Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dealing with So-Called Durable Goods in our Civilization of Consumption

I waited at home for four hours today for the  Sears' repairman to visit to tell us how much it would cost to fix our 10-year-old oven's door. His answer? More than $400. "That's what the parts cost," he told me. (We're talking a couple of bolts, maybe a new handle. )And by the way, he said, a new Sears oven would cost a little over $500. He showed me a few models in the catalog he carried.

I don't blame this man for the consumer economy. Appliances, he told me, are designed to last a decade. This is why our household currently has a broken dishwasher, washing machine, microwave and oven. And no, we don't have hundreds of dollars sitting around to replace these machines. We haven't relied on credit cards in more than 15 years. So we've been washing dishes by hand, cooking on the stove top and on an electric grill, and trekking weekly to the laundromat in town.

In 1987, Blessed Pope John Paul II gave us great insight into our contemporary culture in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: "This is the so-called civilization of 'consumption' or 'consumerism,' which involves so much “throwing-away” and 'waste.' An object already owned but now superseded by something better is discarded, with no thought of its possible lasting value in itself, nor of some other human being who is poorer."

I understand my family's middle-class problems are just that: the struggles of a two-wage home-owning family with two professional parents and only two children. But I'm frustrated. I don't know how to fix the oven door. Neither does my husband.

It has bugged me for years that the U.S. economy's health is overwhelmingly based on buying, including so-called durable goods, such as appliances. Whatever happened to the Sears repairman fixing something at a reasonable price instead of rigging the system so I am tempted buy a $90 warranty on the oven in addition to being charged $85 for the "service call" to be told it would cost hundreds to fix the door? God bless the man: he canceled the cost of the visit when it became clear we can't afford to repair or replace the oven through Sears.

In 1993, when I was a business reporter in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I had a meeting with executives from Hanes, all men. They were hosting a charity event and wanted publicity. We chatted about their event. Then I realized that sitting before me was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hey guys, I asked them, you can make pantyhose that doesn't run. You know how to do that, right? But you want to keep women buying pantyhose? Am I right? They smiled.

This is why when I go to ask my handy next-door neighbor how to fix the oven door, (including possibly ordering parts from or, ) I won't be wearing  pantyhose.


  1. We had an entire bible study on how we have become a disposable appliance generation...not a topic I would have chosen myself but it is true.
    boy do I hate waiting for repair men to come and then when they do its awkward!

  2. I didn't realize the pope wrote a document on what's the alternative? It seems like we are in a vicious cycle that we can't get out of with the economy being dependent on consumable goods.

    BTW: Our printer just went out and I've been searching for one that will last longer and not use so much ink- but the catch is you pay three times more for these- so that's another vicious cycle. buy cheap, replace, buy cheap again, replace again.

  3. @Sarah: JP2 wrote about this a lot, and B16 has written a lot too about materialism, consumerism etc. I think the point is the more we in the west spend on luxuries, the less money is available to give to the poor in our own neighborhoods, much less in other parts of the world. I guess for "what I can do" is to understand that so much of what we see are necessities are luxuries, including our washing machines, our printers, our cars etc. etc. and not freak out if I have to do without for a while. I frankly think there is spiritual value in conserving old things, not just tossing away. To that end, I am now bartering with a neighbor friend - he will help us order parts for the oven door and I will do some pr work for his nonprofit - gratis. We are "in the world but not of it," right? Not to let our desires be reduced to the common mentality that more is more.

  4. p.s. Our printer died about a year ago. They seem designed to be broken. So frustrating.