The quality of goods is getting worse. Illusion or reality?

How often do you hear that something used to be better? It is believed that people tend to say so as they get older, that our memory idealises things from the time when we were young, that it is a normal illusion and there is no real problem. Or is there?

The problem

From time to time I catch myself saying “this became worse”, and I have not even reached my thirties. Moreover, I remember saying the same 10 years ago. It means the illusion of quality degradation does not only appear to old people.

To find out whether it is an illusion or not, I simply had to find some tangible proof. It was quite easy; I just had to think of what I was about to throw away. A three-year-old can opener.

I have an old can opener that was older than me. However, because its cogwheel and blade became a bit blunt with decades of use, I bought a new one 3 years ago. You can see how they both look now in this photo:

Old good quality can opener and new bad quality rusty can opener

But don’t be surprised. The rusty one is the new one! They were kept together in exactly the same kitchen drawer and were used by the same people. Of course, there is no sharpness or good performance in the new can opener anymore. The old one still does the job much better.

I did not keep the new can opener’s receipt and the packaging that promised many years of warranty. Even if I did, nobody would believe that I have not stored it in a bucket of water somewhere in the garden. So, the relatively new can opener is about to proceed to the rubbish bin without letting its manufacturer know that they have produced a reject.

Luckily, I did not ditch the old can opener out after buying the “new” one. It works much better that the rusty one. I will be using the old can opener until I find a quality substitution. If I ever find it.

This example may look petty and insignificant, but it is just the most recent one. I could move on and discuss the old furniture made of real wood, old cars that run for 50 years, old houses that remain standing for centuries; or modern shoes and clothes that fade, fall apart and wear out quickly, that it is becoming more and more difficult to find quality natural fabrics, that food these days is full of preservatives, chemicals and genetically modified ingredients...

The point is that the quality does degrade, and somebody who says that everything is getting worse may be quite right.

Well, not everything, of course. Medical and dental equipment become more advanced, the Internet becomes faster (files for downloading and websites become heavier, though), artists’ paints become less toxic... Technology is progressing, making the manufacturing process faster, safer, cheaper and more accurate.

With all that, we face a mystery: if the industrial equipment and technology is more advanced nowadays, why is the quality of goods that are produced on this equipment may be worse than years ago? How is it possible that instead of getting better goods and services at a lower price, we get constantly rising prices and the quality degradation?

This is how:

1. The manufacturers are saving on raw materials and taking short cuts

The manufacturers’ desire to make a bigger profit encourages them to save on the quality of raw materials and take manufacturing short cuts.

An example:

It may not make a big difference for a customer to pay $100 or $101 for a widget X. However, it easily makes a million dollar profit for the manufacturer if they reduce the real cost of each widget X by $1, produce a million of widgets X and sell them for the old price. Or, what is even more profitable, reduce the real cost and raise the price at the same time, and then attach a “new & improved” label to mask the degradation.

An illustration:

A Just Jeans belt labeled as made of genuine leather
A belt from Just Jeans labeled as “Genuine leather”
Just Jeans genuine leather belt turned out to be a fake
After punching a few additional holes, one of the extracted pieces fell apart and revealed the fabric base, plastic covering and synthetic foamy filling. “Genuine leather” turned out to be a cheap synthetic fake. Are words “Made in Australia” a lie too?

2. The deliberate erosion of quality

Regardless of how ridiculous it may sound, the transformation of the population into a “throw-away society” can be very profitable. We buy things, use them for a short period of time before they fail, throw them out and... buy the new ones, because we still need those things.

An example:

A manufacturer produces 10 millions widgets X a year. There are 100 millions people who want to buy widget X. It means that in 10 years everybody, who wanted to buy widget X, will purchase it.

If widget X of a perfect quality and lasts for 20 years, the manufacturer will have no market in 10 years anymore. If widget X is of a good quality and lasts for 10 years, the manufacturer will always have a stable demand, but without any opportunity to grow. However, if the manufacturer lowers the quality of widget X to last for 5 years, they can double their manufacturing capacity and profit.

Now, what if widget X will last only 3 years? 1 year? 6 months? Throw away, buy a new one, throw away again and buy the next one... That is how we have become the “throw-away society” with over-pollution and global warming. After this, the politicians can meet and talk about climate changes as much as taxpayers’ money can pay for those meeting, there will be little effect from such talks. The environmental problem is not the disaster on its own; it is a consequence of greed, waste and throwaways.

3. Quantity over quality

We can often hear that the population of the planet is growing, so there is a desperate need to produce more, cheaper and faster, regardless of the quality.

If people wish to have quality life, they should stay in a constant number. Everywhere.

The solutions

  • Choose what you buy carefully and thoughtfully. Do your own pre-purchase research. Ask people who already tried those products. Decide which properties of the product are important to you and look for them when you are making your choice.
  • Talk to others, word of mouth is a big thing! However, be aware of the word-of-mouth marketing and false testimonials.
  • Remember your consumer rights and make use of the manufacturer’s promises. The promises of 100% satisfaction, money back guarantee or lifetime warranty should not be just means of attracting customers; they must also be a responsibility. If it suits you, return faulty things. By doing so, you will get your money back, let the manufacturers know that you do not tolerate bad quality, and reduce the amount of rubbish.
    Manufacturers often promise long-time warranties and 100% customer satisfaction, but they have done their market research and know very well that the vast majority of their customers won’t bother going through the process of return, refund or replacement. Some — because it is cheaper and quicker to buy a new thing than waste the time on returning the faulty product, some — because the replacement or repair process involves giving away their personal details (which, in turn, are often used for more market research for new corner-cutting opportunities).
  • Always read the label, list of ingredients and check the expiration date. Sometimes there are products with better ingredients available for the same price, as their manufacturers save on fancy packaging or advertising instead of the quality. Check the weight or volume, don’t get trapped by tricky packaging when things look bigger than they really are.
  • Remember the saying “I am not rich enough to buy cheap things”, but also keep in mind that the price tag price does not always guarantee high quality.
  • Prefer quality over quantity.
  • Be aware that the low quality disease is also affecting the non-tangible goods like online services and software programs. Companies are cutting corners and outsource programming jobs, which means they are getting lower quality for lower cost. New websites, online shops, e-government services and Internet banking systems are rolled out as quickly as possible, which often means ditching the thorough testing stage in the software development process. The resulting errors and bugs may cost the customers quite dearly.

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