Can consumers become custodians? Image by Odin Wilde.


A Good Materialism
Courtney Holm

"With every step we take we need to check what we have left behind and ensure we take care of it. This is a plea for a new type of conservatism: that of conservative consumption. We need to conserve what we have and progress by caring for it. It is time for a new materialism, a Good Materialism. A materialism that judges us not by newness but by the age of our stuff."

– Marjanne Van Helvert in 2020 essay Good Materialism – A Proposal for Conservationism in Fashion.


Recently I picked up this little book of essays with the curious title Design in Conservative Times (you can find it here). It got me thinking about my relationship to stuff. Off the back of that little read, here are some exploratory thoughts I'd like to share. 

First of all, I've been thinking about how stuff (as in things, objects, items, clothing even) can be really good for us. Hear me out... because there is of course a balance to this. Too much of anything is terrible, as is too little of the things we need to thrive. While it might sound obvious, I do think this balance is quite difficult to land on and stay on.

For example, it's super hard to get to a point of actively rejecting what is considered normal consumption for those in the global North. If you are currently at that point, I commend you. But once you are it's also tricky not to tip into the extreme, where you over burden yourself, deny yourself joy or get grumpy or preachy at others who don't seem to act or care as much as you do.

On the flip-side, it's difficult to de-prioritise your own convenience, or admit that it's simply not a human right to consume whatever we want, whenever we want. It's not easy to exercise restraint and say no to the cheap, shiny thing right now and put in the work to find the second hand or ethically made alternative for later.

So how do we strike a balance? I think there's something in taking up the practice of keeping. To actively keep something is a commitment requiring energy that supersedes consumption. The act of looking after and allowing the stuff in our lives to keep performing its function and purpose. This stuff might see us through times of importance or even just the day-to-day but somehow, integrate into who we are, how we operate. I continue to come back to the idea of objects, clothing, stuff becoming uniquely patinaed though our own type of use. That is, something which becomes heavily worn, used, looked at often and appreciated fully - its story becomes part of the fabric of our life. Perhaps by considering if we really will keep something before we buy it and then we do so in place of buying the new thing, we automatically reduce overconsumption for ourselves.

good materialism


Marjanne Van Helvert wrote about "good materialism" [where we] "value things by age, not newness" in the above mentioned little book. Could a focus on this kind of material connection somehow move us away from the consumption mindset?  To me, it's a fascinating and appealing question, generously affording to some instinct inside. Like, maybe our desire to have stuff is not all bad, but we've just misappropriated it.

We are often told by activists to "resist!" by fighting the urge to buy things on account of harming others and the planet. I have to agree to a point, but... I think the desire to own things, to set down roots and keep particular objects around us has been hijacked by contemporary consumer culture which is anything other than settled. If certain objects contribute to providing meaning, usefulness, punctuation or beauty in our lives - is that not a little magical?

Could we really have a mindset shift to acquire things slowly, carefully and cautiously? It is at odds with how we (as consumers) are repeatedly and relentlessly assailed on upgrades, needs, wants, discounts, emails and advertisements for mass produced goods we won't/don't really love or require for basic needs.

I get funny sometimes with the phrase "doing good". Like we "do good" or I am "doing good for the planet" seems so lip-service-y. Plus, what does it mean? Good materialism though... Now that seems more juicy and nuanced and I want to flesh it out. I'm not saying it's the solution to all our problems. Like anything, it's the balance that's important. I do try to work on the balance stuff and sometimes get it so wrong. I have swung to "buy nothing, the planet is dying!" to the point where I question the very foundations of running a business, occupying space and precious resources. But that's a scary, downward spin that leads nowhere particularly useful to me or others.

Other times I have swung to near despondency and mindlessly bought things I shouldn't because I think it's what will make me happy in that moment (it doesn't). I think if I can try to focus more on the act of keeping instead of just "to consume or not to consume" that I might have a chance of achieving a materialism balance governed by respect.

I also want to support a future alternative where a connection is restored to the creating and making of our stuff. I can't do that if I don't buy anything. I truly want to buy things I love and need that enrich my own and other's lives from specialists, artisans and makers who create with care and provide an emotional and physical durability to their wares. I want to fully acknowledge the toll my stuff has had on the planet. These all seem like great ways to help me to value my possessions the way they ought to be. This, while refocusing attention on the things I already have, investing time and energy into keeping them (through actions like repairing, restoring, re-purposing and re-appreciating) for a long, long time. 

Well. Those are my thoughts for today. As I search for my own balance, perhaps I'll find out what "Good Materialism" means along the way. Thank you for reading.


ps. If you want to support what we do at A.BCH, consider us for your next purchase. Or sign up to our newsletter (check we aren't ending up in your junk!) or share this article with people who you think might appreciate our work. We offer an entirely different approach to clothing design, making and aftercare and offer consultation services as well as raw material sharing via our sister brand Circular Sourcing