Is the quality of goods and services getting worse?
How often do you hear that something used to be better? From time to time, most people catch themselves saying “They don't make 'em like that anymore”, or something along those lines. Some laugh that it's just a sign of getting older. To find out whether it is an illusion or reality, 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.
I have an old can opener, older than me. However, because its cogwheel and blade became a bit blunt after decades of use, I bought a new one 3 years ago. You can see both of them in this photo:
Now, don't be too 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 does the job much better.
I did not keep the new can opener's receipt and the packaging that promised customer satisfaction and many years of warranty. And even if I did, nobody would believe that I have not stored it in a bucket of salty water somewhere in the garden. So, the relatively new can opener is about to go to the rubbish bin.
Luckily, I did not throw the old can opener out after buying the “new” one. It still works, and does so much better that the rusty rubbish. 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 old garden tools that are indestructible, old furniture made of real timber that serves generations, old cars that run for 50 years, old houses that stand for centuries...
It is becoming increasingly difficult to find high-quality, long-lasting products. Somebody who says that everything is getting worse may be quite right.
Well, not everything, of course. Some equipment becomes more advanced, the Internet becomes faster (although websites become heavier to counteract that), some materials are replaced with something less toxic... Technology is progressing, making the manufacturing process faster, safer, cheaper and more accurate. Which means we face a mystery: if industrial equipment and technology are more advanced nowadays, why is the quality of goods that are produced with that equipment is worse than years ago? How is it possible that instead of getting better goods and services at a lower price, we get quality degradation?
Here is a comparison of the battery life of two iPads that have always been used in the same environment by the same person. The older iPad was purchased in December 2011. So in December 2022, when this picture was taken, it was 11 years old, running iOS 9 — the highest possible for it. The newer iPad was purchased in June 2022 and was just 6 months old at the time this picture was taken, running the latest iOS 16, with every possible battery-draining app and feature removed or disabled, including all location services, sync, push, tracking, background app refresh, Bluetooth, iCloud, App Store, Siri, search, motion effects, etc.
The old iPad still works perfectly well, and the new one had to be purchased purely because the vast majority of apps were no longer available for iOS 9, and many websites no longer worked with such an old version of Safari. However, the old iPad is still heavily used for reading texts, listening to podcasts and watching videos on the websites that still do work with it.
For this comparison, the battery on both iPads was run down from a 100% charge to the same level of 14% through the same usage pattern. As you can see, the old iPad still holds its charge remarkably well. This, unfortunately, cannot be said of the new one. Which begs the question: Why a whopping decade ago was Apple able to make an iPad that lasted (and still lasts!) for weeks on one charge, but now they “improved and optimised” everything to the point that it barely survives a couple of days?
Manufacturers are saving on raw materials and taking shortcuts
The manufacturers' desire to make bigger profits encourages them to save on the quality of raw materials and take shortcuts. For example, it may not make a big difference for a customer to pay $100 or $101 for a thing X. However, it easily makes a million dollar profit for the manufacturer if they reduce the real cost of each X by $1, produce a million of X, and sell them for the same price. Or, what is even more profitable, reduce the real cost and raise the price at the same time by making a slightly different version of X and attaching a “new & improved” label to it.
Deliberate erosion of quality and longevity
Despite the catastrophic long-term consequences, the transformation of the human population into a “throw-away society” can be very profitable in the short term. We buy things, use them for a short period of time before they fail, throw them out and... buy a new replacement.
For example, if a manufacturer produces 10 millions of thing X a year and there are 100 millions of people who want to buy X, it means that in 10 years everybody, who wanted to buy X, will have it. If the X is of excellent quality and lasts for 20 years, the manufacturer will have no market for 10 years out of 20. If the X is of good quality and lasts for 10 years, the manufacturer will always have a stable demand, but without much opportunity to grow. However, if the manufacturer lowers the quality of the X to last for 5 years, they can double their manufacturing capacity and profit.
Now, what if X is crappy enough to 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 climate change. We 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. In addition to the excessive global population growth resulting in more consumption and pollution, the current environmental disaster is also a consequence of greed, waste and throwaways.
Many products, no matter how badly made, often display promises of 100% customer satisfaction, money back guarantee, or lifetime warranty. Such promises should not be abused as mere means of attracting customers; they must be a responsibility. 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 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 further market research and new corner-cutting opportunities).
The race to make the cheapest products is bad for both, the consumers and the environment. If something only costs $2, how many people will return the faulty product and get a refund? It all ends up as landfill.
- Choose what you buy carefully and thoughtfully. Do your own pre-purchase research. Decide which properties of the product are important to you and look for them when you are making your choice.
- Talk to people who already tried the product. Read online reviews, but beware of marketing tricks and false testimonials.
- Remember your consumer rights and hold manufacturers accountable for their promises. Return faulty things whenever you can. By doing so, you will get your money back, let the manufacturer know that you do not tolerate bad quality, and reduce the amount of waste.
- Always read the label. Pay attention to the list of ingredients and check the expiration date. Sometimes there are products with better ingredients available for the same price, simply because their manufacturers save on fancy packaging or advertising instead of quality.
- Choose quality over quantity. Remember the wise words
I am not rich enough to buy cheap stuff, but also keep in mind that a hefty price tag does not always guarantee high quality.
- 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 IT 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 skipping the thorough testing stage in the software development process. The resulting errors, bugs and security holes can cost their users quite dearly.
For further pondering, have a look at the excellent Australian programmes: The Checkout, to become a savvy consumer, and the War on Waste, to rethink your consumer habits and reduce your environmental footprint.
So true.... This is how the human race will soon end up buried under mountains of toxic waste and rubbish. The insatiable throw-away consumerism is only good for the select few who make big money on it. That is why they use every trick up their sleeve to convince everyone to buy low quality stuff, throw it away, and then buy new again.
Liz, Ipswich QLD Australia, 27 July 2009
It is not some miraculous scientific breakthrough, but rather the fundamental change in human behaviour that will have the biggest impact. Humans must rethink their attitude towards energy and consumption.
Anonymous, 30 June 2011
Great to see pages like this!! I wish more people had this attitude and ability to understand what is really important in life.
Craig Reucassel and ABC seem to have followed your lead and made an excellent TV series War on Waste.
Jason D., 21 May 2017
I think another big part of the problem is us; too accustomed to rapid cycles of hi-tech and often unnecessary upgrades. Too many people eagerly replace still functioning devices with "new and improved" versions long before even the flimsy electronics started malfunctioning. Nobody who was queuing for iPhone 8 did so because their iPhone 7 stopped working.
Marco, 9 October 2017
I often marvel at the timeless technology like Rolex watch, Montblanc pen, or Bialetti stove-top coffee maker. These things can easily last an entire lifetime, or even be passed to another generation. Not like the modern appliances build upon short-lived electronic components and quickly failing batteries.
Anonymous, 14 November 2019
Good point about the old "technology"! Those things have no non-mechanical parts. Nothing needs to be replaced unless truly broken. And even then, it often can be repaired. Those of us who are old enough may remember such thing as repair shops, where people used to take all sorts of appliances to get them fixed, and then go on using them for another decade or two. Like the aforementioned Bialetti coffee maker: the design is a century old and can last a century in use, making excellent coffee. Easy to use, easy to clean, nearly impossible to break. Compare it to any of the modern fancy espresso machines with LCD screens and in-built computers. You will be lucky if they last a decade! And when they break, it will be impossible or too expensive to repair, so off they go to the landfill.
Noel, Barossa SA Australia, 22 February 2020
The governments of the world could fix this with the stroke of a pen. It's too bad they're all owned by the corporations getting rich off this waste.
Rick, 1 August 2021
I agree completely with this article. I do home renovations, and it is becoming harder and harder to find quality materials for the jobs. Even the quality of $500,000+ homes are built with sub-par materials (OSB/foam sheeting, foam trim, weak truss systems, OSB beams, etc.). It's difficult to tell the customers that the structure of their home is not strong enough (by load ratings, deflection standards) to support the requested upgrades. Along with the materials, good quality tools are becoming very hard to find. Most of the craftsmen that I work with will look for broken older tools to rebuild with original style parts before settling on the new, plastic, cheaply built counterpart, if they can't find an older version.
Like your can opener, my older tools have outlasted any of my newer tools by far. I also can't count how many contractors replaced their work trucks/vans with a new model, and had either immediate problems, or parts just falling off in the first year - then regretted getting rid of the old truck/van. I hope this trend changes, like you said, it is wasteful, not cost effective for the consumer, and an all around lower quality of work and life. There is definitely a market for higher quality products, I hear people say "I would have paid more for a well built version of blank", and I don't really understand how consumers have put up with the way it has gone so cheap.
Joe, 12 September 2021
it is so true, and it profondly saddens me. being born in the 80s, i remember the end of an era where things were good quality. at a young age in the 80s, i was being told to consume less, start recycling, and stop polluting. in the next 40 years, instead of being better at preserving the planet, us humans are now doing 1000% worse.
also what is bad is every one of the cheap made items, that we consume ten fold, is now over wrapped in plastic packaging that is also discarded... even by being selective, i still fill a whole recycling blue bin every week full of plastic food and item packaging!
-clothing: still have 30+ years old sweaters, coats, jeans that were worn a lot and passed from gen to gen. still in perfect condition! now they only last about a year or so depending on use!
-china... they feed us BS: it is so hard to find quality stuff, because every cheap stuff is also marketed as "high quality", so it is harder for us to find them, if they even exist. it is also hard for the few quality stuff manufacturer to just survive under all that unfair competition. before, you could know something is quality just by the price... now they make 2 identical items: one $1 and the other $30, and say that the $30 one is quality...
in the end: government won't do anything, corporations will keep producing trash, and humans will keep consuming. as hard as it is to hear, only total annihilation of the planet will end that toxic cycle.
-try as much as you can to resist the huge temptation to buy stuff that you don't need.
-take most excellent care of your cheap stuff, because it is designed to break.
-build it yourself! it will outlast everything you can buy.
remember the 3 "R":
priority is REDUCE, fallback is REUSE, and the last resort should be RECYCLE.
"pure trash" should be completly removed from the equation.
Sam, 4 January 2022
This disastrous outcome is inevitable since economies and corporations operate based on perpetual growth on a finite planet.
Anonymous, 18 May 2022
Thank you for this article. I feel like no matter how hard I try to make informed decisions about what I purchase, I'm still getting burned by poor quality and ever speedy product failure. It has gotten to the point where I am hesitant to buy anything for fear of contributing more garbage to the landfills and parting ways with my hard earned money as life just keeps getting more expensive. The greed of companies needs to be dealt with, otherwise we will have more garbage on our planet than space to live in.
Anonymous, 18 June 2022
The root of the problem is in that all our politics and economies are based on perpetual growth: you must want more, produce more, sell more, buy more, consume more, throw away more, pop out more children and then buy, consume and throw away even more. More people, more jobs, more growth, more power, more money, more stuff, more waste... More, more, more...
How many more billions of people have to be produced on this planet before the greedy politicians and corporations realise that this is totally unsustainable?
In biology, when something grows perpetually, it is called cancer. And it is deadly. Human race is doing the same. And just like cancer eventually kills the body it lives in, humans will eventually kill the planet they live on.
Anonymous, 26 October 2022