Is the quality of goods and services getting worse?

The problem

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:

Old good quality can opener and new bad quality rusty can opener.
Can you guess which opener is new and which is old?

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 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 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?

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.

Just Jeans brand belt labelled as made of genuine leather.
A belt 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 outer layer and synthetic foam filling. The “genuine leather” turned out to be a cheap synthetic fake. Are the words “Made in Australia” a lie too?

Deliberate erosion of quality

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.

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 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.

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.


Write a Comment

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