than justified by your nuanced article that triggers thoughts at many levels, both practical and a bit philosophical.

One of the indicators of a well-argued piece is the quality and diversity of comments it generates. Thanks to all who have responded so far with their reactions. Interesting to note the discussions around the planned obsolescence “strategy” of the electronics industry though your original article tackles much more than gadgets.

I liked your take on minimalism and materialism (as opposed to consumerism) without going rah-rah about the various minimalist “movements” that have been in vogue in this century. These efforts are a much needed corrective but some proponents go overboard in presenting a one-sided view that may seem impractical to many.

The part about abstraction and losing touch with immediate ground reality reminded me of Vivekananda’s exhortations to be active in the world while pursuing the spiritual quest rather than an escaping-into-a-Himalayan-cave approach.

Your article was forwarded to me without a link so I googled and happily landed here. Also found another article with the same title written in 1999 at http://www.monbiot.com/1999/05/29/were-not-materialistic-enough/. Didn’t find it half as interesting but his About page is a great read: http://www.monbiot.com/about/introduction-on-trying-to-be-less-wrong/

Anna January 31, 2017 at 12:00 am

Going zero waste goes hand in hand with minimalism. Im on a Facebook group called zero waste Journey. There are thousands on there so if you have a question about zero waste there is someone there that will answer you immediately. I say this because last time i spoke to you about it i said it was difficult and took up a lot of time but since ive found this group i do a lot less research….i just ask the group.
There thats the last time i go on about zero waste (even though i still think it would make a great experiment for you) ;-) brilliant article as usual with great timing. Thankyou

kim domingue January 31, 2017 at 1:11 am

What a great article! A group of us were discussing this very thing just recently. We ranged in age from about 55 to 85 with the oldest having been a young child during the great depression and the youngest (me) having been raised by grandparents who were raising their children during the depression.
I was joking about the fact that I was starting to sound like the old folks, that I remembered from my childhood, who bemoaned the fact that “They don’t make things the way they used to.”. My joking comment turned into quite the serious discussion which included many of the points that you’ve made in your article. But the truth of the matter is, is that they DON’T make things the way they used to. At least current manufacturers of products don’t. A master craftsman may but anything made on an assembly line? Nope.

I’ve always liked old things, things that have acquired the patina of age. I’ve been feathering my nest with old things since I was a new bride, thirty-seven years ago. Part of it was due to necessity because we couldn’t afford new, “nicer” things and partly just due to personal preference. The majority of my furniture is from the 1950s or earlier. The frame of my 50s sofa is hard oak. You won’t find that in current, semi affordable sofas. I have bed linens and table linens dating back to the 50s that I’m still using. I have sewing machines dating back to the early 50s. They sew a beautiful, perfect seam, require little maintenance and rarely require repairs. My cousin’s new, very expensive machine is in the shop for repairs every six months…..and the repair bills are never less than $150! I have oscillating fans from the 40s and 50s. We use them during the hot months and they move an exponentially greater volume of air than their anemic modern counterparts. I have Magnalite cookware, some of which is 65 years old….. hasn’t warped yet. I have cast iron cookware, some of which dates back at least 75 years, which will out cook anything currently on the market and is a better nonstick option than Teflon. I buy vintage sheets, curtains and clothing that may have a rip or stains. I cut away the damaged areas and use the rest to make quilts. Why? Because the quality of the fabric far surpasses anything being produced today in a price range that I could conceivably afford. Added to that, I’m keeping some lovely old fabrics out of the landfill and giving them a second life. The ready made clothing that is being produced today is of shoddy workmanship….even the high end clothing. Every time I turn an expensive garment inside out and see a serged seam instead of a french seam or a flat fell seam, I can practically hear the old ladies tsk taking and saying they wouldn’t put that on the dog to wear, lol! M uncle bought a ford pickup truck in the early 70s. He gave it to my cousin in 76. He took good care of it. He still drives it to go hunting and fishing. I highly doubt that a truck built this year will still be on the road 45 years from now.

They don’t make things the way they used to. And we’re the fools that flock to the stores and happily turn over our hard earned money for plastic, trashy, inferior merchandise. If we quit buying substandard goods then maybe better, well made things will start appearing in the marketplace. (A girl can dream, can’t she?)

Ron January 31, 2017 at 2:42 am

Century of the Self – a fascinating and deeply informative documentary. Saw it a couple years ago. Adam Curtis is a most unusual filmmaker. Highly recommended.

Grant February 2, 2017 at 8:00 am

Seconded. It is a fascinating looks at the psychology of self especially as it relates to our decisions to buy.

Gary January 31, 2017 at 9:56 am


John Bogle’s book, Enough.


I do note the trend of smaller houses being featured on various TV programs.

Dawn January 31, 2017 at 12:53 pm

Another great article and some very thoughtful comments. Electronics aside, things that should last are made to wear out – to fuel the buying cycle. And now we crave new even when it’s not needed. I cringe to think of the things I’ve given away that I thought I had to have, the space I dedicated to them and the time I spent earning the money to buy them. Lots of insecurities behind that! But with age comes wisdom, and I’ve downsized several times already and will do it again before my last move to a very small place. I love the feeling of having less of everything.

Carolyn Sill February 1, 2017 at 8:22 pm

I laughed so hard when reading about the stapler! I have a heavy, quality-made stapler that I absolutely love, and it made me happy to hear about yours. Thank you for this article.

Lorrie Beauchamp February 2, 2017 at 10:07 am

I felt so strongly about this that I sat down and wrote a book. Sounds like you have a book in you, too! In case you’re interested, it’s at http://www.marketingmyass.com. After 35 years in the industry, I felt it was time to spill the beans. I should update it, because it’s a fluid situation.

Edith February 2, 2017 at 8:36 pm

Actually, the exterior parts of a car being made with plastic is the least of our problems. They are made easily crushable for safety, so that the car absorbs impacts instead of you. Car manufacturers are screwing us in worse ways. Not long ago I visited a small airport and checked small planes’ motors. The main systems are all mechanical, whereas the secondary ones are electric or electronic. Why? because mechanical components are more reliable and easy to check before a malfunction. Why is it then that cars are relying more and more on electronic components? because they are easy to program for a failure, and difficult to replicate by a different manufacturer. Programmed obsolescence. These companies have become gangsters, let me tell you.

Judy Welles February 3, 2017 at 5:12 pm

We just bought a brand-new Toyota Prius, and one of the (many) things I love about it is that it’s so solid — nothing plastic-y or styrofoam-y about it. The doors go THUNK when you close them. I think I notice this because most cars are exactly as you describe them. But clearly not all.

Also, I’m a knitter, so thanks for the mention. People might comment on the amount of $$ I spend on yarn, but it’s not worth doing something that takes so long and is so exacting with shoddy materials. I’ve never been able to figure out why people buy cheap yarn. It’s plastic, for heaven’s sake!

Matt February 3, 2017 at 10:21 pm

A styrofoam bumper isn’t cheap, its the proper material for its purpose. Energy absorbant and light weight!

Elise February 5, 2017 at 7:54 am

So many things are currently pointing me in the direction of quality not quantity for all aspects of my life. Fewer but better of every category – food, clothes, exercise, possessions, hobbies. This article just reinforces that. It’s not easy. I was a teenager in the 80s when the idea of “status through ownership” was off the scale. But I can learn new things and I can learn to let go of things, to discriminate, to aquire less and value more, to be thoughtful with all aspects of my life.

Guy February 5, 2017 at 8:28 am

Sometimes there’s an advantage in knowing you’re buying the cheaper thing. It’s easier to buy, easier to replace, I don’t expect too much, and if I’m really disatisfied then I will replace the item.

Budhha had a saying IIRC about having a lot of property means having a lot of concern

Jacynthe February 6, 2017 at 4:52 pm

really great article. thank you.

Ari February 7, 2017 at 10:23 pm

I think there’s a few things to consider here:

1. Affordability for a lot of people
2. Reproducibility for a lot of people
3. The complexity of the goods we purchase now versus those we purchased even 100 years ago

A couple of examples come to mind:

Let’s use cars, since it was one used here already: people often wax on and on about how CARS WERE SO MUCH BETTER BEFORE because they see an old Fastback Mustang on the road and reminisce about “the good old days.” They ignore the fact that there’s survivor bias (only good examples survived, the rest of poor manufacturing quality are dead and recycled); the fact that the actual experience of owning that good is considerably worse than even compared to that of a modern economy car (seriously, own an old muscle car and make it your daily and tell me it’s nice compared to a comparably priced car, weighted for inflation); the fact that many of the materials used in that care are impractical when considering expectations or desires today (aerodynamic, light, doesn’t kill a kid if you tap them at 5 miles an hour).

So, is the old car “better?” Not really. Is it heavier, more metal and steel and romantic? Hell yes. But it also isn’t going to as easily run 200k miles with only regular maintenance like a Corolla may. Ever maintained a carburator? It sucks. Is it going to be quiet and comfortable for a long drive? Nah. Is it going to not smell like hell because it lacks a catalytic convertor? Nope.

But is the interior going to feel sumptuous compared to that Corolla? Oh yeah. For sure. Is that wood gear shifter knob going to feel good compared to the Corolla’s probably rubberized plastic automatic selector thing? Yes. Is that steel and chrome exterior going to have a sense of strong presence compared to the thin pressed metal on the Corolla? Oh yeah.

But which would you rather own, if you’re the average commuter?

Ah, but why can’t we have both, you ask?

Simple: the needs of the good have changed. The car today needs to last 100k miles with only simple maintenance, the interior needs to be quiet and filled with 8 airbags, the exterior needs to crumple easily to save the passenger, the car needs to weigh 500 more pounds than its predecessor, while ALSO getting better gas mileage AND being safer than an old luxury German car from a few generations of cars ago. And it needs to start, stop, and turn on a dime without so much as a driver shifting gears on their own.

So how do you do that? Lots and lots of material science, but also lots of compromise. Instead of a nice sumptuous wood inlay, you get plastic (weighs less, costs less, doesn’t fracture and kill people in a collision). Instead of full leather, you get cloth which probably lasts longer but feels worse. Instead of an easily worked on car, you get a mess of computers and wires and drive-by-wire systems that do most of the work for you. But in return you get the easiest damn car to own ever.

So… give and take.

Now, the lamp? That’s just cheapness. Bad components because they can. There’s no FUNCTIONAL reason to make that lamp cheap.

But here’s where I get frustrated: people don’t think about the materials in their goods. They don’t think about the balance between quality and price and performance. They just see a lamp and think, “Oh, that lamp does light.” They don’t look at the quality of the light it puts out, whether the plastic shade will yellow and crack, whether the metal will easily tarnish and crumble.

I kind of feel for the makers of goods, though. You want to make a toothbrush for a kid that parents will actually buy (nobody wants to spend $30 on a kid’s toothbrush that just as likely will end up lost or destroyed), but you want to make a good that’s not entirely crap? Good luck.

I mean, would it be nice if every toothbrush were heirloom quality and able to last forever? Sure. But then… are we willing to price some people out of the toothbrush market?

So yeah, I see your point, but I think there’s complexity there in terms of how the world has changed and what people need.

FullTimeFinance February 10, 2017 at 8:17 am

Fantastic post and perspective. It’s not about deprivation, buying the cheapest thing ever or even living minimalist. It’s about spending on what you value in the quality that you need.

Kathy February 10, 2017 at 8:45 am

Grocery store fruits and vegetables are frequently tasteless and often time nearly rotten. Some are shipped from so far away, they are picked before ripening because if ripe when shipped, they’d disintegrate into mush. We once had a giant garden and a fruit tree orchard and I became quite the fruit and vegetable snob since we had such fresh tasty products picked when perfectly ripe. It is so hard now to go to the store and force myself to buy things there. Farmer’s markets are somewhat better

Lake Girl February 10, 2017 at 8:51 am

Nice post! You took a pretty complicated subject and put it into simple English. I have made some big life changes over the last few years in a desire to increase my health, wealth and happiness. One of the things I notice about purchasing big ticket items is they are not only poorly made but increasingly difficult to fix. What does a refrigerator repair man know about fixing the t.v. that is built into it? It is crazy that our great grandparents and grandparents could expect their appliances and tools to last longer than our own.

Buddhist NextDoor February 10, 2017 at 9:32 am

Wow – that a thought, we actually aren’t materialistic enough! I go back and forth on this because as a Buddhist I’m constantly challenging my current circumstances (I chant and take action to break through in work and in my finances), but I’m also waging a larger and longer-term battle against my lesser self so that I can connect with deeper seeds of happiness in my life.
In that sense, I need to be more materialistic when it comes to creating value with other people, and switch the focus from acquiring value to producing it.

Dyana February 10, 2017 at 9:46 am

Great article. I’ve never really thought of ‘materialism’ like this before. We’re often too caught up in the hype of new shiny things that quality is overlooked.

Sean Fokes February 10, 2017 at 9:49 am

Although I can’t disagree with your points, and that’s a great article, I didn’t really see much about the other factor that came to mind with respect to the lesser quality of modern material goods. Through the 1960’s, there was no CAD, no personal computers, almost no CNC, plastics were rare, expensive and not very versatile, robotics was in its infancy, reliability engineering didn’t exist, MBA’s didn’t run most companies, and American manufacturers pretty much owned the world. As all of these things changed, manufacturers found themselves in a much better position to calculate the lifespan of a given product and adjust their manufacturing techniques accordingly in order to reduce manufacturing cost. In short, older stuff was overbuilt because manufacturers had no choice, and as soon as that choice was available, they started cutting back anywhere they could. Most products today are thoroughly designed to barely survive the warranty period; manufacturers back in the day couldn’t do that.

JT February 26, 2017 at 9:23 am

Loved the stapler anecdote! The feeling you get when using somethng that’s well-crafted and beautiful is an important but often overlooked part of the benefits that a given product brings you.

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