One of the things we simply can't afford to have anymore - afford in either economic or environmental terms - is a throwaway society, in which things exist for short term usage. Instead, as energy and resource costs rise, we need to make our possessions last - ideally for generations.
I don't know about you, but my observation is that old stuff is generally better made than new. This isn't universal, but I'm often surprised by how sturdy old things are, and how beautiful, how well they last. Part of that is because people simply didn't have as many things, or as much money to waste on things that promptly broke, so lasting materials and solid engineering were the norm. And part of it is because form and function didn't always operate so seperately.
Right now, I plant corn and beans with a 120 year old jab planter. I serve bread and soup from transferware dishes from the 1870s that my grandmother kept in her kitchen. My kids read stories from an ancient McGuffey's Reader, and I teach them spelling from word lists copied out of the books my great-grandfather used to teach school in Connecticut at the turn of the century - and some of the books belonged to his father.
Of more recent vintage, I chop wood with my father's axe, about the same age as me, prune bushes with a pair of loppers that are at least 40 years old, and use a potato fork from, I would guess, the 1940s. My children keep their stuffed animals in my father's toybox, and read the books of my childhood. My kids play dress up in fur hats and feathered ones that my great-aunt accumulated over her lifetime. I keep my food in tupperware containers my husband's grandmother bought in the 1950s, and warm my kids beds with comforters whose err... aesthetic dates them to the late 1960s. My husband wears a lovely black suit his Grandfather bought several decades ago.
Now I'm lucky enough to have this stuff, but for me, it illustrates the possibilities of a pass-down society, where we concentrate our (fewer) purchases on high-quality items that last a lifetime, rather than focusing on mass accumulation. That is, when we buy things, we should be thinking "can my grandchildren (or someone else's grandchildren) make use of this?" Because we simply don't have the option anymore of treating our possessions as throwaways. Not only are the environmental consequences simply too great, but more importantly, the resource that has enabled us to have so much is getting more and more expensive and harder and harder to come by. That is, whether we want our children and grandchildren to have live with the things we pass down to them or not, they may well have no choice.
Think about it. If the next generation cannot afford as many things, or we cannot afford the environmental impact of those things, what will the consequences be? Will the dishes you eat off of, the clothes you wear, the tools you use outlast the next year? The next decade? The next generation? Whenever possible, they should.
Now some things are bound to wear out - your work jeans, your children's sneakers, and other best loved items. And sometimes buying used means using things up - for example, the Dr. Seuss books my great-aunt gave to me in 1975 are now falling apart - not from misuse, but from age and love, and I'd rather see them read than preserved in plastic for some distant future. But other things don't have to.
Good clothing for adults, for example, can often last a lifetime if you choose classic styles, natural materials and good workmanship, and don't have to wear it everyday. "Sunday best" means that good shoes get taken off and replaced with work clothes, things are washed right away and stains not allowed to set. One's tools will last if you clean and oil them regularly, put them away out of the weather and preserve the handles (says Sharon whose colinear hoe is sitting out in the garden in the rain - ooops).
Dishes and household goods, many toys, children's clothes (the ones that get outgrown before they wear out), and books can last quite a long time. Acid based paper and age will take its toll eventually on books, and many children's clothes get passed around (although I have some that were bought used, have been through four and still look new - and others that didn't outlast a single child). But how would our practices change if everything we bought had to either be either used, or to last at least one lifetime?
In many cases, that could mean spending more money, or not. For example, I find heavier, more solid garden tools to be well worth the additional money. My hand tiller and that hoe I left out are both from Johnny's, and excellent quality, that will stand up to any usage. But I've also found these at auctions and yard sales for a dollar a piece. A good quality winter coat that will last a lifetime could cost you several hundred dollars - or it could be bought in a thrift shop for five. Heavy wood furniture will last a century or more, while the pressboard will fall apart. Good quality new or fine antiques are pricey. But there's a lot of older furniture made of good materials and construction that isn't fancy enough to be an antique that can be prettied up with some paint and attention - or enjoyed as is.
But what it does mean is attention to quality, seeking out things that you will enjoy long after they are "in fashion" and taking care of what you have. It means thinking in the long term - buying a toy for your kids that will be enjoyed by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and teaching those children to take care of their possessions. It means changing the way we think about our stuff. It means valuing "visually accessible" (that is, doesn't look weird), "easily repairable" "natural materials" and "lasting" over "I want it and I want it now."
I'm a simple sort. I read about things like "cradle to cradle technology" where people have elaborate plans for how cell phones will be taken apart and recycled into other cell phones when they obsolete, and I think "but couldn't you just make a cell phone that lasted 20 years?" I wonder whether we'll have the energy to recycle all those things, or the market to buy them when recycled in the longer term. And then I look at the toy bus my step-mother made for my son. It'll never be anything but a bright yellow toy school bus. My kids sit on it. They surf on it. They jump on it. It never notices. They push each other around on it. If it breaks, all it needs is a replacement wheel. I can lend it to my niece when my boys outgrow it, get it back, pack it up until the grandkids arrive, and it will be there. When it finally passes on its death (and I find that hard to imagine - it is very, very, very sturdy), you can burn it keep warm. Now that's cradle to cradle.