I woke up thinking about that old armchair again. With everything that’s going on, you’d think I could let it go, but it haunts me. It came with the house 23 years ago, was probably new …
I woke up thinking about that old armchair again. With everything that’s going on, you’d think I could let it go, but it haunts me. It came with the house 23 years ago, was probably new in the 1920s and was upholstered in murky raised velvet that had once been maroon but had aged to a rusty brown. In the energetic spirit of make-do, I stripped away the upholstery fabric, recovered the padding with muslin and made a series of slipcovers that kept the piece going for another 20 years. When the seat springs ruptured last summer, I bought a book on chair repair but ultimately had to face the fact that I’d reached the limits of my DIY enthusiasm for this particular item. It had always been too big for our diminutive rooms; now, thoroughly, broken down, it was not even suitable to give away. I still feel guilty about adding such a large item to the waste stream. But it was also very liberating to reclaim the space it had consumed and to replace it with another hand-me-down of more appropriate style and dimensions (and more recent vintage) “shopped” from my own home.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had the urge to clean house, rearrange and pare down my belongings in times of stress. Especially now, when we are all spending so much more time at home during this period of social distancing, I suspect many of us are looking at our surroundings with new eyes, wanting to reorganize, refurbish and declutter. These efforts would be therapeutic in the best of times, but now they offer even deeper benefits: the sense of exerting control over our lives, a gesture of hopefulness and the possibility of new beginnings.
I know I am not alone because the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation made an unusual request in its May 28 issue of the Solid Waste & Recycling newsletter. “Curb your spring cleaning enthusiasm,” urged the headline. The article asked residents to pursue their clean-up projects in stages to avoid overwhelming collection services, transfer stations and recycling containers. With many antique shops, thrift stores and charity shops closed due to the pandemic, the usual avenues for donation or resale are not available.
One corollary to this clean-up trend is the desire to reduce waste. In an article for VOX news, entitled “The Novel Frugality," writer Meredith Haggerty explores this trend, citing COVID-19 inspired attention to recycling and reusing everyday items that might have been discarded after a single use. Research reveals that frugality can be an intrinsic personality trait for some; for others, it’s a practice dictated by hard necessity. I’ve practiced frugality both as a necessity and as a lifestyle choice. Haggerty suggests that many people discovering their inner thriftiness during the pandemic are motivated by a third, more community-minded phenomenon: a new consciousness of the way the supply chain functions, and concerns about their potential exposure to COVID-19 when venturing out to shop and for the workers who produce and deliver the goods they purchase.
Another important corollary is the desire to refrain from accumulating unnecessary new stuff, a trend that is also taking hold—at least in the short term. In a BuzzFeed story, entitled “I Don’t Feel Like Buying Stuff Anymore," author Anne Helen Petersen traces the history of American consumerism and the effect the pandemic is having on our purchasing habits. Her thesis is this: In past emergencies like the Great Depression, 9/11 and the Great Recession, Americans have been urged to spend money as a patriotic duty, and this high-pressure glorification of consumerism has led to alarming levels of consumer debt. The COVID-19 emergency may break that pattern. Since February, consumer debt has dropped, and the savings rate is the highest since 1981. People are buying less, and what they are buying is food, health products, home improvement and craft supplies, gardening tools and exercise equipment. “Shopping still creates a momentary feeling of control—something all of us are lacking right now,” Petersen writes. “But so, too, does making something, growing something, mastering something, or weeding something.” The people she interviewed for her story emphasized buying local to support unique community-based businesses, choosing socially and environmentally-responsible companies, seeking opportunities to learn new skills and a new awareness of income inequality as guiding sentiments of their new, more thoughtful purchasing habits.
Whether or not we continue to act on these sensibilities after the immediate emergency passes remains to be seen. I like to think we will find a balance—a frugality that is not joyless and austere, and patterns of spending that support lasting value and leverage a more inclusive and sustainable economy.