Over seven years ago, my girlfriend and I moved to Canada. We weren’t completely starting from scratch, some of our belongings had moved here with us, but a lot was missing. Essential things, like a toaster. Money being low, I had just finished university, I bought most of these items at a thrift store. My toaster, a Viking brand, beige plastic and chrome, cost me the grand sum of three Canadian dollars.
Over the last seven years I had the chance of using many different types of toasters. All of them were new, all of them had more features than the Viking, some even displays, four slots, dedicated bagel settings etc. And all of them sucked. The first thing I noticed with every single toaster I tried, was that they didn’t “toast” but rather dried my slice of bread into a lightly browned, dried out slice of brittleness, because of a lack of power. Most felt cheap, buttons came of easily, and the life expectancy of those was roughly that of their short warranty period.
Luckily though, these toasters were never mine. They were found in the homes of family and friends and in workplace kitchens. Every time I trusted one of these with my slice of breakfast, it disappointed me, and I silently thanked my Viking toaster that was still working like… no, not like new, this much is clear. In fact it was still working like old. A relic from a time when things were built to last.
Now, seven years, three kids, a good salary and a condo later, I have really come to appreciate items from before the eighties. Not only because a three dollar thrift store toaster has served an ever expanding family with an impressive toasting consistency and stoic confidence, but because they seem to represent an era when people cared about the products they built, and the products they bought. for me, they serve as a reminder of the time before everything went downhill, before objects were built to be sold and function until the one year warranty expired so they could take up their reserved spot in a landfill, and be replaced with the next. Planned obsolescence is actually a thing now, and you should really watch the video on The Story of Stuff.
I’ve thought a lot about owning stuff. My seven year old son often asks me, when he sees a sports car or something else desirable, “dad, would you like to have a car like that?”. I always tell him the same thing. No, I hate owning things. Owning things makes you responsible for them. I would have to park that car somewhere, pay insurance for it, put gas in it, repair it. (I admit, I can be an annoying dad, but I tell myself he’s learning an important lesson.) There are only a couple of things I don’t mind owning. I love being the owner of the old wooden desk I am sitting at, typing this. Next to my laptop (which I don’t own, by the way, the company I work for does), my Nikon FM is staring at me. I never use it, but it’s another direct connection to “the days before”. And then there’s my toaster, which toasted the bagel I just ate.
I keep a mental list of the things that have brought me the most value over the years. Most things on this list I bought used, or found in the trash (someone in my building threw out a nice old wooden chest of drawers last week which needs some repairs, and the wireless mouse next to my keyboard came from an equally generous person). Mind you, I am not even considering the amount I spent on it, just the value it gave me. It seems like everyone is under a spell (yes, consumerism, but I don’t want to get into this even though the recent launch of the iPhone 6 would be an excellent excuse) to get rid of everything that was built with real value in mind and last generations, and replace them with their unrepairable doppelgängers.
Then there the notion of promise. Every item you purchase brand new promises a value. And in many cases this promise is easy: it needs to bring you value. It doesn’t even need to be better than the thing it replaces, because it’s very probable that the consumer is replacing something that broke. Just promising deliciously grilled bagels is enough. When the newly acquired toaster doesn’t live up to the manufacturers promise, and the item is replaced soon after when it breaks, one would expect a reaction of distrust, but instead the cycle just repeats itself.
Luckily, some movements with similar ideas have gotten some traction lately. There’s The Story of Stuff I mentioned, and the excellent initiative of The Restart Project. In their own words:
Moving beyond the culture of constant upgrades and disposal, The Restart Project reconnects people with repair, preparing the ground for a future economy of maintenance and repair.
My toaster has never needed repair, and I trust it never will. I will keep thanking it every morning until my kids inherit it, and they continue the tradition.