Fix it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without

Paper to pearls beaderMy sister Morgan has spent this year in very rural northern Uganda, working with refugee women on a project called Paper to Pearls (these women make and sell incredibly beautiful jewelry out of recycled paper, often the only source of real income to their large families, and which often goes to support the community at large). Much like letters from the mission field, what she writes about this experience has been hilarious, humbling, faith inspiring, and quintessentially Mormon. I wanted to share one such nugget that she wrote:

When my grandfather passed away one year ago in March, I really wanted only one thing from his possessions: a plaque that sat in my grandparent’s kitchen for years that read, “Fix it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”  I’m not sure why that spoke to me like it did because I wasn’t necessarily very good at doing any of those things.  I was successful in obtaining the plaque however, and as it sat on my bookshelf in the following months I can say it truly made a difference in how I viewed buying new objects and throwing out old ones.  Since moving to Uganda though, I have learned I still have a long way to go.  It seems to me the concept was born here in Gulu and every day I am amazed at the resourcefulness of people.

I brought a cheap pair of Old Navy flip-flops with me from America and it didn’t take long until one day, walking up our driveway of sorts to greet the people I live with, one of them broke.  Distraught, I held it up to show Concy and said something along the lines, “I guess it’s time to buy a new pair in the market.”

“NO-ooo.  You will fix it,” she told me.

Fix on top Fix on bottom

You'd never know, right??

You'd never know, right??

Fix it? I thought, this cheap piece of plastic? Is that even possible? Indeed, there was a shop right up the road that fixed my little flip-flop for about $0.15. At that point I got it; why would I buy a new one when I could fix this one?

As far as “wear it out” goes, the best example I see of that daily is in clothing.  Almost invariably the clothing people wear around is second-hand.  Of course sometimes it’s rather tragic to see people wearing something that barely resembles clothing anymore, but I often find myself watching a beautiful young Ugandan woman walk by and thinking, “Oh, cute top!  Where’d you find that?”  Of course I’m not suggesting one should wear clothing to the point it is falling to pieces, but most the stuff people wear here I have a hard time believing someone in the western world thought was used enough to give away.  While most of what is donated to Good Will is in fact sent here to Africa, I have a whole new perspective on shopping at thrift stores.

So many examples going on here! Used pants being fixed up by a tailor who (like all the tailors around here) is using an old singer machine with a pedal so that she can work even when there's no power.

So many examples going on here! Used pants being fixed up by a tailor who (like all the tailors around here) is using an old singer machine with a pedal so that she can work even when there's no power.

My favorite instance of “make it do,” (though there are many,) is the transportation of goods.  My first week in Gulu I stayed in a hotel located on a fairly busy street in town, on the edge of the open-air market.  I laughed every morning as I sat eating breakfast and watching the bustle around me – particularly at the wheel-barrows, motorbikes, and bicycles carrying loads four times their size.  They looked like little ants scurrying back to the ant-hill with their enormous find.   Think you need a truck to move a mattress or two?  Think again – all you need is a motorbike.  Just this morning I saw a man transporting a load of 2x4s twice the length of his bicycle.

2x4s on bikebag on bike

This guy is the winner! (p.s. All 3 of these were taken in the space of 5 minutes. This is everywhere!)

This guy is the winner! (p.s. All 3 of these were taken in the space of 5 minutes. This is everywhere!)

That brings us of course to “do without.”  For better or for worse, “do without” is pervasive here.  People are often forced to go without the necessities in life – shelter, food, clothing, education, etc., and these are pains in life no one should have to suffer, pains we would all like to alleviate.  On the whole however, I think we could all take a page out of the Ugandans’ book – we could stand to do with a little more “do without” in life.  Do without the latest electronic gadgets when we already have one that works just fine; do without buying yet another handbag when we already have a closet full of them; do without the supermarkets full of stuff that is unnecessary, unneeded, and will eventually find its way to clogging up our landfills.

No full-sized kitchen or running water? No problem! Just use your back porch.

No full-sized kitchen or running water? No problem! Just use your back porch.

I love America, I love that I have the freedom to choose there, and indeed I believe that variety is often the spice of life.  I do believe as Americans though, with that choice, it is important we make a choice that will benefit our earth and our neighbors across the globe.  I believe we should all try do as the Ugandans and make the choice a little more often to fix it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!

33 comments for “Fix it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without

  1. Dane Laverty
    June 24, 2011 at 12:00 am

    Thanks, James (and Morgan!), for some well-needed perspective.

  2. Cameron N.
    June 24, 2011 at 1:35 am

    Yes, thanks for this.

    I’m a product designer so I contribute to the endless wave of new stuff that comes out every year. You wouldn’t believe how much work, effort, and thought goes into all the plastics and electronics and things you use. Most of my day is spent lobbying for trendy and or good aesthetics for a non-essential item (like audio speakers) and making sure people in China build it exactly how I tell them to.

    Most designers I think have things in good perspective. They do have a lust for cool stuff, but being involved in the creation of mass-produced stuff tempers it so they only get a handful of cool things they hope to use a long time. At least that’s what I tell myself. =)

  3. Cameron N.
    June 24, 2011 at 1:39 am

    One more point is that the unfortunate culture of planned obsolescence and rapidly ‘improving’ products has generally ignored the consideration of repair/reuse/repurposing during the initial design process.

    Digital culture and the exponential acceleration of computer performance has not helped this attitude, which has been extrapolated to all products, but I think a climate more friendly to thriftiness is developing on some level right now.

  4. Howard
    June 24, 2011 at 6:51 am

    Great post thank you! We live with such excess while they have so little…but what would we do without the City Creek temple?

  5. James Olsen
    June 24, 2011 at 8:05 am

    Thanks for your comments Cameron. And I agree that things are changing in some segments. My hope is that things like William McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle” approach are catching on – that we recognize that the ad hoc nature of the industrial revolution + conspiring in the hearts of (wo)men in the last days has led to something pernicious, but something we can change if we sit down and design with nobler intentions.

    Howard: do you mean the City Creek renewal? This is actually one of the times where the church has attempted to be sustainable; while we can certainly find other examples that aren’t, I think this one’s compatible with the thrust of Morgan’s message.

  6. Dan
    June 24, 2011 at 8:41 am

    my mother still has one of those Singer type sewing machines she had from Romania….those are really good sewing machines.

  7. Julie M. Smith
    June 24, 2011 at 9:00 am

    As someone disgusted by crass materialism, there is an element of this post that I truly appreciate. But parts of it also made me cringe, particularly this line: “No full-sized kitchen or running water? No problem! Just use your back porch.”

    I’m sure this was meant tongue-in-cheek, but it isn’t funny or true. Far from being “no problem,” I wonder how many hours of this woman’s day were spent gathering that water and I wonder what there is in it that might sicken or even kill her family. The “no running water” = “no problem” idea recalls the “noble savage” sentiment without acknowledging what a truly terrible thing it is not to have running water.

    Again, I realize that that one caption is not the thrust of the entire post, which acknowledges that “People are often forced to go without the necessities in life – shelter, food, clothing, education, etc., and these are pains in life no one should have to suffer, pains we would all like to alleviate.” But still.

  8. Jax
    June 24, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Oh…but think about the poor economy. Don’t your remember that it is our ‘patriotic duty’ to go out and spend money we don’t have? And when we don’t do it, the gov’t will send us money to spend just so that things keep moving. As americans we must have wantonness and waste, anything else is just …. anti-social!

    [please read with sarcasm :) ]

    Thanks for the post!

  9. Howard
    June 24, 2011 at 9:32 am

    James sustainable is great but I wonder what might have been done with $3 Billion in Africa how many would now have clean water and sanitation?

  10. James Olsen
    June 24, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Yes, Julie, your anti-neo-colonialism goes without saying. Truly. Thank you for at least acknowledging that it was merely a tongue-in-cheek idiom completely overwhelmed by the tone, thrust and language of the entire post. Just so you know, this wasn’t a random stranger. This woman is my sister’s “adopted mother” with whom she lived for four months. As my intro (and the line you quote) was meant to convey, she’s well aware of the realities to which you speak (including the neo-colonialism) and is currently consecrating her life (literally) to build sustainable partnerships between our world and theirs.

    Howard – Yes I agree, and am one of those annoying persons that often share with people what could happen in the world if we donated a portion of what we spend on cosmetics, or ice cream, or .7% of our GDP. Nonetheless, it’s not all mutually exclusive. I’m mostly interested in our cutting back on what we ALL agree are the excessive luxuries in which we all individually or collectively indulge, and I don’t put City Creek in that category.

  11. June 24, 2011 at 10:03 am

    I wonder how much better we could do if we designed everything to last instead of breaking. I’d so much rather have a few things that were solidly and well-built to last generations rather than boatloads of cheap disposable junk.

    But one important economic consideration we have to accept and even be glad of is that as workers’ time becomes more valuable, it becomes less and less economically viable to repair and maintain things rather than simply replacing them. A good example of this is contrasting paper mills in Mexico and Ecuador with those in the US. In Latin America, labor is extremely cheap and machinery is quite expensive compared to here. So it makes good sense to meticulously maintain the equipment. A conveyor which would be lubricated once a week here is lubricated every day down there. The mills are absolutely spotlessly clean, as well, since labor to constantly sweep and scrub is again extremely cheap.

    In some ways that really puts me to shame, as much as I love beautiful, well-kept machinery. But the reality is, it’s cheaper here in the US to replace a big machine like a conveyor or pulper in 20 years, say, and spend less on maintenance staff to lubricate and clean it, rather than have it last 50 years, as it might in Latin America with their fantastic maintenance schedules. Machinery is much cheaper here and our labor is more expensive. Both of those are good things, because workers make a better living for themselves, and capital investment requirements are lower.

  12. Howard
    June 24, 2011 at 10:07 am

    James I agree with you sentiment responsible consumerism is admirable so is sharing I downsized and simplified a few years ago now I buy fewer things but of higher quality and greater durability expecting to keep them far longer. While certainly not mutually exclusive for most of us I think it is a matter of priorities I wonder how many of the world’s needy died and continue to die while City Creek is funded instead.

  13. June 24, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Great post, James. “Fix it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” is a slogan than Shannon Hayes doesn’t bring up in her excellent Radical Homemakers, but should have. (We’ve been talking about the book over at BCC, and some of your smart comments about the complicated relationship between feminism and consumer goods, Julie, have been brought up over there.)

  14. Marie
    June 24, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    There has been passed down through my family a streak of pioneer frugality of which we are a bit too proud. For example, mom taught us that it’s better to spend an hour taking the kitchen timer apart and trying to fix it rather than rushing right out and buying a new one. When you lose weight, you alter your clothing rather than buying a lot of new clothes. But at the same time that we’re doing these admirable “frugal” things that give us a glow of pioneer pride, we manage to fill our lives with all sorts of cheap disposable junk (’cause it was on super-sale! and we are frugal folk!). My grandmother was the most dramatic example of this phenomenon: she grew up poor in rural Utah and then lived through the Depression and saved wrapping paper and such obsessively until her dying day. But she also hoarded bargain bin crap and filled her closet to overflowing with ill-fitting, poorly made, and ugly clearance rack purchases that she never ended up wearing and then gave to others or to Good Will. I’m sure many of her ill-advised purchases are being cherished and repeatedly repaired by poor African women as we speak.

    I guess what I’ve decided in dissecting the tension between the (very Mormon) pro-resourcefulness and pro-consumer forces in my family is that the goal for each thing you purchase should always be clear: nothing inexpensive is a wise purchase if you don’t really need it or can’t afford it or aren’t committed to taking reasonable measures to extend its life so that the real costs of its manufacture don’t outweigh its ultimate usefulness. And nothing expensive is a rip-off if 1) its quality matches its price, 2) your need for it matches its quality, and 3) you are committed to extending its life and usefulness as long as possible.

    Tatiana has a good point about the realities of the economy at large, but luckily home labor is free and the effort involved in keeping things ticking a long time can, with the right attitude, be experienced as a hobby, a creative outlet, an expanding of very useful talents. (Or, as in our family, a somewhat hypocritical boasting point! Oh dear.)

  15. James Olsen
    June 24, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Tatiana – thanks for the comment. In my response to Cameron above I mentioned William McDonough (founder of Cradle to Cradle); I think you’d really enjoy his approach. You can hear interviews with him here: It’s becoming more and more clear, however, that it’s only “cheaper” to replace than to repair in examples like the one you give because we don’t (and sometimes can’t quantificationally) factor in externalities. It’s a problem through the whole system; we really do need an overhaul.

    Howard – again, I agree with the sentiment. I’m not a utilitarian, but I think we could all use a little more Peter Singer in our life when it comes to considering the “good” nature of the ennobling elements of our luxurious life and the clearly “better” nature of alleviating and preempting acute suffering that destroys dignity – for all of us. (see this poor but free internet copy:

  16. Julie M. Smith
    June 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    “luckily home labor is free”

    This is only true if the (usually female) home laborer’s time is worth $0.00.

    I understand–and live by–the idea of saving money by trading my time for it. (My kids have never had their hair cut by anyone but me!) But it is a trade-off of money for time, and it makes me grumpy when people don’t recognize that and instead act as if my time were worth nothing at all. Tatiana explains this very well in the context of the post–repairing flip-flops only happens if someone is willing to do it for 15 cents. As much as I hate a throw-away society, I’m grateful to live in a place prosperous enough so no one need take on 15 cent repair jobs.

  17. June 24, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I’m mostly interested in our cutting back on what we ALL agree are the excessive luxuries in which we all individually or collectively indulge.

    James, I am sincerely interested in what “indulgences” we would all agree are excessive. As we all sit here at our computers, with our (probably speedy) internet access, reading and posting on blogs probably with air conditioning (unfortunately, I am not among that group today, but the AC man is on the way).

    In my experience, people find OTHER’s choices indulgences and their OWN necessities.

  18. James Olsen
    June 24, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    Marie – great list of motivational criteria. As you point out frugality is not a virtue in and of itself, but like other virtues, in the context of a virtuous life or combined with the right motives and actions it clearly is.

    Julie – Amen on the value of the home laborer’s time. And while it wasn’t $0.15, it was usually $3-4 to have the straps on my much more durable leather shoes replaced at college (when my motives were entirely economic and had nothing to do with Morgan’s slogan). It again gets back (as you help to point out) to what and how we value what we do and whether we accept the defaults we’re given or attempt to promote positive change.

  19. James Olsen
    June 24, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Alison: I think it’s actually fairly easy to come up with such a list. We really do elect to put certain luxuries over peoples lives all the time (like when we elect to raise the speed limit knowing with striking levels of accuracy approximately how many people will die each year on account of it). But I just don’t know people crass enough to say “Yeah, I really think the $1.50 I daily spend on…(fill in the blank: a drink, more expensive dog food, a tabloid paper, an iTunes song I randomly come across) is genuinely more important than the life of the child who could be immunized if I donated it instead.” I’ve never met anyone so morally reprobate that they would disagree with that statement or be unable to fill in the blank with various things from their lives. Very few of us participating here would have to significantly change our lifestyle or the luxuries we consume in order to significantly impact (i.e., likely save) the life of individuals in need. We’re very good at burying our head in the sand about these matters.

    And my sympathies on your lack of AC – I’m off now to mow a large farm’s grass in 97 degree SC humidity!

  20. Marie
    June 24, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Julie: If time were worth nothing at all, then you’d spend your whole afternoon trying to repair the kitchen timer rather than setting a time limit on the experiment. Not proposing that. Just proposing an attempt to be more mindful of the real costs of what we buy rather than assuming that something cheaply bought isn’t worth the cost/time needed for repair just because its dent on our pocket books was minimal. (For the record, my mother is the breadwinner in my family — an overworked public schoolteacher — so no one in the family is questioning the value of her time. When I expressed sadness over her latest hours-long attempt to rescue something in the house from replacement, she admitted that while she disliked giving up her Saturday afternoon on the project, she took delight in solving the puzzle — prevailing over the forces of entropy. So again, perhaps the motives of our family efforts at resourcefulness are occasionally less than noble, but the impulse is good :) And hooray for home haircutters! I still feel self-indulgent for rejecting Mom’s repeated offers to cut my hair, like the old days….

  21. Sam B.
    June 24, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    I’m a little uncomfortable with the developing nation market for second-hand clothing. While it clearly does good–it provides cheap clothing to people with few financial resources–it also potentially does harm, impacting the viability of domestic textile industries. An Oxfam report suggests that the damage to African textile industries, while real, may have happened anyway as a result of cheap Asian textiles, but still recommends that charities avoid importing second-hand clothing to countries with fledgling textile industries.

    And, while I like the idea of spending my money carefully and purchasing value, I agree with Julie that, at some point, it’s not worth my time or effort to make the repair. (And, given my repair abilities, that point may well be early on.) For example, our vacuum’s motor stopped working. It was a good vacuum–way better than the one we replaced it with–but good luck finding a vacuum repair shop. I could probably have unscrewed more screws than I did, taken the motor apart, looked at it, rescrewed the screws, and I would have still had a vacuum that didn’t work. At some point, I needed to (and did) cut my losses; for me, in the life I live, spending the time learning how to fix a vacuum motor isn’t worth the $150 it cost to replace the vacuum (again, with a vacuum I passively hate).

  22. James Olsen
    June 24, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Sam B. – I think it was Marie you were agreeing with there (though I’m guessing Julie’s probably not going to argue).

    Let me just point out two different levels we’re dealing with: a personal level and a societal level. I don’t think we ought to simply stop with the “Well, it’s not worth my personal time,” when what we’ve got is clearly a systemic social problem needing structural/cultural level fix. Yes, the two levels impact one another – which is why we ought to perhaps rethink the value of our personal time. It’s a problem we ought to tackle at both horns; though obviously we’re going to run into specific challenges on the individual level where “replace” is the appropriate “R” to use. This fact ought not be taken as contradicting the OP.

  23. Howard
    June 24, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    James thank you for the great link in 15 here’s a teaser for the rest of your audience: Peter Singer argues that most people in rich countries have robust duties to assist the world’s poor…by the most cautious estimates, 400 million people lack calories, protein vitamins and minerals needed to sustain their bodies and minds in a healthy state…one study 14 million children under five die every year from the combined effect of malnutrition and infection. In some districts half of the children born can be expected to die before their fifth birthday.

  24. June 25, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    James Olsen #19:

    I think it’s actually fairly easy to come up with such a list.

    Having had this discussion for years with people, I find it’s not. That’s why I asked what would be included on the list. (Remember you said “what we ALL agree are the excessive luxuries.”) While we might more easily agree on what are relative luxuries, I doubt we’d agree on “excessive” and doubt even less that we could get consensus on which should be omitted or severely limited. I find it almost always comes down to things like “diamond encrusted doors” or a Lamborghinis or yachts or fill-in-the-blank with whatever-it-is-none-of-the-people-contributing-to-the-list-owns.

    Even your own example of vaccines will meet with push back. You can more easily survive without vaccines than food and water. Why get ANYONE vaccines when some don’t have food and water? First get clean water and nutritious food to EVERYONE in the world, then worry about any other “luxuries” like a car or, for heaven’s sake, a computer.

    like when we elect to raise the speed limit knowing with striking levels of accuracy approximately how many people will die each year on account of it

    So there’s one example. Do we *all* agree that raising the speed limit is a luxury that is excessive and that we should do without? And if so, what is that limit? If we just stopped everyone from driving, then we’d reduce driving fatalities to zero. Should we do that to be more Christlike? Of course, other fatalities would increase, but…

    Yes, it’s a beard fallacy, but you’re claiming the line between beard and no beard is easy to identify, and my point was that it’s not.

    But I just don’t know people crass enough to say “Yeah, I really think the $1.50 I daily spend on…(fill in the blank: a drink, more expensive dog food, a tabloid paper, an iTunes song I randomly come across) is genuinely more important than the life of the child who could be immunized if I donated it instead.”

    James, that’s exactly my point. Of course no one is going to say that their expenditure is “more important” than the life of a child. In fact, there is almost NO expenditure that can trump the life of a child (unless we’re talking about abortion…or Peter Singer (really people? quoting Peter Singer as an authoritative source? excuse me while I vomit…)) unless it’s the life of another child.

    Yet everyone reading here either owns computers or has access to them. More important than the life of a child? Everyone here spends time discussing moral issues instead of using it to provide resources to save children’s lives. Most here have a TV and a car and more than one change of clothes. Most have seen movies and gone to theme parks and eaten birthday cake and M&Ms. More important than the life of a child?

    So which of these will we AGREE are “excessive luxuries” that we can/will do without?

    I’ve never met anyone so morally reprobate that they would disagree with that statement

    Rather than just throw out “crass” and “morally reprobate” at those who might question your statement, look at the actual statement you made and my actual response. I haven’t questioned the idea of sacrificing to help others.

    You have said it would be “easy” to find a list of things we “all agree” are “excessive luxuries” we can/must/should/will cut back on. I haven’t found that to be true and so am (again, sincerely) asking what such a list would include.

    In order to be helpful, the list would have to would have to include things in which WE now indulge — so that WE can substitute past “indulgences” for others — not just fantasy items like $800 shoes, $600 handbags, or, as a woman once said in a RS discussion, “all those thing Donald Trump buys.”

    Al Gore thinks it’s excessive for me to drive to work. But he thinks flying around the world in his private plane is justified. I suppose, because his work is so much more “important” than mine. That’s the kind of quandary I find when it comes to making such a list or, worse, making your own list and demanding that others are “morally reprobate” if they don’t agree with it. Not saying you did that, but that’s the road you’re going down with the “easy” list.

  25. Al
    June 25, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    I thought about the comment about Goodwill donations going to Africe. If enough donated clothes go to Africa who in Africa will earn to make clothes? This is all very quaint but it has a certain paternalistic savagery. The worst chains we put on people is diminished expectations.

  26. Howard
    June 25, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    The worst chains we put on people is diminished expectations. Al do see any laziness or potential Cadillac driving welfare mama’s in those photos? Would you repair the sandal for $0.15? For 10 times that? For 100 times?

    Every human being should have food water vaccination and basic rainment along with access to sanitation and shelter from the weather. Better if they supply it themselves but if they cannot it should be freely given along with efforts to strengthen local economies and tie them into regional and world markets so that they become self sustaining.

  27. Howard
    June 25, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    We can use all kinds of sophisticated rationalization to explain our reluctance to help those in the greatest need but it really comes down to a toddlers early word “mine” and a refusal to share as we look the other way ignoring their early deaths.

  28. Bob
    June 25, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    @ Al: Maybe at some point, these folks will want more than my old tee-shirt, that’s how things gets started.
    But they have a hard road ahead of them. We can do things to make it easier and don’t do things that hold them back.

  29. Al
    June 25, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Money and donations are easy ways to salve our consciences but what poor people really need is instruction and know how and yes, the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have friends who have just returned from a mission to east Africa and they say that western aid is the bane of Africa. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think my missionary friends are my example of how to help. I pray for the courage to be such a person. In the meantime its off to Goodwill.

    But none of this is a criticism of resourcefulness or making do or etc.

  30. Al
    June 25, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Oh yes the PEF is a very good idea especially if it prepares people to be part of the productive economy and not just members of an elite bureaucracy (3 Nephi 6:12)

  31. Mike S
    June 25, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    This is a great post and a great reminder about perspective.

  32. Howard
    June 25, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Certainly a lot can go wrong between money donations from guilty consciences and actually helping those in need but it’s not as simple as know how is what poor people really need. It doesn’t take much know how to drill a well and rural Africa needs lots of them. Which will quench their thirst first the PEF or a well drilling service mission? You don’t have to donate more simply slow church building projects and use 10% of tithing receipts as seed money put the Apostles on the phone using their celebrity to gain audience with the decision makers of nations, corporations and NGOs and convince then to invest in well managed efficient church projects.

  33. Al
    June 25, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Apostles and celebrity hmmm… Let me think about that.

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