We Are Not Materialistic Enough

We Are Not Materialistic Enough

This is a guest post from my friend David Cain. It originally appeared on his blog, Raptitude.

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, on Netflix, 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 crappy 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.

David writes about what school never taught us: how to improve your quality of life in real-time. His blog, Raptitude, has been one of my favourites for years. <3

  • I remember when this was posted to Raptitude… Mr Adventure Rich and I discussed it for days! There are so many areas of life where we have to find the balance between the pricier, quality item and the cheap, poorly made item… let alone the question of whether or not we truly “need” an item, or whether our lives would be simpler and better without the item in question. Thank you for reposting!

    • It took three bathroom trash cans before I was able to convince my husband to spend the money to buy something good from the outset. Buy nice or buy twice. (Or thrice)

  • My wife and I are constantly talking about this topic. We haven’t quite yet found the right balance, but are aware of the implications it has on our every day lives.

    We are just at step 1 – awareness. Now we need to put forth a plan and execute.

    Great post. Thank you.

  • Dear Cait,
    I really like your site and this article is great, I couldn’t agree more. Do you have any reccomendations of where you can find quality clothes, accessories, and / or homegoods, for when the ones we have fall apart? I live in France and they have the same issue of cheaply made goods. I think the French brands: Repetto, Karl Marc John, and IKKS are of a higher quality but they still leave me wondering how much is too much for a pair of shoes that are made in France because the high sales tax in here can really make things way too expensive. I would love to hear your thoughts / reccomendations on this. Thank you.

  • And that there folks is why I love David’s website, thanks for sharing with us Cait. As you have said and many others, we aren’t against purchase. We are against crappy purchases for crappy things. Although the post was about consumerism of crappy things this quote stood out to me the most

    “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.”

    This is a scary and perfect reflection on our digital world.

  • What a truly transformative piece of writing! I do struggle sometimes with the purge culture that exists in the minimalism community (and I’m just as guilty as the next person). If we treated our things as friends and not just as objects of our *momentary* desire, maybe we’d take better care of them and we’d end up needing less to survive.

  • Very true. I agree with David that we tend to lose the quality of our material goods when we as consumers want more and more. Up to 2 years ago I drove a 1999 Toyota (still would only for a fender bender). Every single mechanic told me how great a car she was and that they are not made like that anymore. Interestingly I then read a piece that around the 2000’s Toyota wanted to become the biggest car company in the world, therefore, they increased their productivity. This increased quantity but substantially decreased quality (leading to millions of recalls). The company has since realised this and have tried to slow down production to meet their old quality standards. If only more companies saw this as the case! But unfortunately, some of the products we think of as quality products no longer hit the mark. It is true for material goods across all lines. I can see the craftsmanship in many of the products that have lasted the test of time and have been handed down from my grandparent’s generation. I hope we can revive this craftsmanship.

  • I agree entirely.
    There remains the difficulty of identifying quality goods. It isn’t enough (as you also point out) to pay more, and I am not willing to pay fantasy prices, though I will pay a quality price. Brand or even a traditional name is no longer enough, but where to look?!
    A small example – I bought a Le Creuset Dutch Oven, famed for quality and double the cost of other similar goods. After only a couple of years the handle broke; on enquiry I was told it would not be replaced and I would have to pay for a new handle… not quite what I had in mind!!

  • I think it’s important to note that buying better does not automatically mean more expensive. It’s about the right tool for the job. The car story misses a key point, which is that the fender is designed to absorb shock so that the shock from a crash does not affect more important parts of the vehicle. It is designed to crumple. Ironically, a cheap plastic/rubber fender like we had in the 80s is just as good if not better than the fibreglass, shiny painted version most vehicles have now. We chose style because we like the shiny version.
    I’m not against the $63 stapler (although admittedly I did snigger a bit as per everyone else), and I agree that paying out for something once is better than buying 6 cheaper versions because we were trying to be frugal, but we should look for the best thing for the job. And that may be the $1 doohickey from the odd man who runs the shop of all things.
    I think Cait works hard on this and I can see that in her purchasing, even in decisions like moving to Squamish.
    Definitely something I need to work on as I tend to go the other way and want to buy from a trusted brand, even though, and this is a real story, the exact same thing from the same manufacturer is for sale from the discount place round the corner at half the price. It took me a good 15mins to get over my bias for the brand!

  • I think this also ties into how people will replace things rather than fix them. There were so many shirts that I was attached to emotionally, but still couldn’t bother to get out the needle and thread to fix. I also have a stack of clothes that I want to tailor so that they’re usable, but I never seem to get around to it… buying new things is so much more satisfying. Which is silly. I want to tailor the clothes because I know I already like them, they just need a better length/minor repairs. But it is still somehow more enjoyable to go out and buy new and have endless possible choices than to fix the ones I have.

    Lots of stuff to ponder in this entry, thanks.

    • My husband was shocked that I insisted on darning his socks rather than throwing them away. :)

      However, I have now drawn the line at multiple darnings. I will darn two or three times, but after that, it is time just to get a new pair.

  • Yes, this is feels very true. It’s something I think about fairly often and I find it very frustrating. I often find that I may be ready to buy something I need (or even just want), but it will take me a long time to finally find the quality I am looking for before I am willing to part with my money. I just can’t stand going to the stores and seeing so much stuff that is just so cheap–I don’t care if it’s a bargain at 2 for $20 or what have you.

  • I agree with this wholeheartedly. We have had some unfortunate big purchases go awry, and it so frustrating. Two years ago, our refrigerator died. After researching on Consumer Reports and numerous online reviews, we purchased a $2000 name brand refrigerator. Last week, we had to get a new $500 ice maker part because it broke. So frustrating. This week, we are vacationing at a little cottage on the ocean. It has a stove that I’m guessing is from the ’60’s. Works perfectly.

  • I follow David already, love his posts and his experiments. This is not the first time I have read the factoid regarding the change in marketing tactics post-WWII. You can actually see this when looking at old catalogs, newspapers or other pre-WWII advertisements. As well, I have read and heard things on the stress of TOO many options and decision making. We all know, as students of minimalism, that less stuff means less responsibilities TO that stuff. But there are other, farther reaching benefits as well. Reduced decision making, less time spent replacing, less time spent thinking about what we will buy or fantasizing about some image of ourselves that is not based in reality (e.g., in order to appear athletic I must buy ath-leisure wear and a wardrobe of tennis shoes to look like an athletic), too name a few. As well, such thinking will help us move to a place of less waste and filled landfills. If our buying decision includes a short list of thoughtful questions we can hopefully make better choices. I think this is a “next level” of minimalism consciousness and possibly a consciousness that will help some of us over the hump with our buying reflexes.

  • This is a fantastic article!

    One issue that plagues me is that I personally don’t seem to know quality when I see it. I’ve also discovered that price and quality don’t always seem to correlate. I’ve bought expensive clothes, only to have them wear just as poorly as less expensive clothes.

    The other issue seems to be that no one is making quality products anymore. For example, we found it extremely hard to find a table made entirely of real wood when we last went shopping for one. Lots of wood veneer and very little solid wood. Lack of accessibility is a real challenge.

    • Get to know the feel of fabrics and the quality of them, also cut (how it fits you), touch it, feel it, try it on and move about in it. Most often unless its something tailored to you, designer products are made in the same factories in India, Bangladesh, China etc. as the cheap stuff. There is a city in China that specialises in producing socks for virtually all clothing companies! You are right, price and quality don’t always correlate, very often you are just paying for the name.
      Textiles/fashion is one of the most polluting in the world due to the dyes used and most of the waste is washing into rivers in the producing countries so try to buy well and buy less.
      Quality wooden furniture is most often found second hand, I have two wardrobes and a coffee table that I bought this way, all made of solid wood, some old furniture is veneered but often the veneers are thicker and are covering a cheaper solid wood not just chipboard.

  • Thank you, I loved this! I believe that for many people, when it comes to buying things, it is “the more the merrier”.

    I always love to buy from small distributors, like local farmers or small designers who handmake everything. Most of the times, these things also end up to make me happier than any quick buy I did.

  • I needed this blog. Ìm feeling out of touch with me. So hear I go again to come back to me. This is a continuous struggle but I’m worth it. But I’m tired. I guess I wouldn’t be so tired if I wouldn’t stray so often from what keeps me,me.

  • I had read this post and wanted to think about it before I responded. I had some errands to run shortly after reading it, which was perfect timing. One stop was to purchase a replacement dishwasher. Very long story, but after putting up with a lemon that can’t be fixed we are replacing. While talking to the guy at the appliance store, he said appliances are only designed to last 5-10 years now. It use to be longer. In part it is because everything is electronic and doesn’t last or is way to expensive to repair. He said they had one remaining mechanical washing machine, which was twice the price of the others and should last 10-15 years. He added that while they don’t last, when they work they actually do a better job. Is better cleaning/cooling/cooking the price we pay for short lived machines? Is there a way we can have both?

    I also gave a lot of thought to when to replace things. I had about an 8 year old lunch bag that I use 3-4 times a week (and have for 8 years). Over the years things have leaked and spilled. While I have done my best to keep it clean, at a certain point there was nothing reasonable I could do to get rid of the smell (likely caused by mould between the insulated layer and fabric. After much thought (like 6 weeks of it and many more attempts to get rid of the smell), I decided the current bag needed to be replaced.. Since it is almost back to school, knew the best bags/deals would be found. My husband thinks I spent way too much time going through the bags to find one of good quality that was the right side and had an easy inside to clean. I admit I am excited to try the new bag tomorrow as it will be nice to take my food out of something that isn’t so gross (and getting to be slightly embarrassing at the office!) Let’s hope it is at least another 8 years before I have to buy another bag!

  • Thank you for writing this excellent article. Ours is a society which, for a long time, has chased bottom-dollar in both products and services. People’s relationship with goods (and even services, such as the quality of an airline experience) tend to be ephemeral; people haven’t been taught to buy less but better in generations. We need to recapture and re-implement that ethos. But before that can happen, society at large must become more financially literate and intelligent. Easy credit often makes for easy come, easy go (as in dispose of it and buy another cheap replacement) mentality.

  • The Rolling Stones sang about this a long time ago , I can’t get no satisfaction, and it’s bang on .
    I make most if not everything I need and want because of the feeling it gives me in its worth , things are made to break easily these days and are very faceless styleless or pointless if you take the time to think about what you are buying and the more you take this approach the less you buy .

  • This is a fantastic post, when I was 21 I saved up monthly from my wages until I had enough to buy a really expensive wool coat that I had seen. Luckily, it was still there when I had enough and 25 years later I still have it. I consider myself lucky to have been bought up in secondhand clothes, with no family car and sometimes no tv (it was rental). I treasure my clothes and I buy a few secondhand quality labels rather then lots of cheap crap & I don’t get rid of them lightly, I have an allotment and I love sharing my food extras, when my freezer is full. My friends who know I sew now ask me to replace the zips on their jeans etc.
    I think people need a whole mind set change and start to value having a little rather then having a lot. Being rich is not about how much you have, it is about how good the stuff you have is.
    The cheap credit boom is damaging peoples lives as they buy more and more things and are getting into debt over it, the only thing you take with you when you die is the experiences you had and the memories that you made – which if you have gratitude for small things can be sitting on a hill with a loved one watching the sunset.

  • Oh, this is SO GOOD!!! At this point, consumption is about the hunt and kill rather than the cultivation of meaningful things that make sense and add value. I love this idea and we can’t hear it enough, particularly the point about our self-actualization being a bottomless pit that requires constant feeding.

    But how do we fix this? Yes, being more particular about our purchases is a good start, but while it’s simple in concept, it’s not so in reality.

  • A three-quarter-million-dollar “McMansion” isn’t a Nice Thing. It costs a lot but it’s still cheaply made.

    Those houses are not nice. Why does anyone buy them? Generic, cookie cutter, flimsy materials and construction. Our house was built in 1928 and is made of solid wood, plaster, and brick. I suppose you could pay me to live in a McMansion, but you would have to pay me a lot. I know I am a house snob, but I do think that the people who buy those houses have pretty bad taste and are wasting their money.

  • The poor quality of most American consumer goods became glaringly obvious when I moved to Germany. I went out looking for a $10 box fan like I had at home and was only able to find an $80 steel fan. Almost all the home goods were expensive and really high quality. It was enlightening and your post was a helpful reminder now that I’ve moved back to the USA.

  • While this is great in concept for everyone reading this, it’s not for everyone – only those who are privileged to be able to afford it (like myself admittedly). Let’s take a person who just got laid off and is going back to school to train for a new career. They aren’t going to buy a $63 stapler because with that $63 they could get a stapler, paper, pencils, and a ton of other necessary school supplies. The cheap items are absolutely necessary for many people to afford them. It’s why Walmart is so popular amongst people living paycheck to paycheck – they don’t have the resources to buy quality, they have to get what they can afford. Even if that means having to rebuy again later. Ultimately they will spend more on a particular item over the course of time but each time it was the only option because of their available resources.

    • I agree and have written about this to some extent myself, Derek. I think it’s less important to focus on the specific example of the stapler, though, and look at this from the broader sense which is that many of us buy things a) on impulse without thinking about whether or not we truly need them, and *then* b) at a cheap price simply because it’s available. There is privilege in that, of course, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still talk about it as it’s extremely common in western society. This is part of why the minimalism movement has gotten so popular. For decades, we’ve been marketed to/sold the idea that we should want want want everything simply because it’s affordable. It’s left a lot of people with homes full of stuff they don’t use which is going to end up in the landfills – so it’s been bad for our wallets and our landfills. If we can wait to make better purchases, for each of us as individuals, it helps in more ways than one.

  • Thought provoking post. Coming from a country like India where people are very frugal, I can see how society is different here in the States. However, we Indians are materialistic too. We are gold and land diggers. I am guilty of having too much stuff myself. It used to be like a habit to buy a new t-shirt every time I went out. I have stopped doing that knowing that I have enough to last me a lifetime. As far as quality of goods goes, I recently read an article which discussed how companies figured out that it was more profitable to sell products which would fail after a certain number of cycles instead of making good quality ones which last a long time. This makes business sense but it creates a false economy where you feel deceived by a product which lasts a few months but are happy with something which lasts a couple years (probably some kind of mental bias). There is a lot of money made in the goods industry today by deploying these tactics,

    I have just started on the path to FI and have started to embrace minimalism myself. Very nice blog you have here, hope to see more from you in future.

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