How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet


This blog post was guest written by Sandra Goldmark. Sandra Goldmark is a designer, teacher, and entrepreneur whose work focuses on circular economy solutions to overconsumption and climate change. She is an Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Theatre and Director of Sustainability and Climate Action at Barnard College, and the author of Fixation: How to Have Stuff without Breaking the Planet. 

Use the code FIXIT for 20% off Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet via Island Press Books 

In 2013, I was home on maternity leave when my toaster broke. And my lamp, my backpack, my vacuum. The vacuum manufacturer suggested I drive to Hackensack to get it serviced. (I live in New York). I looked at the newborn, the toddler, and the vacuum - and laughed. There was no way I was going to drive to Hackensack with two children to get a vacuum fixed. Tripping over the clutter and legos and baby gear, I thought: Why am I drowning in stuff? Why can’t I get this toaster fixed rather than buy a new one? Who made this vacuum in the first place, and how much were they paid? And what happens when I have to toss it?

Those broken items led to a seven-year journey exploring our relationship with our stuff. With several of my colleagues from the backstage world of theatre, I spent seven years running pop up repair shops in New York City. We fixed all kinds of things, from lamps and chairs and necklaces to stuffed lobsters and a chi revitalizer. All of these broken objects – and their owners – taught me about our habits surrounding stuff, and some easy steps we can take to reduce our impact, and start caring for what we have. 

In rethinking stuff, I borrowed a page from the food movement. After all, stuff is just like food. It comes from the earth, we transform it with our labor, and we bring it into our homes (or our bodies). It affects our health, our happiness, and our planet. But we have built a system that floods our homes with cheap “stuff calories” that we don’t really need or want. In Fixation, the story of my repair shops and a call to action for a new “stuff movement,” I lay out five basic steps (adapted from Michael Pollans’ food wisdom): Have good stuff, not too much, mostly reclaimed. Care for it. Pass it on. 

“Have good stuff.” When you buy something new, make sure that it is sustainably and ethically produced, made of good materials, durable, and repairable. Purchases of new goods might need be pricier – a rare treat.

“Not too much.” It’s hard to feel good about your stuff if you are drowning in it. So, think twice before buying, don’t buy anything you don’t really need, and definitely don’t buy anything that you don’t have space for in your home!

“Mostly reclaimed.” We can all turn up the dial on how much reclaimed stuff we buy. Purchasing used goods is one of the simplest, most impactful things you can do to reduce your “stuff” footprint. If you already enjoy buying used clothes, for example, consider upping the percentage you buy, or expanding to a new category, like trying to find used housewares before even considering a new purchase.

“Care for it.” Once you do own something, invest in caring for it. That includes cleaning, repair, maintenance. Repair creates local jobs, and keeps an item in use for longer.

“Pass it on.” Once you are done with something, make sure it finds its way into someone else’s hands, or if not, ideally into a recycling or remanufacturing loop. This step can be tricky, and time consuming. But as more and more people follow step 3 and buy used, we’ll be able to build the systems to make passing it on much easier. (Remember, donating alone is not enough – we ALL have to buy used to close the loop).

All of these individual steps can and must be supported: by smart policies, and by smart businesses that realize that the old patterns of consumption don’t work anymore. Because it is possible – even easy – to take simple steps towards a more sustainable, equitable, and even joyful relationship with stuff. And to build an economy that includes reuse, repair – care. For me seven years ago, a few broken objects started me down a healthier road. Today, in the context of COVID and accelerating climate change, it is even more clear that it’s time to care for what we have – and I don’t just mean toasters.