I tend to be a crunchy-granola handmade-everything kind of person. I make much of my own clothing, and that of my children - the rest mostly is resale. My husband and I make toys for our kids, and other things in general. We also try to buy handmade whenever we do buy. Even so, having kids, we have also found that we have plastic things - a lot of plastic things. Many of the plastic things came from other people - well meaning family members and friends. But to be honest, most of these things are ones that we have bought: toy cars, action figures, squeaky bath toys, play phones, pirate play sets, baby toys, Playmobil, Lego (3 different sizes); all of these were acquired bit by bit without much thought. Some are new, some have been used by both our kids, some were my brothers'. Some are sturdy, well-made, well-designed, and played with often: the Playmobil, a tea set made from heavy-duty recycled milk jug plastic, the Lego.
Truthfully, most of the plastic stuff we have doesn't really get played with at all; it just sits and takes up space. What I find most often is that my children play with stuffed toys, wood trains, wood cooking toys, crocheted balls, wood pull-toys, knitted worms, and those few good plastic things. But I have noticed that when the other plastic toys get pulled out, that's all that happens - they get pulled out. They might be pulled out and played with for a few minutes, but mostly they get looked at and then put down.
Now, don't get me wrong; I am not advocating a Luddite banishment of all things plastic. Heck, even the wheel of my spinning wheel is a heavy duty plastic. But as I watch my kids and other children play, I begin to think about cheap things and their impact in our lives. It is cheap and easy these days to get all sorts of things besides toys. We have cheap furniture, cheap clothing, cheap food. For those of us who cook, we have cheap cooking supplies and utensils. For those of us who craft, we have cheap fabrics and yarns, cheap craft tools, cheap notions. For those of us who have a low income, or are experiencing unemployment in the current economy, these things seem to mean the difference between having and not having at all.
I use the word "seem" for a reason. There are ethical reasons for not to buy cheap things: many are sweatshop made or made in factories with few safety standards. There are environmental reasons not to buy cheap things: they are transported from across the globe and are re-transported in our own country so they don't exactly have a small carbon footprint.Mind you, the same can be said of better-quality, higher priced items. There are health reasons for not buying cheap things: the materials with which they are made often don't meet health and safety standards. Who needs estrogen-mimicers in plastic toys or toxic dioxin gassing out of bath toys?
We can have our fill of cheap fast food and prepackaged foods. But we don't relish what we eat or the experience of making it. Honestly, it is faster to make some homemade food than to wait for take-out or delivery. For the rest, why not value the time spent in the making as well as in the eating? And there is the hidden economy in prepackaged or take-out food: eventually our health suffers. There is no possible way to see diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure as being cheap.
This past winter, my husband and I made all of the gifts for everyone we had on our holiday list. Mind you, with my husband unemployed since the previous January, and housequeen not being a paid position, we had very little money to spend. Having children, and quite a few family members, we decided to spend a little on materials, use some materials we had, and make stuff that people would actually use/wear/play with. So far, everything is still in use and seems to have turned out well. This year we will be doing the same thing but with a longer lead time. Starting everything at the beginning of November meant that we were making things right up to the day that they were given. Some things were a day or two late (come to think of it, Matt still hasn't given me the strand keeper or Wraps-per-inch tool for my spinning wheel, which were supposed to be my birthday and solstice gifts, respectively. Hmmm...) Nobody got tons of stuff, but they really enjoyed and appreciated what they did get.
Having more and cheaper stuff cheapens our experiences as human beings. We surround ourselves with cheap, often disposable belongings and rob ourselves of quality of life. We see our belongings, our surroundings, our meals, our time, and ultimately ourselves as transient and disposable. The question is whether we really need all this stuff in the first place. Two generations ago, we cared for, about and kept what we had far more than today. We had to. Planned obsolescence was non-existent. Even though my generation was one of the first to have mass market toys very readily available, we weren't spoon-fed the idea that just because something was a year old (or indeed 2 months old, these days) it no longer was of any value. People cared about and for their belongings and repaired whatever they could. Things had an intrinsic usefulness, beauty or purpose - an intrinsic value separate from their material value. Growing up, I didn't have much, but I loved, cared for, and repaired what I had, so much that my kids can care for and play with many of those things now.
Initially, you could see the problem as a question of access; some are only able to afford cheap, big box store items. But that is really not true. It is not more economical to buy 20 shirts every year because they fall apart in the wash after being worn 4 or 5 times. Nor is it more economical to buy a $20 plastic fashion doll, only to have it break after a week of play. This is more than an economy of use: spend $10 more and have something that could last 10-20 years. Double the initial cost and you might have something that could be passed down to another generation after years of love and play. Spend a few more dollars on a good set of stainless steel pans that last a lifetime and not have to replace teflon-coated aluminum once or twice a year.
Just to make myself understood: I am not advocating that we all dump our stuff and go out and buy a bunch of the most expensive stuff we can find. Just because something is expensive and has a designer label slapped on it does not mean that it is of good quality. Many high-end label items are made in the same factories, using the same workmanship, same equipment, maybe slightly better materials. What I mean that we should try to do is this: use the things we already have until they reach the end of their utility. Re-purpose what we can and save to buy better replacements - the best we can so that we can use and enjoy them for longer. Why not find out who makes stuff in your area and where to get it? Why not find out who is making unique handmade on the internet? Better yet, spend that amount on materials you need to make toys, clothes, and food yourself. Spend a few more dollars on good fabric, yarn, and craft materials to make stuff that will be enjoyed far more. You will enrich your life in the making as well as in the use. You may not have as much, but you will use, enjoy, and appreciate what you do have much more.
Here's what we are doing: sorting all our belongings into a few groups - stuff that's to keep and enjoy, stuff that we will re-purpose ourselves, stuff to re-sell, and stuff to give away. This year's big project!
But first, to get the summer clothes for the children made.