by NIna Guo
Written for Liberal Arts Freshman Seminar: Consumption & Waste (LARTS 221, Fall 2011)
My storage box sits in my closet, a home for tired clothes. It makes the musty wooden structure feel like a controlled universe of organization. Though the closet is as impersonal as its home, the dorm room, the box gives the illusion of uniqueness by customizing the space. However, the inexpensive price tag and tacky, mass-produced plastic body prevent the box from being a style statement; the box is stripped down to pure functionality and devoid of any flair. My clothes peep through the box’s transparent face, protected from dust and previous residents’ remaining germs. The simple, four-tier design and neutral white plastic coloring draw no more attention than necessary and ensure it fits into my room’s bland color scheme, a beige affair common in millions of middle- and lower-class living spaces. Product designers worked many hours to give the box this seamless integration so millions of customers get exactly what they need. The designers conceal the “Made in China” label so the box’s owners can purchase without guilt; likewise, there is little remorse associated with throwing it away. Once the box’s life in the closet is over, it may travel to a new series of homes, but, eventually, someone may find it wholly useless, and the box will finally rest in a trash dump. Though the box doesn’t know it, the legendary American Dream and its corresponding class system author its death sentence; this national fantasy encourages the consumer to devalue mass-produced items associated with transience and low class. In an effort to scrabble to the top of the class ladder and achieve validation through economic stability, consumers move through multiple stages of transience, as exemplified by constant furniture replacement. The ability to throw items away reassures the troubled subconscious that a better—meaning more individualized, permanent, and aesthetically valuable—life can follow as soon as this one gets tossed.
While the storage box may seem like a harmless piece of furniture, it becomes an incriminating class indicator once compared with other pieces of “real” furniture, such as refurbished card catalogue drawers—the latest trend—or custom-made closets—a staple feature of comfortable suburban homes. Though all three storage units serve the same function, they imply different socio-economic statuses. An online merchant (Amazon.com) describes the box (referred to as “drawers”) in a short blurb, briefly stating, “Storage drawers feature a large viewing window for easy identification of contents, and a generous handle for easy gripping. Ideal for a variety of uses.” It appeals to the consumer by emphasizing the box’s ergonomic features through the use of simple adjectives such as “large,” “easy,” and “generous.” The repetition of “easy” suggests the box’s consumer demographic has little time and needs fast organizational solutions. The description also assumes the box’s future owners will move frequently, since it boasts the box’s “generous handle for easy gripping.” Only people who constantly transport the box would care about the handles’ comfort. Additionally, the description stresses how “large” many of the box’s features are, probably to appeal to the consumer (or American) mentality of bigger as better. The advertisement loses creativity by the second sentence, however. Not even bothering to include a specific subject, the blurb vaguely expresses the box is “ideal for a variety of uses.” The lack of details reveals the box appeals to a large consumer group because of its simple functionality. The box’s unadorned practicality and low price reveal that its owners do not have the financial stability for more luxurious furniture. It can be used for anything, transported anywhere; it is a mass-produced item produced for the masses.
In contrast, the makers of refurbished card catalogue drawers and custom-made closets try to draw in buyers from smaller, more elite consumer demographics by marketing their products as one-of-a-kind and aesthetically pleasing. The prices alone differentiate the box ($17.28), the refurbished drawers ($50), and the custom closets (varying prices, all upwards of $100). The latter two pieces of furniture require buyers who have the financial means to spend in a much higher range for a product that provides the same service. Unlike the storage box, however, the refurbished drawers and custom closets elicit pride from owning something unique; a person’s individuality can be reflected in and validated by the rarity of the things s/he owns. The “vintage refurbished card catalog drawers,” sold by an individual merchant on the online marketplace Etsy, first tug at a buyer’s nostalgia with descriptions such as, “Heavy duty steel makes you realize they just don’t make things like they used to.” Unlike the storage box, the refurbished drawer description speaks directly to the individual with the use of “you;” the appeal insinuates the drawers’ purchaser is separate from the masses. Only someone outside the cookie-cutter mold of plastic box society could appreciate the drawers’ retro style. The seller takes full advantage of “vintage” items’ growing popularity in interior design by mentioning the drawers’ age and utilizing a familiar reminiscence of the past. Because the drawers are “vintage” and no longer manufactured, they are inherently special in a market of mass-produced items like the storage box.
Similarly, custom closets use individuality to entice buyers. Closets to Go manufactures “closet systems…with top quality materials for durability, with closet hardware and custom colors covering a broad range of styles” and “closet solutions…including walk in closets, garage organizers, home office closet systems, kid’s closets, pantry organizers, wall beds, and more . . .” The Closets to Go “styles” all require large homes, more likely to have the space for “walk in closets,” “home office closet systems,” or “ pantry organizers” than an apartment, and therefore indicate class. Additionally, the varied diction of “closet systems” and “closet solutions” suggests Closets to Go provides more than just customized shelving; they give new life to closet space. Buyers tailor the closets, so no two are exactly the same, like the buyers themselves, again appealing to the American value of individualism. Though the storage box would work just as well to arrange a space, it has no claim to being one-of-a-kind.
Despite the custom closets’ and refurbished drawers’ aesthetic appeals and social implications, the storage box is inevitably more popular and financially lucrative. Its low price probably generates the most sales, but Jonah Zuckerman attributes this phenomenon to a public loss of appreciation for craft in his article “A Country of Craft Dodgers: We’ve Lost Our Appreciation for the Fine Art of Craft.” While he makes some valid points in defense of the artistic craft community, his article justifies an elitist consumer attitude. He begins his essay by introducing himself as “a furniture maker who was extensively trained as an architect.” Zuckerman’s credentials reassure the reader of his credibility but also elevate him above his audience; he bestows his knowledge upon the ignorant. His pretentious tone culminates in the generalization, “Our rapidly building and consuming society is mostly incapable of recognizing or valuing when something is exceptionally well-made with exceptional materials.” Zuckerman’s disdainful opinion of the general public shows the divide between socio-economic classes as exemplified by furniture. Unless one buys “exceptional” furniture, then one must be “incapable” of recognizing good taste. Zuckerman presumes all consumers have the financial means to purchase “exceptional[ly] well-made” furnishings, revealing that his consideration of less expensive furniture is unfair and invalid. By treating expensive furniture as art and, subsequently, mass-produced furniture as trash, an unnecessary throwaway culture develops.
Critics who ignore the implications of social class are not entirely to blame for unwarranted furniture disposal. The American Dream is the root of the consumer’s search for stability and permanence, which in turn creates an excessive throwaway culture. As idealized by movies and other media, the ultimate goal of an American should be to own a home, the ultimate symbol of stability. Of course, this image is complete only with tasteful, good quality furniture. In an essay comparing the television show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and nineteenth-century domesticity treatises, Kristin Jacobson notices the American Dream’s effect on the cultural definition of “home.” She writes, “The collective experience of watching Extreme Makeover teaches viewers what the model home looks like . . . the achievement of the American Dream remains tied to conservative, middle-class whiteness.” Extreme Makeover gives destitute families stability through a new, standardized, well-furnished home, suggesting objects define degrees of permanence. Americans are not happy with using a storage box, even though it is perfectly effective; instead, climbing the social ladder means pursuing the custom closets featured on Extreme Makeover. Home is no longer where the heart is; home is where the self feels validated by its furnishings. The American Dream dictates that a person will occupy and move out of different living spaces such as dorm rooms, apartments, and townhouses before owning the large house. Even though the hard plastic of the storage box is just as long lasting as metal or wood, consumers view plastic as cheap. In Waste and Want, Susan Strasser criticizes consumer culture practices: “Many of these [products] are designed to be used briefly and then discarded; many are made of plastics and other materials not easily reused, repaired, or returned to nature” (16). While the plastic storage box cannot be easily repaired, it is designed to be durable and reusable. Hypothetically, the storage box can fulfill its purpose forever, but it will inevitably become a victim of the American Dream. Abandoning the storage box symbolically shows the owners have moved on to bigger and better lifestyles.
Bigger is not always better, according to contemporary environmental movements. Despite criticism of throwaway culture’s unsustainability, Americans will not relinquish the dream’s familiar cycle, its beautiful fantasy blinding Americans to its realistic repercussions. According to the 2010 U.S. Municipal Waste Generation Facts and Figures sheet, 12% of the total waste generated was plastic, like the storage box. Major cities all over the country face cost and logistical issues surrounding landfill capacity (Strasser, 291-292). However, no statistics can weaken the pull of the American Dream; people continue to throw away millions of storage boxes unnecessarily. The cultural practice of waste can be explained by Burch’s definition of the “familiarity hypothesis” which “assumes that persons have worked out a comfortable routine for social survival and that the rewards of security outweigh any possible rewards bought by the high costs of uncertainty.” Americans follow the “comfortable routine” of climbing the furniture class ladder rather than being satisfied with functionality. Throwaway culture becomes normalized by the predictability of constant change. Consumers cannot see the “possible rewards” of causing less environmental damage when the “rewards of security” through the acquisition of a home are so much more instantaneously gratifying.
Every day, more and more storage boxes and other throwaway items signifying transience pile up in landfills. Tons of packaging and “disposable” (but reusable) furniture litter the path to attaining a stable “home.” The American Dream’s predictability may be comfortable, but it is not sustainable. Therefore, in order to have a world worth living in in the future, we must redefine “home.” Home needs to return to where the heart is, whether that is an apartment, a tent, or an elegant Victorian mansion. Rather than confining our standards to fancy furniture and permanence, we should embrace all kinds of homes and accept transience. In doing so, we can try to break the vicious cycle of the American Dream and reduce the waste it drags along. Also, re-thinking the concept of “home” allows for more introspection and self-discovery than a model of stability. Instead of living to attain a nice kitchen and white picket fence, people can find their own definition of home. The first step to reconsidering “home” is to keep the storage box. Regardless of trends and expectations, keep the box. It doesn’t define a home or a self; it just helps organize things.
Burch Jr., William R. “The Social Circles of Leisure: Competing Explanations.” Journal of Leisure Research 41.3 (2009). Web.
“Closets to Go.” Dec. 2011. Web. <http://www.closetstogo.com/>.
Jacobson, Kristin. “Renovating The American Woman’s Home: American domesticity in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 25.1 (2008): 105-127. Print.
“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2010.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2010. Web. <http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw_2010_factsheet.pdf>.
“Sterilite Corp. 17918004 ClearView 3-Drawer Organizer.” Amazon.com. Dec. 2011. Web. <http://www.amazon.com/Sterilite-17918004-ClearView-3-Drawer-Organizer/dp/B001…
Strasser, Susan. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Metropolitan, 1999.
“Vintage Refurbished Card Catalog Drawers.” Etsy.com. Dec. 2011. Web. <http://www.etsy.com/listing/85628226/vintage-refurbished-card-catalog-drawers…
Zuckerman, Jonah. “A Country of Craft Dodgers: We’ve Lost Our Appreciation for the Fine Art of Craft.” Residential Architect (2006). Web.