Is the quality of goods and services getting worse?

“They don't make 'em like that anymore”. 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 got worse”, yet I have not even reached my thirties yet. Moreover, I remember saying this 10 years ago. It means the perception of quality degradation doesn't selectively affect older people only. 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:

Old good quality can opener and new bad quality rusty can opener.
Can you guess which opener is 3 years old, and which is over 30?

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 customer satisfaction and many years of warranty. 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 proceed to the rubbish bin.

Luckily, I did not ditch the old can opener out after buying the “new” one. It still 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 timber that serves generations, old cars that run for 50 years, old houses that stand for centuries...

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find quality 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 this 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?

Manufacturers are saving on raw materials and taking short cuts

The manufacturers' desire to make bigger profits encourages them to save on the quality of raw materials and take short cuts. 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 “new” version of X, or attaching a “new & improved” label to it.

Just Jeans brand belt labeled as made of genuine leather.
A belt from labelled 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?

Deliberate erosion of quality

Despite catastrophic long-term consequences, transformation of the 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 new ones, because we need a 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 X is of excellent quality and lasts for 20 years, the manufacturer will have no market for 10 years out of 20. If 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 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 on more consumption and pollution, the current environmental disaster is also a consequence of greed, waste and throwaways.

Empty promises

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 consumers and environment. If it only costs $2, how many people are diligent enough to return the faulty product and get a refund? It all ends up as landfill.

The Solution

For further pondering, have a look at these 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.