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.