Whatever happened to hand-me-downs?
How consumption became a way of life
My family moved to Ontario from Vancouver, where we all were born, after the Second World War.
We were destitute. (As Canadians of Japanese descent, we had been treated as enemy aliens and lost everything, including all rights as Canadian citizens.)
I needed a coat for the cold eastern winter, so my parents purchased a new one — a big expense for farm labourers.
Unfortunately, I was 11 and going through a growth spurt and quickly outgrew the coat, so it was passed on to my twin sister, Marcia.
She wore it for longer but also outgrew it and gave it to our younger sister, Aiko.
My parents boasted that the coat was so well made: “It went through three children.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard durability touted as a positive attribute of a product.
In today’s fashion-obsessed world, how many children would accept hand-me-downs from siblings?
How did “throw away,” “disposable” and “planned obsolescence” become part of product design and marketing? It was deliberate. Wars are effective at getting economies moving, and the Second World War pulled America out of the Great Depression.
By 1945, economy was blazing as victory approached.
But how can a war-based economy continue in peacetime?
One way is to continue hostilities or their threat. The global costs of armaments and defence still dwarf spending for health care and education.
Another way to transform a wartime economy to a peacetime economy is consumption.
Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote in 1776: “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.”
Seized upon by the Council of Economic Advisers to the President under Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, consumption was promoted as the engine of the economy.
Retailing analyst Victor Lebow famously proclaimed in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”
Now, we are no longer defined by our societal roles (parents, churchgoers, teachers, doctors, plumbers, etc.) or political status (voters), but as “customers,” “shoppers” or “consumers.” David Suzuki is the host of the CBC’s The Nature of Things and author of more than 30 books on ecology.