Thursday, August 26, 2010

Back To Frugal School

It's that time of year again, when parents dutifully drag their kids down to the local big box store to load their carts full of school supplies: everything from the screaming pink number 2 pencil with matching fluorescent eraser to day packs adorned with whatever human commodity Disney wants to cram down our throats — every last bit of it made in China, India, Vietnam, or some other capitalism-friendly country that exploits its workers.

We were at the one of our local dollar stores a few days ago and out of curiosity, we decided to check some of the back-to-school merchandise for place of origin. All of it was made overseas, save for one plastic pencil box that was made in the USA. The oddest thing we found were 2 spiral bound notebooks that were identical except for their size. The odd thing about them was that the larger one was made in China and the smaller one in Vietnam! Besides the sad fact that we no longer make such basic goods in our own country, it seemed completely inefficient that these two matching notebooks were made in different countries and then shipped here.

People often ask me why we work so hard not to buy such things, and my answer is "they cost too much". That response invariably raises eyebrows. Then, I concede that the retail price is low, but remind people that there are many unseen costs that contribute to the actual price of these items: the fuel wasted transporting products from abroad; the cost of the loss of domestic jobs, resulting in unemployment, family stress and nation-wide recession; the lack of quality control and oversight that allows many toxic products being imported to the marketplace affecting our health (I could go on). Cheap ain't necessarily cheap!

Luckily, our daughter's eco-conscious charter school provides her school supplies for one low annual fee. The only thing we need to supply is her book bag. For most style-conscious daughters, that means pitching last year's outdated model for a spiffy new 2010 book bag/daypack proudly made in the People's Republic of China — again, finding a product that does not have some sort of advertising for the latest film or pop star emblazoned on it is a challenge.

If you've ever watched The Story of Stuff (if you haven't, you should), you know that there are two forces working overtime to keep us in the habit of pitching our older goods and buying new ones: planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is an intentional component of product design: making things that break after a predetermined period of time so that we are forced to buy replacements. This one is hard to overcome, because durable products are as hard to find as a mom-and-pop hardware store. But we can change our mindset so that we do not succumb to perceived obsolescence: the pre-programmed urge to pitch your out-of-fashion product in favor of that newer, shinier, in-style version of the same product.

Three years ago, my fiancee Beth hand made a book bag for our daughter Rebecca, and then came up with an ingenious way to update the bookbag so that it seems refreshed and stylish for each new school year — and Rebecca is always delighted with the results. This year, Beth took Rebecca shopping for a few fancy buttons and embroidered appliques, and voila: a trendy new look for the school year! My favorite new addition is the "Save The Future" patch.  Our one begrudging concession was that none of these new adornments were made in the USA. For next year's decorations, we have pledged to either find decorations that were made in our own country, or make them ourselves.

That's brings up a subject for another post: how can we change our buying habits so that we restrict our consumption to products made in the USA? It's a tall order, but I believe we must stop buying foreign-made goods in order to reverse our nation's downward spiral into abject poverty.

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