A lot of the work we do at Pixel and Timber is focused on sustainability. (Indeed, a desire to pursue this work in earnest was one of the reasons we formed P&T.) One of the areas that’s baffled me for some time (and for many reasons) is that of men’s grooming. There seem to be many opportunities to reduce the ecological impact of men’s grooming, but the elephant in the room is almost never discussed.
I’m speaking, of course, of the straight razor. This simple devices is the most obvious answer to the question of sustainable shaving and yet the straight razor gets less serious attention than it deserves as a legitimate alternative to cartridge razors. Instead, the argument often focuses on the difference between cartridge-based and double-edge razor systems (so-called “safety razors”). If hipster men across the country are excited by more “authentic” shaving equipment (i.e. plastic-free, high quality and mostly reusable) based on early 20th century designs, why not go further to embrace a 100% reusable solution?
The ecological problems with cartridge-based razor systems are well documented. As early as 1990, “the EPA estimated Americans tossed two billion disposable razors. And our population has grown by about 75 million people since then.” (NRDC.org) Further, modern cartridge blades are complex assemblies created from dissimilar materials and assembled in a way that make those materials difficult to separate for recycling. These are what Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart call, in their seminal book Cradle to Cradle, “Monstrous Hybrids.” And though companies like Gilette are offering their own recycling initiatives through partnerships with innovative companies like Terracycle, the likelihood of this program making a dent in this waste stream is low. Most of these blades will continue to end up in the landfill.
Enter the resurgence of the double-edged razor. A growing number of users — mostly male, mostly hipsters — are switching to this early 20th century system for reasons of sustainability, cost and a dose of rugged and authentic style. On the sustainability side, the razor blades are single material and easily recycled if you can find a recycler who reclaims them. On the cost side, the DE razor provide a high quality shave at an affordable price. “Some of what makes the traditional shaving crowd so grumpy is the price of today's multi-blade cartridges: $3 to $4 apiece. By comparison, the finest DE blades in the world cost no more than 50 cents apiece, and most sell for a mere 10 to 20 cents each.” (Todd Oppenheimer, Craftsmanship Quarterly)
Beyond the slight sustainability advantages and massive cost savings double-edged razors offer over cartridge-based designs, DE razor systems also confer a dose of manliness and authenticity to a growing group of young adult males who long for both. They achieve this through high quality and honest materials (i.e. steel), craftsmanship and near infinite reusability for the handle part of the system. Like their early 20th century predecessors, modern safety razors display the type of heirloom quality that makes it possible to use them not just for one lifetime but for many more, as the razor is passed down to future generations. Like many products that achieve popularity among this crowd, the DE razor offers just enough authenticity to set this customer apart from his cartridge-using colleagues without forcing him to change his behavior or learn a new skill. With the DE razor, everyone wins: The hipster enjoys a thin veil of authenticity, manufacturers get to continue selling replacement razors, and everyone basks in the self-righteous glow of being slightly more sustainable and slightly more authentic. The environment continues to suffer, but perhaps less than it did before.
It’s not that I object to the double-edge razor. It’s that the advocates of the system are so outspoken about its benefits though they seem unwilling to consider the still greater benefits offered by its 200 year predecessor, the straight razor.
The Straight Razor
The straight razor provides many of the performance advantages of the safety razor in terms of reduced irritation and a high quality shave. This simple device also allows a user to enjoy a lifetime of shaves without replacing any portion of his razor. And many straight razors outlive their users to provide multiple generations of users with these same benefits. Further, its high quality steel blade can be easily separated for reclamation, and its (frequently) wooden handles are generally biodegradable. Lastly, if the DE razor confers a small dose of authenticity and manliness on its user, certainly a straight razor — and the skill to use it — confers infinitely more. So why has this solution enjoyed so little adoption among those most interested in manly and sustainable shaving?
The problem seems to be one of skill and the fear that comes from not having it. This fear is perhaps magnified by images of the straight razor in popular media, including plays such as Sweeney Todd and others. The use of the straight razor was traditionally limited to professional barbers due to the skill it takes to use one without injury. However, many of us dedicate hundreds of hours to mastering more intricate tasks (e.g. the piano) or more dangerous tasks However, most of us are able to overcome the fear of much more dangerous activities (e.g. driving a car or riding a bicycle in traffic). As we develop familiarity with and expertise in the task, our fears evaporate. If you consider the amount of time a user spends shaving throughout his life, it’s not hard to imagine that any of us could master a device as simple as the straight razor within a very short amount of time. In my case — and likely most others — it took just a couple of tries.
I took up a straight razor for the first time in 2003. I did so specifically to avoid the cost and waste of “traditional” (i.e. post-1970s era) cartridge-based razors and because I resented my dependency on the makers of those devices. Like many in my age group, I received a care package during my first week of college that came loaded with a number of questionably useful sample items, including a Gilette Mach 3. Once the first razor and its single replacement blade wore out, I was faced with the prospect of buying new cartridges to the tune of several dollars a piece. Obviously, I did what most would do in this situation. I grew a beard. But because one can’t walk around with a neck beard all the time, I still got hammered every now and then with the purchase of a new blade. And by the time I finally shaved, those multi-blade cartridges were no match for the beard I was growing to save on their purchase.
I first heard the term Sustainable Design in a survey class in design school in 1999. I fell in love with the subject almost at once and enrolled in the few classes that were available at DAAP. This led me on a whole different career path than I had been setting at the time, but it also led me to some simple changes in my day-to-day life. Within a short time, this included the replacement for my Mach 3 razor, which was now showing the effects of wear — effects that, for high volume, largely plastic products, do not improve with time. I purchased my first (and likely last) straight razor from www.classicshaving.com, and I’ve never looked back. Though I don’t have a concrete way of calculating the total, in the 15 years I’ve been using it, I’ve likely saved hundreds of dollars in razor purchases and kept hundreds of cartridge blades out of the landfill. But more than that, I’ve thrown off the disgust I felt every time I purchased a new razor or handle; I own a product that delivers great results in about the same time as its predecessors; and unlike those predecessors, this device seems to improve with age.
After a decade and a half of use, I can’t recommend the straight razor enough. Yes, you will still on occasion get the same nicks and cuts you receive with any razor; sometimes you’ll get slightly worse. (I once closed the razor on my hand and received eight stitches. I still made my meeting that morning, and now I have a scar to show for it. Like the razor, I got a little better with wear.) But the overall experience of straight razor shaving is less compromising, more rewarding and significantly less wasteful than the alternatives. If sustainability and/or quality are at all important to you, this is one of the few purchases you can make with zero remorse.
To get into it, all you need is a short visit to www.classicshaving.com, a brief tutorial, and someone to bounce questions off of. An upfront investment in quality equipment and a little bit of knowledge will lead you to a lifelong shaving experience that is not only the most sustainable (beyond simply not shaving) but one that also unhitches you from dependence on a CPG conglomerate that only wants to sell you more blades at higher margins — forever. (A 2016 article by Todd Oppenheimer states that “each cartridge's manufacturing cost, a Gillette insider once reported, is less than a dime. That amounts to a mark-up of 4,750 percent.”) There are also a few startups popping up here and there who have seen the straight razor light. Chief among them is The Portland Razor Company. Founded just a couple of years ago, this company offers exquisitely-crafted, made in the USA razors, strops and other equipment and a ton of information on the subject of “straight shaving.”
The Rolls Razor
For those who are interested in an intermediate step between the safety razor and the straight razor, consider hunting around for a vintage Rolls Razor in good condition. Known as “the razor that is stropped and honed in its case,” this razor provides the near permanence of a straight razor with the familiar motion (and perceived safety) of the DE or cartridge razor. Because it reduces the skill needed from the user — mostly in the stropping and honing of the blade, which is the most difficult part — this design is much more complex than that of the simple straight razor. However, its portability, beauty and inherent quality reflect much, if not all, of what the straight razor represents — without the intimidation of an exposed blade. The one pictured below was given to me by my brother-in-law, to whom it had been handed down by at least one generation before. This means the device has already served at least one generation, and the reflective value that comes from its handing down makes it even more likely that it will continue to do so.
How many affordable consumer products can you point to today that come imbued with the type of heirloom quality that would make you want to keep them for your lifetime and hand them down to the next generation? How many consumer products actually get better with age? The straight razor and the Rolls razor offer both.
To borrow some terms from Donald Norman’s 2005 book Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, we believe that beauty, in design, includes high performance in the visceral (aesthetic, form), behavioral (feel, function) and reflective (value, meaning, etc.) aspects of a design. The last is that which, if executed well, imbues a product with heirloom-like qualities that provide value in vast disproportion to the cost of the object itself. At Pixel and Timber, we strive to combine all three of these elements on products for which it is appropriate. But even more exciting for us is the opportunity to design products that make their users better than they were.
Many products seek to do the work a user used to do, often in the name of convenience. In theory, the pursuit of convenience is meant to free up time that a user will invest in higher pursuits. In practice, it makes the user less mindful, less engaged and more dependent than (s)he would otherwise be, while lining the pockets of the manufacturers on whom these consumers have come to depend. In terms of their capabilities, products like these make their purchasers worse humans than before they encountered them. Our passion is developing products that make better humans.
Like the bicycle, the sling and other products that provide disproportionate power and independence to those who master them, the straight razor serves as an inspiration. It is an icon of both the comprehensive beauty we consider good design and a device that empowers its user to do more with less.