Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sustain-ability: Too Much Shit

I've written previously about the death of the middle class. One of my points was that it's hard to find mid-level quality items -- everything is either really expensive or it's shit... and there's no shortage of the latter.

Since we have a teenager who seems to be growing out of clothing before they're even worn, let alone worn out, we make regular runs to Goodwill to donate. This seems fair because, since the kid has a clothing budget, there's a lot of shopping at Goodwill too. So it makes for kind of a nice loop.

Recently I had a car-full of stuff to donate. Some clothes and shoes, a couple of coats that stopped fitting over the summer, and some pet supplies for our cat (RIP). I took a cruise past the Goodwill truck nearest to me and they weren't open. So I drove over to the bigger, permanent facility. I was floored by the huge amount of stuff, both wedged under the unmanned truck and almost completely filling the parking lot. Just, all kinds of STUFF. Furniture, mattresses, construction stuff (sinks, etc.). And all of it looking beat up and near death.

This is actually from a local Goodwill dropoff,
though not the one I'm writing about here...

Part of this is due to rampant consumerism, I'm sure. But another big part of it is that most stuff you can afford to buy in the US is shit.

I run across this all the time. Reviews for products inevitably go like this:
"Great quality, I've had mine for 20 years."
"I bought one based on good reviews and it's complete crap!"
"Seems like they changed the design / materials / construction from the old ones."
"Used to be good, but when I got a new one, it broke right away."
"Ever since they were bought by X, the quality and services has just dropped."

I also see this with the products we buy, like the mattress saga I wrote about in the post I linked to above. Or some small kitchen appliances. With rare exceptions, you'd be better off buying a toaster, blender, or processor from an antique shop than a new one. Items I've had from my mom that are 30 years old are chugging along while newer items die rapid deaths.

Or look at the made for TV phenomenon -- interesting and innovative ideas so poorly executed that you're honestly better off without them.

We are absolutely drowning in shit.

Not just shit that we don't need (which we already know we have way too much of) but shit that we need but that's still poorly constructed crap. Complete with built-in obsolescence and an inability to be repaired. And this is what really frustrates me. Because it's one thing to suggest that people might not need quite as much fast fashion or cheap toys or disposable gadgets. It's another thing to suggest that you can't even have a working toaster or coffee maker. That a mattress that will last more than four years is out of the 99%'s price range. That you're just stuck with shit. Shit that will break, forcing you to buy more shit.

Who's seen this quote?

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”
― Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms: The Play
It's been making the rounds on Facebook. And it's absolutely true. It's much more expensive to be poor. To buy one roll of toilet paper after another, rather than a giant bundle from Costco. To get the cheap boots and have to buy them over and over. To get fined and fee'd to death because you, hello, don't have enough money. 
But what terrifies me is that maybe there aren't actually any good boots left. You can spend a little bit of money on a cheap piece of crap that won't last... or a bunch of money on an expensive -- often designer -- piece of crap that won't last. Quality is the endangered species.

I suspect that there are still quality items. But they are so far out of reach at this point that you may not even know about them. Bespoke suits, hand tooled boots, custom crafted furniture that's not made of particle board and despair. But there's no way to catch up to that. You can never, ever win. Because you still need shoes on your feet, something to wear, and something to sit or lie on in the mean time.
The idea that the toaster you spend your last $10 on from Walmart never worked right and died right after the 30-day warranty ran out is painful. The idea that the $100 toaster you got from the home store also never worked right and died -- twice -- so now they won't replace it is also pretty painful. The idea that in our age of technological marvels you can't have a piece of properly toasted bread? That's fucking brutal.



At October 26, 2016 at 9:14 AM , Blogger Andrew B. Watt said...

I feel this and live this. As I upgrade my woodworking shop, it's so often the case that the best tools are sixty to a hundred years old; and you get them at yard-sales, not at woodworking tools shops like WOODCRAFT. Even when I do buy quality tools new, they're $400 and up for new hand tools at the upper end of the tool spectrum, and the quality power tools are $1000 and up. Yet ironically, it's the high price power tools that are likely to have the most difficulties; building for Amazon and Home Depot puts price-point pressures on even the most reputable manufacturers.

A friend of my parents recently commissioned a custom dining room table. It's nice and all, but he told me that he had it built by a cabinet maker friend for half the price of a professional furniture maker. The furniture maker priced himself out of the market by bidding too high — even though his work was beautiful, it was the price of a man who intended to work at a leisurely pace toward perfection, with care in every stroke of a hand plane. The cabinet-maker, on the other hand, handed the job off to a junior guy who did all the work by machine, glue, and power. My friend was impressed with the smoothness of the table — but I could see the marks from the power planer, and the smoothness was achieved with varnish and polyurethane, not sandpaper, scraping steel and elbow grease.

I am, myself, at best an amateur woodworker, amateur bookbinder, amateur clothing maker (maybe someday leatherworker who can shoe himself). I can't help feeling that I would be quite useful, six to ten years after the apocalyptic fall of civilization — but that I might be useless and even unlikely to survive for most of that first decade. ;-)

So the hands-on skills vanish, the high-tech tools vanish, the low-tech tools are terrible, and the process of rebuilding becomes much trickier because people lack the relevant surthrival skills.

Cultivate Maker hobbies, as much as gardens. The costume shirt you sew may someday be your only...

At October 26, 2016 at 6:12 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worry about this because I want to build my future home from the bottom up and hope that the quality will be able withstand time.

At October 27, 2016 at 8:51 AM , Blogger Ivy Bromius said...

Craftsmanship areas are one of those places where older is better and it just costs too much in labor for most to have it done correctly now.

At October 27, 2016 at 8:52 AM , Blogger Ivy Bromius said...

The good news is that doing it yourself is one of the few ways you can ensure quality. The bad news is that your tools and supplies (even up to quality lumber) are going to be the Achilles heel. But at least you have the skill and physical stamina to do it yourself, which is awesome.

At October 30, 2016 at 4:33 AM , Blogger Jo said...

You are singing from my hymn book here - I have two price points: secondhand, so ridiculously cheap, and ridiculously expensive from small, artisanal crafters, or niche manufacturers. I had my (now ex-)husband buy me a Dualit toaster on a business trip to the UK. It was stupidly expensive, but is made the same as Dualit toasters were made in the 1930s - anyone with a screw driver and a soldering iron can fix anything that goes wrong with it, so I should be able to keep it forever.

I also find people who can fix things for me. My shoe repairman has fixed shoes, but also coat zips and a purse zip. The guy who fixes my washing machine also reconditions old machines and resells them. I now have one of his 'almost as good as new' machines.

The truth is, fifty years ago, everything was far more expensive than it is now. There were no cheap options, so people had to save up or do without, and when stuff broke, it was designed to be mended. Really, most people just made do with far less stuff. That is my goal. Not much stuff. But the stuff I have? It is going to be made well by people who give a damn, and who make a living wage..

And really, although it sounds like I have a champagne budget, I actually have a hovering around the poverty line income, but I so rarely buy anything except from an op-shop that occasionally I can be deliciously extravagant with something I know will last a very long time.

At November 2, 2016 at 6:32 AM , Blogger Ivy Bromius said...

I have a great cobbler and an affordable tailor. I can also mend my own clothing. I'm going to have to take a look at those toasters. Are only the European ones quality?


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