A caveat to "Consumption Spirals"

Apr 27 2018

A couple of weeks back, Paul Jarvis penned this thought-provoking article about Consumption Spirals: the idea that when you have something new, it makes everything else look old and in need of replacement. You buy something nice for yourself and before you know it you’ve replaced 90% of your possessions and are in debt and unhappy.

I agree with Paul’s theory, and have noticed the same effect in my life many times; but I think his theory undervalues some of the other aspects of “nice things” that are hard to quantify. This isn’t a rebuttal, more an addendum to his thinking that suggests things aren’t quite so binary.

Eternally ripped jeans

I’ve always had this thing with jeans. I’m hard on them. They never seem to last more than a few months — even when I make a point of not wearing them whilst riding my bike. I’m not sure why, but I’m like the grim reaper for denim.

When I was growing up, I got tired of my jeans almost feeling like a disposable Product (the capital “P” feels right here). I started looking at more expensive pairs, hoping that I’d find some “next level” of quality and durability. Anything to stop throwing them away all the time!

My thought process was that back when smart-casual thankfully wasn’t a thing, denim used to be work wear, but that modern manufacturing processes had made them into a poor imitation of their ancestors. Buying a nicer, more expensive pair would perhaps stop my jeans feeling like a Product, and more like the long-lasting denim I’d read about. The kind that develops a patina and tells a story with every fade and crease.

I started with a pair of Levi 501s as they were the de facto choice when looking for “true” jeans; but unfortunately they succumbed just as quickly. The only difference was that their demise hurt all the more because they cost £100 instead of £20! I’m guessing the extra £80 must have gone to the marketing department… I tried a few other expensive pairs, even trying another pair of 501s in case my originals were part of a bad batch, but they all met the same fate. In the end I resigned myself to buying cheap jeans and throwing them away every 6 months.

That was, until I discovered a company in Wales called Hiut Denim. For three decades, 400 people in a small town called Cardigan made jeans. One day the factory closed, leaving all their knowledge and skills behind and unused. Hiut was created to use those skills and bring manufacturing back to the town.

In their own words:

We make jeans. That’s it. Nothing else. No distractions. Nothing to steal our focus. No kidding ourselves that we can be good at everything. No trying to conquer the whole world. We just do our best to conquer our bit of it. So each day we come in and make the best jeans we know how. Use the best quality denims. Cut them with an expert eye. And then let our ‘Grand Masters’ behind the sewing machines do the rest.

In short, they make Proper jeans — again, the “P” feels right here.

However, I couldn’t afford a pair when I first found out about them. In fact, I ended up waiting almost two years before I finally got my hands on a pair this year as a birthday present. I obviously can’t comment on their durability yet, but the quality of these jeans leaves me in no doubt that they will be with me for many, many years. Everything from the fabric, to the stitching to the cut is just worlds apart from anything I’ve experienced before.

There’s no point trying to compare them to my old 501s, as they come from two totally different philosophies. One is a product, designed to make the company money by selling as many units as the market will suffer and cutting costs wherever possible. The other is all about making something the best it can possibly be. One is about the price tag and the brand, the other is about craftsmanship and the pursuit of excellence.

It will sound silly, but I smile every time I put on my Hiuts. Being able to own and experience a product that someone has put so much time, attention and care into feels like a privilege.

Buying responsibly

I don’t go to extremes, but I try to maintain a minimalist ethos about my possessions. I enjoy the simplicity that comes with a lack of “stuff”, but I don’t treat the items I own as commodities that are readily interchangeable.

I find great beauty and satisfaction in the function of a well designed item, but other facets are relevant too. Quality in both materials and craftsmanship, the experience of using it, it’s aesthetics and the value we prescribe to an item are all equally important.

I try to buy — wherever I can — the best possible version of something. That sounds like a strategy that’s likely to result in a consumption spiral, but it doesn’t. Not when you’re buying something for the right reasons.

I buy with an eye for quality — the item will last longer being more economical both financially and environmentally, plus I get to age with it, a concept that sounds hippie-dippie until you experience it. I buy with an eye for craftsmanship — I’m supporting the “little guy” who is doing something properly and retaining real skill and knowledge within their industry, whilst larger companies outsource and commoditise their products. I buy with an eye for aesthetics and experience — I get joy in using or even just walking past the item I’ve bought because works well and looks good doing it.

This is fundamentally about good design. There is immeasurable satisfaction to be found in the use of a tool that is well made, singular in it’s purpose and elegant in it’s execution.

As Hiut would say: “Do one thing well”.

Surroundings inform your work

Surrounding yourself in trinkets and nice things sounds like something a dragon would do, sat atop it’s mountain of gold and jewels; but I think there’s actually some real world value to this approach.

As a designer and developer, I want to approach my work with the same attention to detail and care that I appreciate in these other items. I want to create something that will illicit the same joy and satisfaction that I find in other peoples work.

Surrounding myself in these items raises the bar. I’m constantly reminded of the standards that I should strive for.

When I make my coffee in the morning, I’m reminded of the value in honest, mechanical controls that make you feel a part of the process rather then ceding responsibility to a silicon chip buried in the machine somewhere. When I put on my headphones, I’m reminded that their sound is the primary concern, but supporting aspects like materials and manufacturing processes also play a part. When I open my text editor, I’m reminded that a powerful tool rewards skill and punishes mistakes; both are lessons that are valuable.

I read an interesting article that supports this notion. It claims that true gratitude comes from noticing these little joys in your life, not from sitting down and thinking about gratitude. With this in mind, a possession can be a constant source of joy and gratitude without other, lesser items detracting from it, because you are thankful for what you have, not bitter about what you don’t.

My jeans are made no less wonderful if I happen to wear them with an old T-Shirt — you might even say that add character! A Baron Fig notebook is no less satisfying to use with a Blackwing pencil because I happen to be sat at an old, cheap, third-hand Ikea table. If anything I appreciate these items all the more for the contrast provided.

Money: The elephant in the room

Most people’s objection to this mindset focuses on the cost these best of breed items. They say that you have to be rich in order to live like this, otherwise you end up like Diderot in Paul’s article: in debt and unhappy. I’m obviously a practitioner of this philosophy and I’m certainly not wealthy — far from it — and don’t consider myself unhappy either. Not everything is about money.

Quality materials will always command a premium and a skilled persons time and dedication should never be anything but expensive. However, you can find joy in cheap (or free) items, and little in expensive ones. It is not a simple sliding scale.

Many “designer” clothes are made with no more care or quality than the cheapest alternative. Fashion is now largely disposable, but because it has a “name” and a price tag associated with it, people falsely construe it with quality it doesn’t have.

In contrast, your local farmers market is full of foods or crafts that have had more care and honesty poured into them than anything in the supermarket and probably only cost a few pounds. They are small, affordable luxuries that can bring the same joy found in more extravagant purchases.

Software is a fabulous resource of attainable joy. Blink, my IDE of choice (using tmux) was free, as it’s open source and is beautifully simple. Whereas JetBrains IDEs cost £200 per year and clutter my computer with a heavy application for each development stack.

One is a scalpel, the other is a van full of power tools. Your priorities might be different to mine, but I find great satisfaction in using the scalpel.

Even where an item isn’t attainable, or is restrictively expensive I still think there’s some merit in pursuing it. You will probably have to save for it, maybe over the course of years. However, there’s joy in the anticipation, and when you do finally buy it, you’ll appreciate it all the more.

Borrowing money or using credit cards to buy these items will however see you meet the same fate as Diderot.

It’s not about ownership

I think mass consumption and extravagant purchases are more a product of our cultures need to own things and display status. Too many people buy something expensive for the benefit of other and to show off their wealth or good taste, and have little appreciation for the item itself. The fashion industry demonstrates this mindset perfectly.

If instead we could find joy in the experience an item provides rather than it’s ownership, we would be far less likely to fall victim to consumption spirals. If we removed the price tag of many items, thus removing their status; I think we’d see the world very differently.

Leicas would be used by passionate photographers that intimately understand the nature of a great picture and the satisfaction found in using precision tools, rather than lined up on shelves in boutique stores for people to buy and never use. Sports cars would be owned by those that enjoy the act driving them as they were intended, rather than using them to show off and appeal to the opposite sex.

We’re a society consumed by the desire for “stuff”, but the alternative isn’t to waive any enjoyment that could be derived from our possessions. Instead what if we properly appreciated them. That’s hard to do for mass-produced semi-disposable items, but buy something that’s authentic, constructed of quality materials and lovingly made and you’ll find the same joy that the creator did.

I can’t conclude this any better than the folks over at Hiut, so here it is:

There is a great deal of satisfaction to be gained from making something well, of such superior quality that you know it is going to stand the test of time. It makes the hard work and the obsessing over each and every detail worth all the effort. That’s our reward.

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