books consumerism shopping

Book review: A life less throwaway, by Tara Button

Have you ever bought something and found that it just doesn’t work? Or maybe you own it for a matter of weeks before it breaks? “Our whole houses, our whole lives, have become stuffed full of things that let us down” says Tara Button, who is on a mission to do something about it.

That something is BuyMeOnce.com, which I wrote about a couple of years ago. As the name suggests, the website showcases brands with lifetime guarantees and exceptional durability. If you’re fed up of junk products and want to buy quality, it’s the place to check first. I have a couple of their items around the house myself, including the One World Futbol that I kick around with my son most days. Tara Button has now taken the philosophy behind BuyMeOnce.com and shared in it the book A Life Less Throwaway: The lost art of buying for life.

The book starts by looking at consumerism, and why so many products underperform. If you’ve read books on consumerism before, some of this may be familiar, as we ransack 1950s advertising journals for some of the most shameless examples of how to manipulate people into buying things. Consumerism was deliberately constructed, as writers such as Vance Packard or E J Mishan warned us in the 1960s, and Annie LeonardJames Wallman and many others have proved more recently. Button reviews marketing tactics, planned obsolescence and fashion in short and accessible chapters, making this a good place to start if you haven’t read much on consumerism.

As a former advertising executive and consumerist herself, the author brings authenticity, humility and a sense of humour to proceedings. I also like the way she has taken the time to talk to companies and product engineers, visiting product testing sites and getting a range of perspectives.

The book moves into more original territory in the second half, where Button explains her philosophy of ‘mindful curation’, or shopping with purpose. There are sections on planning a purchase, resisting impulse buying, and finding our own personal style rather than following trends. There are tips on how to identify good value long-term products, including notes on different categories of items, from clothes to tools to appliances. There’s lots of sensible advice, including a section on how to avoid losing things. After all, there’s no point in buying an umbrella with a lifetime guarantee if you leave it the back of a taxi the following week. Without wishing to name any names, I know some people who would benefit from this friendly advice.

The book’s practicality is one of its most distinctive features. There’s theory here – even a bit of postgrowth thinking at the end – but what we’re really talking about is how to live well with our own possessions. What’s going on in our wardrobes and kitchen cupboards? Are we shopping from a place of psychological vulnerability, or from a place of confidence?  Do we even like our own stuff? These are everyday questions, and the book has a very healthy materialism to it that’s rather refreshing – it’s not about denying ourselves, but choosing the things that actually will make a difference to our quality of life. There are little exercises all the way through, from thought experiments to free yourself from celebrity influence, to writing an ‘unwish list’, or tips on how to let go of a sentimental object that you know is ultimately clutter. Some of these are a little quirky, but a lot of thought has gone into them and if you recognise the problem, they’re worth trying.

I’m sold on this lifestyle already and so I can’t report any life-changing insights, but I found A Life Less Throwaway wise, funny, and well worth reading.

One comment

  1. Much sense here. I don’t want a modern, over-complicated car and I dislike my cheap wardrobe. Buy simple, well made quality then look after it.

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