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Everyday Living: Better and More Sustainable Today or Not?

Since I chose not to have children, the unavoidable markers of generational change, I sometimes forget I’m the age of many great-grandparents. I’m reminded when I take off at a run to catch the mailman to post a letter, or garden on hands and knees all day, then try to move any body part the next. The following will be familiar to others my age, but not to millennials, or even their parents. If we’re lucky, it could encourage them to be responsible consumers.

“Faster, Cheaper, Better: Pick Any Two.”

It’s still true, you cannot have all three. Take airline travel, for instance. The small percentage of space allocated to Business/First-Class passsengers accounts for 80% of revenues. It follows that airlines with no intrinsic standards for quality or respect for human decency are treating coach travelers like cattle headed to market.

cartoon showing people sitting in airline seats in uncomfortable positionsIn recent articles by Katharine Schwab in CO.DESIGN’s online newsletters this year, major airlines admitted they’ll be focusing on making the first-class experience akin to that of boutique hotel, while the goals for coach are smart lighting, better entertainment, and making seat frames lighter and—perhaps—adjustable for size. Terrific: soon there will have to be two skinnies seated next to every hefty in Row 32 A-C, or someone will be squashed.

I have to believe the in-flight violence between airline staff and passengers, and even among passengers themselves, is a result of us being pushed to our mental and physical limits by rude staff and corporate regulations. We are not necessarily getting used to all of this: shrinking seat size, checked baggage fees, passengers dragging everything they can on board as carry-on, leaving nowhere to stash a laptop case. There’s not enough leg room to keep our knees from being crushed by a snoozer in front of us, and not enough seat width to keep Jabba the Hut on the aisle from oozing into our middle-seat space, his sweaty skin pressed against ours for hours. You can’t even squeeze past the beverage cart to get to the restroom, forcing one young woman to be told to go in a cup at her seat. Seriously?

Interestingly, the on-board rebellions are being led by passengers much younger than I. My generation of travelers remembers dressing up for the flight, parking in an open lot across from the airport at no charge, checking color-matched luggage (again, at no charge) that was never once damaged. We enjoyed spacious seating and very decent meals that included Cordon Bleu and Lobster Newburg in coach, plated on china with real silverware and cloth napkins, and—here’s the truly unbelievable part—served by polite flight attendants in spiffy uniforms who could, and did, make every family feel comfortable and important—in multiple languages.

Do I think we can go back to that? Not likely. But it would be nice to know I won’t be dragged off an airplane in favor of an airline employee taking my seat. And yes, I HAVE been moved from bulkhead seats I paid extra for, resulting in my dad, who’s in a wheelchair, getting stuck in a standard middle seat, only to discover that accommodating their employees more comfortably was the reason—this by an airline he worked for many years ago.

The New Sustainability—Compared to What Era?

Woo-hoo, milk comes in glass bottles again, which is better, but not faster or cheaper. ALL milk used to come in glass bottles, not just the premium brands at AJ’s, and that milk DID come to us, quite literally. We had a milkman at Ft. Huachuca when I was in elementary school, courtesy of Shamrock Farms. They provided a ring of long tabs with a different dairy product listed on each, and all you had to do was pull up those you wanted—say, half and half, a gallon of milk, and a pint of heavy cream—and place the tabs in an empty bottle so those you wanted stuck out the top, and voilà! Your order would appear at your kitchen door before breakfast. Of course, I would sneak outside before the morning delivery to be sure the chocolate milk tab was pulled up.

Glass bottles were the ultimate in sustainable packaging: the product lasted longer and the milkman picked up your empties to be sterilized and refilled. When they got scratched up, they were melted down to make more bottles.

Sure, the milkman drove a small delivery truck, but imagine how much less gas was burned than having hundreds of housewives drive to the store several times between major shopping trips, just to get milk. But alas, the milkman was the first of many service jobs lost.

When we moved to West Berlin in 1965, milk was delivered by horse and wagon. I kid you not. The Domäne Dahlem dairy, in our neighborhood, was the only dairy that mile wagon horse drawn in germanycontinued to deliver fresh milk during the allied bombings of WWII. Red Army soldiers had taken most of their horses, but left all the cows and a couple horses to pull the milk wagon. The cows in the city were so traumatized by the constant bombings that they quit producing milk, but this dairy’s owner slept with his in the barn during the summer night bombings, petting and soothing them, talking softly and singing to relax them. Extreme? Maybe. But he kept his business alive and his cows healthy. People didn’t forget this, and twenty years later, our German neighbors in Dahlem were all still loyal customers.

We even had a “Brotchen man,” who brought the fresh, hard-crust breakfast rolls to us each morning, placing them in a large coffee can with plastic lid that Mom put out on the front steps each night with a few Deutschmarks inside, which would be replaced with fresh Brotchen without unsustainable packaging.

At that time, German refrigerators were under-counter refrigerators, so one had to pick and choose what was placed in them for long-term storage. I wasn’t sure what the downside was of stashing expandable, jute shopping bags in our pockets and walking to the store every day for fresh vegetables and fruit. Gee—fresh food AND exercise every day.

Still, Mom had insisted we take her behemoth Kenmore copper-tan bottom-freezer refrigerator to her new overseas kitchen, where it sat plugged into a huge transformer for eight years. The first friend I made was a German girl named Karin, and I’ll never forget her face when I opened the beast to get Cokes for us one night. Her mouth fell open in awe and wonder, and she just stood there, bathed in the cool light of what must have seemed like a grocery store full of food. We had even brought the portable dishwasher, and I’m not sure Karin ever understood why a family of three needed something like that.

New and Improved is Often Neither

One thing I learned in occupied Berlin (surrounded by a wall and supplied from the West Zone 110 miles away), was what quality was—from opera and symphony performances to clothing construction, architecture, automobile design and household goods. Quite simply, if a product could not perform as expected for a-generation of use, it wasn’t worth much. Houses were proudly passed from one generation to the next. Now we even see consumer demand for quality in Europe eroded by both the growth of their own middle class and the influx of immigrants who need basics at the cheapest possible prices.

Still, I should not need to buy something as simple as a Rubbermaid dish drainer and sink grate four times a year, simply because they are now made so poorly. They rust through in about three months, being of much thinner-gauge, low quality steel, with the “rubber” coating being a quick dip in something else. I can buy a Michael Graves stainless teapot at Target, but not a decent-quality dish drainer. They are cheaper, but certainly not better, or even acceptable. I would happily pay three times more for something I didn’t have to replace four times annually.

Stainless steel cutlery is no longer quality stainless, even in the better brands. The steel rusts through the finish and gold trim, even when dried thoroughly. Here’s a challenge: place a magnet on the front of your stainless refrigerator. Does it stick? Then you either have a fake stainless plastic face, or a “stainless” that doesn’t have much chrome content It’s cheaper, but not better. Magnets won’t stick to real stainless steel. They WILL stick to my cutlery.

Don’t get me started on why the steel is such low-grade. Almost a third isn’t even American steel now, due to subsidies on imports making the U.S. unable to compete economically in its own market. China’s government-owned and -subsidized steel industry now supplies half the world’s demand. Much of the imported steel is lower grade and often mislabeled as to the true country of origin for import status purposes. Meanwhile, our rivers’ lock systems suffer from disrepair to the point we may soon not be ABLE to get our own steel ore to the Great Lakes to make the trip across the water to our own steel plants. We need work done to our own infrastructure instead of just giving up on manufacturing in favor of imports.

The Myth of Ethical Shopping

We used to think that we only had to quit buying imported goods made by mega-suppliers to stop children from working long hours overseas, or to force safe factory conditions, but now those mega-suppliers are subbing out everything and changing their subs often, just to feed the demand of China and India’s own rising middle classes. Yes, now the primary end users of these products ARE the upwardly-mobile moms of those children, and they supervise and admonish their kids to work faster as they sit on concrete stairs outside their apartments, embellishing jeans. We helped create a market that no longer depends on our purchases, so there’s no need for them to apply our ethical standards to their supply chains. It’s now impossible, even for companies as large as Walmart, to know exactly where and how goods are made.

So, what CAN we do? Until consumers realize that “nice things cost money” and quit BUYING low-quality goods, instead of rallying behind the easiest thing to garner support for—working conditions—we’ll be flooded with low-quality. Until trade policies detrimental to our own economy are changed, we will remain at the mercy of politicians “owned” by corporate lobbyists.

I’m reminded of a seventies bumper sticker: “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.” From all indications, our fledgling President has met the alligators and they are us.


A professional member of IIDA, Diana earned her specialty LEED credential for Interior Design + Construction in 2013, having earned her LEED AP in Building Design and Construction in 2006. She worked for Del Webb Corporation designing semi-custom interiors, and spent thirteen years with a local builder supplier before returning to work as an independent designer. She also operates an antiques dealership and teaches sustainable design, space planning, materials and estimates, and color theory at the college level. In creating livable interiors, she is particularly sensitive to not allowing our high-tech lifestyles and the interior walls of our homes to divide us from one another, and has been focusing on Mid-century Modern design in recent years. Diana can be reached at dianajean@aol.com

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