As consumers, we are constantly bombarded with ads for the latest and greatest products, but why are these products often so expensive and yet so prone to breaking?
Have you noticed that the items you’ve been buying for x years are starting to conk out sooner than the last time you purchased them? You’re not alone. In today’s world, the products we buy seem to be of lower quality than they were a decade ago.
I started thinking about this after my friend talked about replacing a pair of jeans that tore a few months after he bought them from the same place before.
Then I realized, I’d heard this kind of story before from many other people: from shoes to computer parts, to electric fans. Everything’s breaking down sooner than they used to. So, what gives? Why products break sooner? Is there any way to get out of this pile of consumer trash?
The dark side of disposable culture
Let’s start by looking at the design process.
When companies create a product, they consider three things: functionality, appearance, and manufacturability. A good product strikes a balance between these three factors. However, in recent years, this process has become imbalanced.
For example, in the past, if you needed a new dress, you would go to a tailor who would take your measurements, help you choose the material, and then create the jacket for you. Later, department stores offered mass-produced dresses, and today, many of us buy products online without ever seeing them in person.
With the rise of fast fashion and mass production, companies have shifted their focus to planned obsolescence, where products are designed to become obsolete quickly so that people will buy new ones. This culture of planned obsolescence has resulted in an unsustainable cycle of demand for low-cost products that are often made with cheaper materials and labor, resulting in lower-quality products that break easily.
Why do we keep buying?
Not only has the buying process changed, but the frequency of buying has changed too which we have Earnest Calkins to thank. In the 1930s, Calkins advocated for the idea of planned obsolescence, which he called “consumer engineering.”
Calkins suggested that consumer engineering could be a solution to the economic problems faced during the Great Depression. This means making products that fit the needs and tastes of consumers better, which would encourage people to buy more and help the economy. Fast forward to today, we now live in a society where people constantly want the next best thing—and that demand has become out of control.
People are buying things much faster than before and do not want to spend much money on them. In order to keep up with this demand and maintain low prices, companies have to alter their manufacturing process, such as using cheaper materials and stitching patterns that do not hold as well. This has resulted in an incredibly fast cycle of demand for low-cost products.
According to a 2021 survey, almost 40% of consumers in the UK purchase clothing at least once a month. The United Nations has reported that between 2000 and 2014, people were buying 60% more clothing, but keeping each item for only half as long. This trend of fast and frequent buying, coupled with the desire for low prices, has resulted in a reluctance among consumers to pay more for products they previously purchased.
This problem is not limited to just fashion and consumer goods. Technology has also fallen victim to this trend, where people feel pressured to upgrade their devices despite marginal technological improvements. This disposable culture is a threat to the environment as it creates a large amount of waste that is difficult to dispose of. As a result, we are stuck in a cycle of buying low-cost products that do not last long.
Shifting the supply chain
Our position as “mere” consumers suggests that we have no agency in the production process. That is not the case.
While we have been culturally conditioned to prioritize convenience and affordable costs, we do have some control over changing the system. My hope is that consumers can feel empowered to make a difference in the sustainability of the products they buy.
Consumers can opt to be more conscious buyers by choosing products that are designed to last. By being more intentional with our purchases, we can take small steps toward a more sustainable future. And maybe then, more companies will eventually prioritize quality over mass production.