Material World

Former Harvard professor and lifestyle guru Juliet Schor says our problem is that we're not materialistic enough. Meet the new face of sustainability

Noted author and professor Juliet Schor talked ecology and fashion at the Harvard Bookstore last Friday. A crowd of followers nestled in the store’s back corner to hear the insights of this versatile academic, once the head of Harvard’s Women’s Studies Department and now a Professor of Sociology at Boston College.

In her talk, Schor advocated the sustainable alternatives to materialist culture described in her new book Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the Twenty-first Century. These included, among other things, parking the gas-guzzling SUV in the garage and retreating in one’s electric car (or, her favorite, the hydrogen operated $100,000 BMW 750 class) to a safer place of simplicity and community—a place where one spends less than $100 on holiday celebrations, uses green cleaning products, eats organic foods and celebrates a generally happy and fulfilled life. As Schor’s personal bumper sticker reads, “More Fun, Less Stuff.”

Schor helped spread her lifestyle ideas by becoming a founding member of the Center for a New American Dream, a non-profit resource for Americans who aim to liberate themselves from an existence dominated by consumption. Shedding light on many of the center’s ideals, Schor’s latest book features a collection of visions for such a sustainable society. Author Mary Pipher styled her piece “In Praise of Hometowns” like a Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul heartwarmer, romancing about one’s “personal slice” of ecological heaven: “Your slice of heaven may be the Iron Range or North Beach or Central Park or Chesapeake Bay or Harvard Square,” Pipher writes. “Join with your neighbors to enjoy those places and work to keep them for your great-grandchildren.” Other themes of the book include faith-based sustainability initiatives—“What Would Jesus Drive?”—as well as chilling social-justice soundbites: “Disney exploits its Haitian workers who make Mickey Mouse T-shirts for 28 cents an hour.”

While her collaborators expected her to write a piece reminiscent of her bestselling book The Overworked American, Schor decided to tackle a more accessible topic: fashion. In her chapter entitled “Cleaning the Closet: Toward a New Fashion Ethic,” Schor attempts to find a happy medium between materialism and minimalism, filling the gap between thrift stores and Prada boutiques with well-made clothing produced by socially equitable relationships. She acknowledges that “a growing number of young people critique their generation’s slavish devotion to Abercrombie, North Face and Calvin, preferring the thrift shop aesthetic.” But clothing has many aesthetic, social and political dimensions, and Schor emphasizes that apparel shouldn’t be trivialized. “Don’t reject consumption,” she said to the crowd in the fiction section. As for clothes, Schor quips ironically: “We’re not materialistic enough because we discard them.”

Schor’s solutions to the fashion problem highlight treating clothes as “pets”: loving our favorite sweater as we love Fido, spoiling it with attention and taking responsibility for its well-being. Americans should demand better-quality tailoring and versatility, moving from cheap and plentiful to more rare and valuable apparel. Moreover, Schor argues that small-scale design shops with customized production offer an alternative to Nike-style employment arrangements.

A significant portion of Schor’s talk dealt with presenting the issue of sustainability and the New American Dream to the general public. Schor admits that in terms of consumption patterns and the environment, “there’s not much to be upbeat about,” and speaks from experience when she observes that “Americans shut down when you go to them with bad news.” So, instead of bombarding Americans with depressing environmental factoids, she focuses on the benefits of adhering to the goals of a sustainable lifestyle, which include restoring balance to one’s life by reducing one’s possessions to items of lasting value.

Her idealism seems contagious. In fact, the center recently enjoyed a major marketing success: a large advertising firm caught the sustainability bug and will popularize the center through a huge communications campaign. Schor hopes that, especially for the young generation, environmentalism will come “alive.” The details haven’t been finalized, but she expects a huge makeover of the organization in the near future.

While not all Americans may rush to downscale their holiday seasons or convert to electric cars and organic fare, the enhanced possibility of a more environmentally-friendly alternative lifestyle is a step in the right direction—at least as far as Schor is concerned. You might say it’s a breath of sustainable fresh air.

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