Quest For Quality, Durability And The Planet

Even though it can be read as a bit too self-promotional, Yvon Chouinard isn’t wrong. As we enter the season of buying, we can choose to buy the newest, shiniest cool thing which will last until either next season, when it’s no longer new or shiny, or until it breaks, as it was meant to do. Or not.

When I moved to Casa de SJ, nestled among the old guard, I learned a valuable lesson from one of my neighbors. He was an old man with even older money, but he had a certain humility that gave his advice gravitas. Buy, he explained, the best quality you can find and afford. It might be the trendy thing, but you will only have to buy it once and it will serve you long and well. Chouinard makes the point with the boots theory.

Manufacturers and brands must shoulder much of the blame. They increase sales by intentionally limiting the life span of batteries, lightbulbs, washing machines and more through planned obsolescence. Some build in quality fade, slowly downgrading materials to save money and duping customers into buying something a little bit worse each time even if the label stays the same. As a result, products that could have been made to last a lifetime — or even generations — end up in landfills.

This hurts low-income buyers most of all. The rich can pay a premium for craftsmanship, but as the saying goes, the poor can’t afford cheap goods. The novelist Terry Pratchett captured the problem in his “boots theory” of socioeconomics: “A man who could afford $50 had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in 10 years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent $100 on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”

It’s not exactly a secret that we live in a disposable society. To a large extent, it’s a by-product of what we’re being fed. My parents’ refrigerator lasted 40 years. A refrigerator made today will have features my parents never dreamed of, but you’re lucky if it lasts ten years and it’s hardly inexpensive. And some of the fanciest brands, the ones most desired by people who want to impress their friends and neighbors, are the worst as far as quality and longevity. And yet, people buy them, the more bells and whistles the better, even though the gimmicks will be the first to fail, the most expensive to fix and the reason why you will feel compelled to replace the fridge far too soon.

As some of you know, I like wristwatches, particularly old tool watches. Wags kid me about how they fail to sync up with an iToy, and knaves inform me that watches are for olds, since every smartphone will tell you the time and nobody needs them. Both are right, and both miss the point. Granted, I could live fine without old watches and would still know the time, but the old watches, one a nearly 80-year-old Cyma WWII Dirty Dozen trench watch, still run perfectly.

But most importantly, when my time has expired, it will still be running and its value will be significantly greater than what I spent to buy it. It’s a capital asset. A durable good. It will end up not just costing me nothing, but making me money after I’ve decided to pass it on.

Can you say that about your disposable iToy?

You will have sucked up earth’s resources for its parts, exploited impoverished children while emitting carbon to make it, and put it in the landfill when it fails, a couple years later. You will have spent dearly to buy it, gotten a couple oohs and aahs from people whose opinions don’t matter, and been left poorer when it goes.

And don’t get me started on hipster clothing.

To the extent manufacturers plan this into their products, which makes complete sense from their perspective since buying four fridges instead of one means they get to sell four times as many, is their fault, but also ours. We buy what they make. If we refuse to buy it, then will not make it. Buy things that connect to the internet, because we couldn’t possibly survive without the latest tech enhancements that tell us when our milk turned sour, and they will make things that are swift to fail and serve primarily to make us even less engaged with our world. Was it really too much trouble before to figure out that you needed to get milk? Was saving that effort worth it?

Today is “Black Friday,” the day that reminds us that black can be good and that manufacturers could sell products for a fraction of their suggested retail price and still make a profit. Many will choose to buy things not because they need them, or even want them, but because they are there to be bought and the price is sooooo good. Sooooo what?

Remember, if you neither need nor want something, it’s not a “great deal” at any price. But most importantly, if you buy the best quality you can afford, it may very well be less costly in the long run, better for the planet and less aggravating. As my old man neighbor advised me, nobody who really matters will care how fashionable you were for a moment, but you will be able to enjoy things of lasting quality if you make your choices based on quality, longevity and durability. I think I’ll wear the Cyma today. It still keeps perfect time.

16 thoughts on “Quest For Quality, Durability And The Planet

  1. Rxc

    I am still using tools that my grandfather purchased over 70 year ago. One of them is a mason’s level, beautifully made, plus digging tools that still ha e the original wooden handles. All have surface wear (patina) but otherwise work as well as the day they were made.

    I treasure them, and will pass them down to my nephews as family heirlooms, with a note that they provide a link to an earlier generation that worked hard, without computers or power machinery. Maybe digging a few ditches with the pick and shovel will instill some sense appreciation for what they did.

  2. B. McLeod

    This year, I replaced a 60W incandescent bulb that was over thirty years old. Since then, I have gone through three modern 60W incandescent bulbs (made in China), in the same fixture, and ultimately moved on to the LED bulb that is the only replacement to be found now at the Home Depot.

    Also this year, I completed the first-ever headlamp bulb replacement in my fifteen-year-old Toyota. It won’t surprise me if the replacement doesn’t last fifteen years.

    Incandescent bulbs didn’t have to be throw-away pieces of crap, but they became such for the sake of cheap manufacture, and now, they are essentially unavailable in this country. I suppose manufacturers have now turned their full attention to doing the same thing with the LED bulbs.

    1. Andrew Cook

      They are. Using as few LEDs as they can, pushing them at double the amperage they’re designed for, so they can be cheap to manufacture and quick to be replaced. And half as power-efficient as they should be.

      Do they have to do this? No; Philips makes LED bulbs for Dubai that use less power for the same light level as their lamps in the rest of the world, while lasting the decade-plus that LEDs are supposed to last, that we were sold on them lasting. They do this by building them properly, using components the way they were intended to be used instead of pushing them to imminent failure. They do this only because of a Saudi law that subsidizes bulbs that meet those requirements, and refuse to sell those bulbs anywhere else.

      Operating LED bulbs may be more efficient than operating incandescents. However, incandescents are just a tungsten filament, some glass, some tin, and a little cement. LEDs rely on conflict minerals processed in a hazardous way and their power supplies make hazardous waste — not as hazardous as the mercury in the compact fluorescents that used to be the new eco-friendly hotness, but still far worse than the old faithful.

      All of that said, there’s an opportunity cost to boycotting cheaply-made, defective by design products. If there were no trashy LED bulbs, I’d be sitting here in darkness.

  3. Anonymous Coward

    I thoroughly agree, “fast fashion” and planned obsolescence are terrible things and yes I’m pointing a finger at Apple’s support policies here among others. I will be spending today driving my 20 year old truck to the mountain bike trails which I will ride on a bike I pieced together from used parts, wearing a jacket I had repaired locally several years ago. Our family was spending “Black Friday” outdoors long before it was fashionable and we repair rather than replace whenever possible. A soldering iron, epoxy, and basic sewing skills can keep a lot of stuff out of land fills.

  4. Kevin M.

    On black Friday, remember to make more money likely by owning a successful business or stock in the same. Then you can afford overpriced toys and believe the sales pitch it’s “an investment.” Collectible watches, purses, baseball cards, etc. are all in the same mental bucket about status. You’d have to live a thousand years buying a better Timex annually before buying a Rolex once makes economic sense.

    1. David

      Some people say that kids are economically illiterate. I choose not to believe that, but you could prove me dead wrong. You are a testament to economic failure.

      1. SHG Post author

        I’m sure there are young people who grasp how economics works, but not many. What’s even more unfortunate is that they prefer to be stridently ignorant, as if they take pride in failing.

      2. Paul Sampson

        A 2023 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona is around $78,000. A 2023 Timex is around $50. Make your economic case for the former and not investing nor starting a business.

        Charlie Munger, the famous investor, called people fools for wasting so much money on something that could get you killed wearing it.

        1. SHG Post author

          Putting aside that the price for a 2023 Rolex Daytona is $15,100 (up from $14,550), what will it be worth 20 years from now? Your Timex gets thrown away when it breaks, as it has no residual value. Nor did anyone say that you should buy a watch rather than start a business with that money. I trust you’re not a lawyer, or your clients will get the chair for jaywalking.

          1. Grum

            I’ve mentioned this before elsewhere, but last time I checked the going rate for a 1991 Rolex GMT master that cost me £1,400 at the time, it was around £18,000.
            Admittedly Rolex have superb marketing in a way that Omega, for example, do not, but that’s quite the appreciation. Not in the same league, but my wee Longines hour angle navigator is currently being serviced in Switzerland, and will be a heirloom for my children and grandchildren when I’m gone, same as both my grandfather’s pocket watches. A $50 quartz watch will be lucky if it survives one battery change.

  5. schorsch

    In 1940 the average yearly family income of an US family was ~$1.370. The average price of a refrigerator at that time was between $120 and $180 dollar. So the refrigerator did cost between 9% and 13 % of an yearly income.

    Today the refrigerator is between $1.200 and $1.800. The average family income is $67.500 (anno 2020). So the refrigerator today costs between 1,8% and 2.7% of an yearly income.

    The 1940’s refrigerator had a much higher weight and energy consumption – higher impact on the environment in material, transportation and energy. It did last four times longer, of course: Nobody had the nerve to transport that metric ton of scrap after only a few years of usage.

    Fortunately, burning a ton of coal per refrigerator per year wasn’t an issue then. Insofar you might be right.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s amazing how someone can put together those facts (are they facts? Beats me. It’s not worth my time to check.) and yet miss the point so spectacularly.

Comments are closed.