Tale of Two Cities
If you read the editorial―or now, even the regular―pages of publications like The New York Times, chances are you’ll frequently encounter a mention of an increasingly divided nation, where the gap between incomes continues to widen. Regardless of whether you agree with this argument or not, we’d argue that the more important gap in today’s domestic world is an even more subtle one that crosses economic boundaries, one that perhaps even explains the aforementioned one.
What is this divide? We call it the permanence gap. On opposing sides of the ravine are those who chose to live in a sustainable environment―and make purchasing decisions for the long term―versus those that live in a disposable world.
Unfortunately, the disposable types appear to be winning the battle at the moment. We were reminded of this by the story of a friend who recently had to spend $140 to repair an otherwise reliable 1968 Maytag washing machine. The machine, which sits in an unheated basement, needed a new belt and hose. When our friend questioned the repairman about the availability of new models, he commented that the same machine today would cost $650―but that he should better hurry to get one because the plant that made them was closing, and production would be moving offshore with subsequent declines in both quality and price―which is what the market demanded. Now, to us, it makes perfect sense to spend more on a washing machine that will last for forty years, rather than half that amount on one designed to last for five to seven (like other similar brands). But in the future, we won’t even have this option.
We heard another story from a friend who purchased a high-end, Marvin window fan made from steel for approximately $100. A few years after buying it, one of the fan blades fell off. With a quick call to customer service, a new blade was dispatched for free. But when our friend inquired with Marvin about purchasing another model, he was informed that the company no longer manufactures fans in the U.S., and has cut their imported fans price by over 60% based on market demand. Furthermore, the company changed its product line to reflect new consumer tastes. The new fans, it turns out, have a life expectancy of a few years and can’t be serviced.
We could go on with a number of other similar examples from automotive to high tech. But what’s clear to us is that manufacturers are following a consumer-driven demand to produce cheaper, throw-away products that last years, rather than lifetimes. The majority of consumers have traded price for quality. Period. They’d prefer to spend more money buying the same product over and over than spending more for an item that will last. And as a result, the option for buying quality is going away.
By moving to a disposable world, we trade long-term utility for short-term savings―as both individuals and as a country. We’re willing to put the local plant that has made the same product for nearly half a century out of business by forcing production offshore because of our demand for the cheapest possible product―regardless of quality. We’ll haggle our car dealer for the best possible price on the new car and consider our purchase a great deal, even when our trade-in has lost more than 50% of the value it would have in a similar period just a decade or two ago.
Indeed, permanence and sustainability are no longer a choice. They’re becoming an island in a world where individuals will do anything to save a buck today, even if it means spending more tomorrow. Ultimately, one wonders, will this make us disposable as well.