The Fall of Quality and the Rise of the Disposable Economy
Things really are not made as well as they used to be. We hear people say this all the time and never really give it much thought but the fact is this is a true statement. Over the 100 years, products are no longer designed to last and must be replaced far more often. This has not happened by accident. From manufacturing changes to material changes there are a number of reasons why products are no longer fixed but replaced instead.
Prior to the early part of the 20th century, many products were made from quality materials like cast iron and steel. Many of these same products are made now from synthetic materials that are far cheaper to use in production. As a result, the price of many common household products has declined significantly. So how did this trend begin, and when did it begin. A key event that shaped what products are made of is World War II. During this awful time in history, the world was putting a large amount of resources into weapons of war and as a result the same resources were no longer available to produce household items. This material supply problem lead to the development of many synthetic materials most notably synthetic plastics. After the war many people discovered that these new materials could be used to make a wide number of products for cheaper costs. This changed the price of production, the cost of production, and the prices of products allowing a sizable percentage of the population to be able to afford these newly produced items.
The Quality Effect
As people started to realize they can afford newer products made from newer cheaper materials they began to not purchase based on expected life of the product. A larger percent of the population started purchasing products they never thought they could afford and as a result, manufacturers started to find newer and cheaper ways to produce products. One of the ways this goal was achieved was through mass production and less parts. Companies began to product pieces and parts of items in bulk and the assembly line version of manufacturing came into fruition. This is a great way to make an identical product for a cheaper price, the down side is people no longer gained a full expertise of how the entire product worked. This made the ability to get these newer items repaired difficult. It became more difficult to find people with quality knowledge of the product who could successfully repair the product for cheaper than it would be to buy a new one. So cheaper manufacturing using cheaper materials started to make products less expensive to replace than to repair.
The World Economy and Free Trade
There has been a lot of conversation around the topic of free trade as of late; however, free trade has had a huge impact on manufacturing procedures and the cost of items. Factory jobs in America are not popular sought after jobs and finding people to do these jobs at the required pay rate has become difficult. Americans simply want higher paying jobs. Free trade allows companies to produce items over seas at a much cheaper price. This is due to the fact that China and many other similar companies do not have the same labor laws as the United States. As a result, many companies began producing their goods elsewhere and importing these goods. These might be whole units ready to be sold or pieces of units that would later be assembled and completed in American factories. This once again had the effect of lowering the cost of the product making it more economical to replace something then trying to find and pay someone to repair the item. Free trade made this possible; suddenly, the biggest cost of producing goods became transportation and not labor. Items could be made for pennies on the dollar and the value of repairing these items declined and so did the availability of spare parts, they were no longer stocked by companies because it was not economical.
The Expectation of Products
When you go to purchase an item, how long do you really expect the item to function for? Clearly larger items like automobiles should not have to be replaced every year but other items often are. Shoes are a great example of how new and less expensive materials have made a huge impact on the economy. A century ago, cheap rubber soled athletic shoes did not exist. People would get shoes from a number of places and they were typically made of leather or canvas materials with a quality sole. When shoes started to wear out, people would take them for repair to a local shoe maker. People would not simply throw away shoes as we do today. Back then shoes were often made by hand, today they rarely are. Mass production, mostly overseas, has made shoes easier to produce and the use of synthetic rubbers and other newer materials has made them less expensive. As a result shoe makers started to lose business and department stores gained a footwear business. People no longer expect shoes to be made by hand and due to the low cost of replacing them, it became a trend to no longer repair shoes. This is a simple example but the same thing has happened to many types of products from furniture to clothing. Modern times have lowered the expected life of a product and has made it easier and more cost effective to replace as opposed to repair.
The Resurgence of Quality
At some point during the start of the 21st century, the desire for quality products began to return in full force. These products became hard to find but people who were able to make a higher price point item with the quality people were looking for started to succeed. The internet and the modern ways of communicating have allowed companies to sell quality to a niche group of people once again. A great example of a product that can be purchased at a low price for a low quality or a higher price for a better item is bicycles. Bikes can be purchased for performance at a bike shop for thousands of dollars or at a discount store for $100. These bikes are clearly a different quality and designed for different users. A serious cyclist will want to purchase a high end bike and will change out components throughout the bikes life and likely will never buy a whole new bicycle again. A family buying a bike for a child will not want to spend that kind of money and will purchase a disposable low quality bike. This low quality bike will easily fit the needs of a child but will not even come close to lasting as long as a top end bicycle. Many products exist with cheap low quality options and high cost high quality options today. So, when you start shopping, decide on how much money you want to commit. You can find almost anything at any price but you will get what you pay for. So shop smart and don’t assume cheaper is better or the top of the line is the only way to go.
Technology, free trade, new materials, and expected product life cycles has had a huge impact on how we purchase today. Next time you hear someone say they don’t make things like they used to, remember that that statement is correct; however, not necessarily for the bad. People can now afford more and this new way of producing items that are replaceable has helped bring this product to a wider range of people. Finally, remember if you look hard enough you can always find something made better, you will just have to pay more. If you found these tips helpful please share on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.