Close your eyes and try to come up with some objects that have the potential to change the world.
Now, how many of you came up with "$55 pen"? I’m guessing not many. Taken out of context, it doesn’t sound particularly life-altering. But it might serve as an object lesson in changing consumer behavior.
The popularity of Ian Schon's Pen Project, which is in the midst of a remarkably successful Kickstarter campaign, speaks to growing demand for products that buck the trend of widespread wastefulness inherent in a consumer economy. The campaign has raised over $28,000 in support of his initial run of 1,000 durable, Massachusetts-made, low-footprint pens--and initial backers get the pen at a discounted price of $30.
An engineer by trade, Schon set out to create something durable, unobtrusive in his pocket yet full size when writing, and a permanent addition to what he carried with him every day--all while being made locally so he could actually shake hands with the people producing it. The result is a "pen that people could buy once and use forever," and a rejoinder to both globalization and planned obsolescence.
Granted, one could probably buy a few bags of Bics for a fraction of the price, but that’s kind of the point. While it’s easy to mock some artisan endeavors as ephemeral or feckless, the reality is that mass production still dominates the consumer marketplace. And ultimately, mass production of anything tends to beget the mass production of waste. As Edward Humes notes in his recent book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, every American produces 7.1 pounds of trash every day--that’s 102 tons over a lifetime--most of it from packaging and a preference for cheap disposable products over more expensive, longer-lasting ones.
Remember what New York City Department of Sanitation anthropologist-in-residence Robin Nagle once told The Believer: "Everything you see is future trash. Everything." Hence the need for what Saul Griffith refers to as heirloom design--timeless, functional objects that will be just as useful for the next generation as they are for us.
And as for the price tag of Schon’s pen? Well, as Allen Tucker notes, paying too much can actually be a good thing. Which is to say: You’re probably better off buying a few durable, high-quality, expensive items than buying heaps of disposable, low-quality, cheap stuff. The longer something lasts as an object, the less often you have to replace it--and the less time it spends in a landfill. It’s tough to put a price on that.