I’m sure that a lot of it stems from a simple thing–my reading glasses. I bought a cheap pair at Dollar Tree at South Towne Mall a while back. They were a dollar and apparently worth about that. Within a couple weeks the temple, or arm, had broken. I threw them away and got another pair for a dollar and the same thing happened again. The third time I went to Walgreen’s and bought a $25 pair that I figured would be sturdier and last a little longer. I kept the other pair at home as an emergency backup. It took several months but the same thing happened to the $25 pair. I taped them up and continued to use them because I wasn’t about to keep spending $25 every couple of months when the lenses were perfectly fine and I just needed them for close work on the computer or for reading.
Since taping up the glasses I have probably had at least one person every day make comments such as calling me a dork, asking when I was going to get new glasses, or just generally poking fun at the tape job. I keep wondering why everyone else is so concerned about it. It’s not that I can’t see with them this way, or that it hurts those people in some way. I have been genuinely perplexed by the apparent concern.
It occurred to me that maybe it is a class thing. It’s not that I can’t afford to spend another $25 on a new pair of glasses these days, but I grew up in a lower middle class family with a mother who grew up in the Great Depression. We went without all the fancy new toys and gadgets that neighbors and friends had. We had enough, but we didn’t have a lot and we didn’t really waste much of anything in our home. We ate what was on our plates and had leftovers. We wore hand-me-down clothes and because I was the youngest in my family, with a mother who was the youngest in a family of nine, some of my cousins were old enough that I got hand-me-downs that were hand-me-downs and would sometimes wear clothes that were already a generation old by the time they came down to me. We fixed things rather than threw them away.
When I was a boy there were two shoe repair shops in my little hometown of just over a thousand people and we used to give them business. I think there may be one left in Madison and I doubt they do a great business. These days when a heel breaks the shoes are tossed by most people and a new pair is purchased. Sometimes that happens before there is any significant wear or tear; the shoe is simply out of fashion and needs to be replaced. My mother had a couple tins (salvaged from Christmas gifts of candy or cookies) in which she stored buttons to replace lost ones. She sewed patches on pants and shirts. These days the clothes are thrown away the moment one little thread starts to show and then new pants or shoes are brought home. Mom saved ribbons from wrapped gifts and used them again in following years. Don’t get me wrong. She wasn’t a hoarder, but she did do her best to hold onto useful items rather than throwing them away. When it finally came time to get rid of things she thought of those who might have even less and would offer to give the hand-me-downs one more generation’s worth of service.
We don’t think that way anymore. Now a huge number of products are designed to last a short time and to be disposable. If someone buys a lighter that can be refilled that lighter is only sold once and can be refilled hundreds of times before finally wearing out. But a disposable lighter, with butane already inside a plastic tank, can only be used so many times and then has to be replaced, and it doesn’t matter what condition it’s in when the fuel runs out. It is a boon for the corporations that manufacture them because it creates a steady demand. We have disposable lighters, shavers, cameras, and more and somehow as a society we have been convinced that those who try to keep landfills from filling up faster and who may try to avoid spending more money by taping up glasses or using old-fashioned razors are dorks, cheapskates, or just plain look stupid. We’re not encouraged to repair, but to replace. I can’t remember the last time I saw a patch on a pair of pants.
The real problem with the disposable attitude is that it extends beyond products into the realm of human interaction. Employees are no longer employees, workers, or part of the company’s “family”. They are nothing but “human resources”. There is an implication that the employees are as disposable as dirty plastic diapers. Their value to the company is as a resource and once the resource has been used up it is expendable. With a disposable attitude permeating our culture then everything runs the risk of being valueless and disposable as well, including relationships. If there is anything that should be repaired and saved rather than tossed aside too lightly it is the relationships we have with our families and friends. When it comes down to it those are the things that really matter in this life. On our deathbeds it won’t really matter what kinds of clothes we wore or products we used. It won’t matter if my glasses are taped. What will matter is how much love was in my life. Hopefully it will be a lot and the nice thing about love is that it can be replenished; the more that is given the more there is to give and the more that is given back. If only our manufacturers could figure that out we’d all be in a lot better shape.