After the long weeks of being snowbound and avoiding any driving not strictly and absolutely necessary, I made a semi-frivolous shopping excursion this past Sunday. I needed to get a few things from Home Depot, and wanted to start my seed buying; I also needed to stop by Target for a few household essentials.
Home Depot is always an absurd experience. I'm mesmerized by the enormous number of items stocked there that I absolutely cannot identify. I have NO idea what most of that stuff is for. I often suspect that, even if its use was revealed to me, I'd still be in the dark about how it fits into the larger picture of any particular system (ie, plumbing, electrical, etc).
I looked at lighting for my bathroom, which has old, mismatched wall sconces. I like wall sconces, so I looked at the meager selection. And in looking, realized - every Home Depot in America probably has exactly the same stock. All across the country, people are choosing from the same six styles. There are almost certainly literally millions of bathrooms with the same sconces that I liked.
This is depressing.
Wikipedia informs me that Home Depot operates over 2,000 stores across North America, and - terrifyingly - China.
I got my seeds and my molding trim and the few other items I needed, and zipped off to Target.
And got depressed again.
This has been happening more and more often lately; I go to stores (and they're all inevitably big-box-style stores; what other choices do I have?), and all I can see is the excessive stock of cheap crap made in China.
I look at the plastic dishes, the notebooks, the knickknacks, the patterned socks, the printed t-shirts, the tea-towels, the candles, the toys - and I almost literally don't see them; I see factories, industrial wastelands in China staffed by poor women and children and men who feel confused, scornful or envious of the products they're manufacturing. And who, more than likely, couldn't afford to buy the $1 picture frame they're making.
Everything is made in China now. It's a challenge to find things that aren't, and when I do, they seem to be made in India, Indonesia, maybe Thailand or Vietnam or Bangladesh, or sketchily administered colonial outpost islands in the Pacific. I may just be cynical, but I have very, very little faith in the quality of working conditions and wages in these places.
And it's because we're cheap. We are one stingy country. We want everything for the lowest price possible, except when it's Coach handbags or Louboutin shoes. but all that avalanche of cheaply-produced, cheaply-sold, cheapery - we love it.
I realized this winter how hard it is to find anything that's made out of a sturdy, lasting, quality material. I've taken up embroidery as a sort of pastime, and when I go to buy my embroidery floss, it's all synthetic. Polyester, or poly blends. But the embroidery I have that my grandmother did (or purchased) was done with silk floss. I can tell - it's obviously a finer material than the thread I'm buying. But there's no other choice at Michael's or Joann's - there may be a few skeins of silk or silk-blend specialty threads, but in the main, if I want a basic rainbow palette, I'm buying synthetic. Clothes are the same; I'm not at all affluent, scrimping on my student budget, so I can't afford to shop in any nice stores. But even when I do go in, the dress trousers are almost always blends. Wool blend if you're lucky; all-synthetic most of the time. In the nineteenth-century novels I read, women are always rustling around in silk or taffeta dresses, or wearing satin - I have no idea what these materials felt like. The satins and silks I've come across are all - yep - poly blends. I think I've encountered a few 100% silk ties, but never a full dress.
My house is outfitted with a lot of IKEA furniture, especially in the genre of bookcases. I have nine bookcases currently in use, and six of those are from IKEA. They're all made of composite woods with real-wood "veneers." They're made of fakery.
There didn't use to be a choice like this. Everything was real. Many people couldn't afford the finer real things, but even the poor had real wood and real cotton and real wool and real metals in their hovels. There was variation. One single catalogue - just one! - for a furniture manufacturer in Victorian London listed over 7,000 - that's seven thousand - different bedsteads on offer. All different. IKEA has - what? - a dozen? Maybe 20, at the very most? And those 7,000 bedsteads were being produced in the industrial age - there was mechanization, there was mass production, there was piecework. It wasn't just one skilled carpenter handcrafting an entire bedstead.
Now, if you want to find real, nonsynthetics, you have to hunt and you have to pay a LOT. I'll be using IKEA veneer furniture for many years to come, unless someone leaves me a substantial legacy or I manage to marry money (what a quaint Victorian idea!). Or, I suppose, unless I learn to build things for myself, out of real woods. But who knows how to do that kind of work anymore? There are hobbyist woodworkers in the dozens, but I don't think any of them are really up to the task of replicating Victorian desks or bedsteads.
It all comes down to quantity and quality - we have floods, absolute floods - of cheap and cheaply made stuff out there, ready for our impulsive debit cards to buy. I'm not quite the minimalist I'd like to be; I'm not Thoreau, exhorting us all to "Simplify!" I like things, I love stuff. But I'm coming to know, more and more, that the things I like and love are the things that are well-made. The things that are sturdy, that are made of natural materials and not synthetic substitutes. The things that are not the same across thousands and thousands of houses. The things that were made by skilled workers who received some kind of living wage for their work.
This spring, I will try my best to dispose of my disposable income in a more responsible way. Instead of squandering my hard-earned minimum wage on cheap crap from China, I will try to save my pennies and buy plants instead, perennials that I covet like foxglove and delphinium and oriental poppies. I'll try to find silk thread and clothing made at least of 100% cotton, if not of satin or silk or wool. I will try - and more than likely fail - to purchase items made in the US, or in countries that I know maintain some kind of decent standard for working conditions, wages, and environmental impact. I will pay a little bit more, but I will do it happily. And I will try to save more of those hard-earned pennies so that I can buy antiques - not because they're Valuable Old Antiquities, but because they're real.