An antidote to Black Friday: Things that last

Black Friday shoppers
Black Friday shoppers

Ah yes, ’tis the happiest time of year, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas when people buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to create impressions that won’t last, on people they don’t care about. So said Clive Hamilton, the Australian environmentalist and writer. Or Tim Jackson, a British ecological economist. Or personal finance guru Dave Ramsey. Or Will Smith.

And yet: people will mob Walmart and Best Buy and Kmart and Toys ‘R Us and Target and the malls this week — the Kmart sale starts at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day — and spend somewhere around $600 billion on holiday shopping by the end of the year. As I write this on Tuesday at midday, some shoppers are camping in the snow to be first in line when a Best Buy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, opens at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

As an antidote to the holiday-shopping madness, I devoted this week’s column in the Guardian Sustainable Business to things that last. I was inspired by a lovely essay by environmentalist Bob Massie that I saw in the Patagonia holiday catalog, and decided to ask a group of people who are committed to the idea of sustainability to tell me about one of their long-lasting possessions. I heard back from Paul Hawken, Elizabeth Kolbert, Barton Seaver, Hunter Lovins, Erik Assadourian, Kellie McElhaney, Andy Ruben, Annie Longsworth and Carsten Henningsen.

Here’s how the column begins:

When I got the winter Patagonia catalog in the mail, I was delighted to read an essay by Bob Massie called The Parable of the Iron Pan. Massie, an ordained minister, longtime environmentalist and president of the New Economics Institute writes about a 12-inch cast iron frying pan that he bought for $2 years ago at an estate sale. He reckons that the pan was 90 years old then, and that he has cooked with it for another 35 years. Today, he writes, it is half as old as the United States.

Bob goes on to say: “We must reject the ugly image that we are primarily consumers, a kind of warm-blooded locust whose purpose is to chew through the planet. We must lighten the pressure on the world and on ourselves. We must conserve what we love and build what will last.”

What wise and timely advice, with the holiday shopping madness almost upon us. If we are going to give gifts (or ask for them), we would do well to think about gifts that last. With that in mind, I asked some people in the world of sustainability to tell me about a treasured long-lasting gift or possession.

A reader asked me about my own favorite long-lasting possession. I’d have to say that it is a Harris Tweed sport coat that I bought at a Lord and Taylor’s in Hartford, Connecticut, sometime in the early 1980s. More than three decades later, it as good as new. Here’s the jacket, and below it is the pullover of similar vintage that Paul Hawken wrote about.

Harris Tweed



  1. says

    There may be much promise for a favorite long-lasting possession in a wooden giraffe. My Mom talked about going on safari in Africa for many, many years. For her 85th birthday she experienced for the first time Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. Disney crass commercialism hit me like a blast furnace, both hands raised to protect from an onslaught of epic proportions. We were relieved to find in Epcot an oasis, an African outpost consisting of a man sitting a chair carving mahogany wood. Each hand carving was worthy of much examination by Mom, some more graceful in curve and form than others, before she selected the best pair of the smallest giraffes, and then a larger painted one. We started to leave the Outpost, happy with our micro-menagerie when Mom remembered she had Christmas shopping to do and more hand-carved four/five inch high animals to purchase. I believe that these wooden animals are gifts that will last longer and receive more attention than will any other toys in the entire Disney Empire. These animals permit more open ended play because each is uniquely hand-made and sufficiently fragile to be treated with care.

  2. says

    I’m so glad you got to this, Marc. Thanks for starting a good conversation.

    I find there is surprisingly little turnover of clothes in my closet since I stopped drying them in a clothes dryer. Hanging them to dry is much gentler on them, so it is a two-fer in lightening my load on the planet.

    One of my most prized and old possessions is a long, oak table with an intricate parquet-style inlaid top. I bought it used back in 1987 from Joe Camp, who had used it as a desk when he wrote his first movie, Benji. I’m not sure how he acquired it. But it came from an era when furniture was built to last hundreds of years. The table is on loan to my mom at present, but she knows I will want it back when and if she no longer has space for it.

    Thought you’d like to know I’m offering “consumers” an opportunity to stay home on the big shopping days of Black Friday and Saturday, and reclaim their humanity. I’m having two free worldwide screenings of my documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. I’ll be available for an online chat during and after both screenings. People (not consumers) can find event times and register for the free events here:

  3. says

    Thank you for your column, and your invitation to think about the things that last. I have two afghans that were knitted by a great great aunt over one hundred years ago. She used many colors of brightly dyed medium fine wool in a zig zag striped pattern. Those blankets are very heavy and warm, and have not one worn spot, tear, or unraveled place in them. Indeed, they look like new. They have kept us warm during many cold nights here in northern Minnesota. I will be passing them down to my own children.

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