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The antidote to endless, thoughtless consumption lies not in purging ourselves of the stuff we own, but rather, redefining our relationship with stuff altogether

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Illustration by Melinda Josie

Benjamin Leszcz is a partner at Whitman Emorson, a design studio in Toronto. He worked previously as a magazine writer and editor.

Several years ago, while living in London, England, my wife met Prince Charles at an event associated with the Prince’s Foundation, where she worked. She returned with two observations: First, the Prince of Wales used two fingers – index and middle – when he pointed. Second, Charles’s suit had visible signs of mending. A Google search fails to substantiate the double-barrelled gesture, but the Prince’s penchant for patching has been well documented. Last year, the journalist Marion Hume discovered a cardboard box containing more than 30 years of off-cuts and leftover materials from the Prince’s suits, tucked away in a corner at his Savile Row tailor, Anderson & Sheppard. “I have always believed in trying to keep as many of my clothes and shoes going for as long as possible … through patches and repairs,” he told Ms. Hume. “In this way, I tend to be in fashion once every 25 years.”

As it happens, double-breasted suits are rather on-trend. But more notable is Charles’s sartorial philosophy, which could not be timelier. The Prince comes from a tradition of admirable frugality – the Queen reuses gift-wrap – but his inclination to repair rather than replace, to wear his clothes until they wear out, is an apt antidote to our increasingly disposable times. Most modern consumers are not nearly so resourceful: The average Canadian buys 70 new pieces of clothing each year, about 60 of which ultimately wind up in a landfill. (Thrift stores only sell one in four pieces of donated clothing.) According to a British study, the average article of women’s clothing is worn seven times before it’s discarded.

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Prince Charles's custom is to have his clothes mended and wear them until they're worn out.Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Our bloated culture of consumption extends far beyond clothing. Each year, Canadian adults spend about $9,000 for consumer packaged goods – about twice as much as 25 years ago. We replace our smartphones every 25 months. We swap out TVs like toothbrushes. We browse for Instant Pots, pet-hair-removal gloves and spa bath pillows when we’re at dinner, when we’re driving and when we’re drunk. Shopping isn’t just convenient; it’s inescapable. The shiny and new is seldom more than a click and a day away.

Unsurprisingly, we are drowning in stuff. Despite the average Canadian home doubling in size over the past generation – and family size shrinking – the self-storage industry is booming, with nearly 3,000 jam-packed facilities nationwide. And that’s just the stuff we keep: Landfills are overflowing. China has stopped taking much of our recycling. Africa is refusing our used clothing. And the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one-and-a-half times the size of Ontario – and growing. Worse yet, we are spending money we don’t have: The average Canadian has about $30,000 of non-mortgage debt. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it best: “Things are in the saddle, And ride mankind.”

We are increasingly desperate for a way out. For many, salvation has come via Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Ms. Kondo’s KonMari method centres on a now-famous question: Does this thing I own spark joy for me? If not, it is to be discarded. Others have found emancipation via figures such as Leo Babauta, Dave Bruno and Tammy Strobel, avowed minimalists who own 50, 100 and 72 things, respectively.

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Tidiness guru Marie Kondo has gotten people around the world to question whether their belongings spark joy, and discard them if they do not.Seth Wenig/The Associated Press

It is easy to understand the appeal of these alternative ideologies of consumerism, both of which reflect the same fundamental truth: All this stuff isn’t making us happy. Minimalism is simple but extreme; KonMari has broader appeal, promising a more fulfilling relationship with things, once we’ve purged ourselves of the non-joy-producing inventory. But KonMari asks both far too much of our things, and not nearly enough. When Prince Charles opens his closet, surely he does not ask if his fine double-breasted suit sparks joy. Instead, he asks: “Does this fine double-breasted suit fulfill my need for today, which is to wear a fine double-breasted suit while pointing at my subjects with two fingers?” It is a profoundly simple question, the spirit of which has been lost entirely today. In asking this question, Charles affirms his position as an unlikely champion for the forgotten virtue of making do.

Making do is a deeply pragmatic philosophy. It means asking of our things the only question we should ever ask of them: “Can you fulfill your intended use for me?” The answer – if we can be honest, and resist a moment of discomfort, inconvenience or boredom – is, extraordinarily often, yes. Making do is about taming the reflex to discard, replace or upgrade; it’s about using things well, and using them until they are used up. Taken literally, it simply means making something perform – making it do what it ought to do.

If Marie Kondo delights in discarding, making do is about agonizing over it, admitting that we probably should not have bought that thing in the first place. Instead of thanking our outgoing goods for their meagre service, per Ms. Kondo, making do means admonishing ourselves for being so thoughtless in the first place. Ditching something costs us, ecologically and cosmically; it should sting. And it should teach us to think more carefully about the real value of things.

As Juliet Schor writes in Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, “We don’t need to be less materialistic, as the standard formulation would have it, but more so.” By becoming more materialistic, in this deeper sense, we can radically reorient our relationship with things. In this way, we can not only mitigate the high cost of thoughtless consumption, saving us money and the planet harm, but also, we might just wind up a whole lot happier.

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Shopping bags from Black Friday sales are stuffed into a car in Lee, Mass., in 2018.Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle/The Associated Press

Making do, in times of scarcity, is straightforward: If our weekly sugar ration is 200 grams, then we get by. In the context of abundance, it’s complicated. How do we set limits when more, or new, is easily within reach?

The challenge, of course, is that making do is at odds with human nature. As products of evolution, we are predisposed to seek novelty, variety and excess; now, we hunt for bargains, not mastodons. Even Adam Smith, the forefather of homo economicus – that perfectly rational, utility-seeking consumer of classical economics – wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 that “frivolous objects … [are] often the secret motive of the most serious and important pursuits.”

In other words, to be frivolous is to be human. To aspire to pure pragmatism – to own only necessities – is misguided. “The fundamental question of what is essential and what is not has been a moving target, at least since the 15th century,” says Frank Trentmann, author of Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers. “Every generation complains that the lower orders are suddenly wanting things that their parents or grandparents didn’t have.” Making do accommodates for this kind of hedonic adaptation; it allows for wide-ranging materialism, provided it is thoughtful, critical and honest.

For me, making do is an aspiration; I often fall short. I succeeded, however, with my previous television, an off-brand, early-generation flatscreen. Friends mocked me, but in an era in which we happily watch three-inch screens, I deemed my 12-year-old Olevia adequate. (My company recently replaced its boardroom TV; I took the cast-off home, and gave the Olevia to a friend.) It was a small but meaningful victory, especially for household appliances, which tend to visit our homes briefly en route to the landfill.

As a parent, in an era in which toy companies have stretched commercials to 22-minute-long episodes, temptation is everywhere. Still, I’m a hardcore proponent of the cardboard-box theory of toys (the box – and later, the unboxing – trumps the contents). I virtually never buy toys. When my kids ask, I say, “We don’t really buy stuff like that.” (My eldest is 5; wish me luck.)

My wife rejected my pitch for our kids to wear potato sacks until the age of 12, presumably because most potato sacks are paper nowadays. Still, we opt for hand-me-downs or second-hand where possible. And we supplement with fast fashion, seeking clothes that last, at least, until they cease to fit anyone in our home.

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For a 2017 New York Times column, novelist Ann Patchett wrote about a year-long experiment in giving up various kinds of shopping.Supplied/The Canadian Press

For grown-ups, however, our relationship with clothing is perhaps the most unhinged. The novelist Ann Patchett, in her terrific New York Times column about giving up shopping for a year, recounts interviewing Tom Hanks before a large audience: “Previously, I would have believed that such an occasion demanded a new dress and lost two days of my life looking for one. In fact, Tom Hanks had never seen any of my dresses, nor had the people in the audience. I went to my closet, picked out something weather appropriate and stuck it in my suitcase. Done.”

By disavowing shopping, Ms. Patchett embraced the spirit of making do. Had she snagged that dress on a nail that evening, she could have made do on an even higher level. Getting the most out of things often requires investment, and the economics of repair can be challenging: It may be cheaper to buy a new sweater, made in Bangladesh, than to pay a Canadian tailor to fix an old one. Ideally, we’d mend it ourselves – a basic repertoire of DIY repair skills is wonderful way to make do – but either way, there’s deep value in reviving the thing. Never mind that a mended garment is perfectly functional; it’s often improved, imbued with a hint of effortless imperfection.

Worn clothing can be a marker of status in its own right, as it is for The Bonfire of the Vanities’ Sherman McCoy. Tom Wolfe describes the Master of the Universe’s “worn but formidable rubberized British riding mac … after the fashion of the Boston Cracked Shoe look.” (The look references a historical style, among New England patricians, to wear well-cared-for but dramatically aged shoes.) To certain elites, then, making do is familiar as a style if not an ethos. The Official Preppy Handbook advises, “Never replace anything until you have exhausted all possibility of repair, restoration or rehabilitation. No matter what it is, they don’t make it as well as they used to.” The key to a making-do revolution, of course, would be for the style to sweep the country. “I’ve always thought, there may come a point where the way to distinguish yourself and signal status is precisely by getting away from this increasing acceleration of consumption,” Mr. Trentmann says. “To stand out because you drive an old car.”

Until that day comes, getting mileage from our things should at least engender a sense of pride, and of mastery. This is a more difficult proposition with electronics, appliances and cars, for which technology has largely rendered repairs of any kind impossible. Still, making do means making an effort to preserve or repair, and spending more than simple economics might justify.

The corollary here is that making do means avoiding in the first place products that aren’t worth repairing. The problem of durability preoccupies Dieter Rams, the designer of Braun’s most iconic mid-century products. Mr. Ram’s mantra is “less, but better,” and in the recent documentary about his career, he rails against “thoughtless design and thoughtless consumption.” For Mr. Rams, it is incumbent on designers to make products that endure. (It’s a cruel irony that Apple, whose product design owes so much to Mr. Rams, has become a paragon of built-in obsolescence.)

Byron and Dexter Peart, who made their names as fashion-accessory designers, are following Mr. Rams with Goodee, an online marketplace of ethically produced housewares. Goodee products “are meant to be used everyday and passed down for generations,” the twin brothers say. “For products to be essential, they must be designed with rigour and built to last, both from a standpoint of quality manufacturing, as well as a timeless aesthetic.”

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A 5067 Aquanaut Luce 'Misty Blue' watch by Swiss watch manufacturer Patek Philippe, whose slogan is 'You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.'Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

Many fashion brands lure customers with the promise of enduring essentials, from the luxury house Bottega Veneta (former creative director, Tomas Maier: “I want to own one suit”) to the women’s wear line Cuyana (“Welcome to fewer, better things”). Luxury watches do it, too: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” (Though my $50 Timex keeps on ticking, too.) Of course, for people with the means, places such as Anderson & Shepard, or the shoemaker Church’s, perform miraculous repairs as a matter of course. Roche Bobois and Stickley make furniture that retains its value – if it doesn’t appreciate. Making do can mean embracing luxury, transforming our conception of heirlooms from relics of the past to ambitions for the future. But it also means patronizing more accessible brands such as LL Bean, Filson, Barbour, Patagonia, Arc’teryx and the North Face, all of which repair their goods, and some of which buy back, refurbish and resell worn garments. Even more accessible is Uniqlo, whose unadorned designs eschew trends (and whose $30 oxford-cloth dress shirts are my uniform of choice). In The Atlantic this year, Gillian B. White wrote, “in an era of disposable fashion, a Uniqlo garment, made from hearty materials and cut in a timeless style, can feel like an investment piece.” It’s an overstatement – my shirts, at least, depreciate steadily – but it underscores the role of design in reshaping consumption.

Another key to making do is scratching our acquisitive itch in creative ways. Thanks to my kids, I have become reacquainted with the Toronto Public Library, where I can indulge my impulse to acquire books I think I’ll read. (Typically by the third renewal, my deluded literary ambitions dissipate.) Following Rent the Runway, scores of clothing-rental services are launching, from mass brands such as Express to local startups such as STMNT, which was founded by a pair of Western University grads. Even IKEA is launching a rental program in 30 countries. Purchases, such as tattoos, are permanent decisions based on temporary feelings; renting, or borrowing, is often a better response.

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A woman holds a phone showing a Rent the Runway dropoff-box location. The online service lets subscribers rent designer dresses and accessories.Supplied/Reuters

As we become increasingly dismayed by our limitless consumption, positive alternatives abound. But too often, alternative modes of consumption simply become additional modes of consumption. In pursuit of fewer, better, we sometimes end up with more, more. Of course, Mr. Rams is correct: Disposability is a design problem. But more than that, it is a psychology problem. Making do has a societal scope, but it is a profoundly personal project.

In the final pages of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Ms. Kondo writes, “I can think of no greater happiness in life than to be surrounded only by the things I love.” It is a powerful statement, entirely on-brand for Ms. Kondo. It’s also a bleak reflection of how distracted our stuff makes us from the things that actually make us happy: a sense of belonging, of community, of purpose. Time with family and friends. Great books. Long meals. We know all this, and yet: We are living amidst an unprecedented epidemic of loneliness, experiencing friendships through Instagram; consuming culture through Netflix; and walking alone through our neighbourhoods, AirPods in place, our faces illuminated by Amazon’s frictionless mobile shopping experience. We are isolated and unmoored. And with nothing to tell us who we are, we shop and shop and shop, filling our carts when we really just want to fill our lives.

Laurie Santos, who created Yale University’s most popular course, Psychology and the Good Life, often says, “Our intuitions about what to do to be happy are wrong.” This simple truth is at the heart of making do, which emphatically reminds us that our things will never make us happy. Our things are a healthy, normal, inevitable part of life, but in the end, they are just things. By asking of them only what they can give us – not love, or joy, or a sense of purpose or connection – we are far more likely to get it. That doesn’t guarantee happiness, but it clears the path, highlighting an essential, unmissable truth: The stuff of life isn’t stuff at all.

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Illustration by Melinda Josie

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