It is no secret that the quality of consumer merchandise has dropped significantly in recent decades. Products made today are not designed to last more than a season or two and are nearly always cheaper to replace than to repair.
While it appears on the surface that this decline in quality is offset by the significantly lower price of manufactured goods, the impression that people have actually been saving money on these cheaply made, mass produced goods is one grand illusion. Instead, citizens have been putting less money into savings than ever before as nearly every dime they make goes toward replacing broken merchandise or buying low priced consumer goods that they simply do not need. Let’s take a look at the history of this shift toward preferring quality over quantity and see if there might be a ray of hope at the end of the tunnel.
The balance between quality and quantity was first tipped in favor of quantity during the beginning of the industrial revolution during the 18th century. Prior to the industrial revolution, the majority of the products used by populace were made one at a time to fit public demand. These goods were far from cheap, as each item was made by hand by experienced craftsman would were often members of guilds that placed the value of quality above all else.
Pre-industrial goods may have expensive, but they were made with pride and designed to last for a lifetime or even to passed down for generations. The industrial age marked the end of the age of the craftsman and the beginning of the age of the assembly line. Manufacturers and society at large cheered as more products were available at a more affordable price than ever before, raising the standard of living for nearly all citizens and ushering in the birth of modern economy.
As the decades passed and the economy grew, manufacturers eventually found themselves in the position of being able to mass produce far more goods than anyone could possibly need. In order to move these cheaply made products out onto store shelves and into the hands of shoppers, it was necessary to start manufacturing consumer desire as well. Thus begun the dawn of the age of modern advertising, which was born out of the need to create an artificial desire in the public for consumer goods that they had no natural need for. It took a little while for advertisers to truly learn what made their customers tick, but they had managed to convince the public of the necessity for unnecessary consumer goods hook, line and sinker by the turn of the 20th century.
The Decline of Quality
While the industrial revolution launched the age of the mass produced of consumer goods, it was not until much later that the balance in the marketplace truly tipped in favor of valuing quantity over quality. As our society moved into the age of capitalization during the late 20th century, the competition between product manufacturers became increasingly fierce as corporations were forced to become leaner and more streamlined in order to thrive.
One way in which they did this was by making incremental changes in their manufacturing facilities that allowed for products to be rolled off of assembly lines more efficiently by cutting corners here and there on quality control. Companies were pleased to note that customers not only bought the low priced, cheaply made goods, but they also had to buy them more often due the fact these products did not last very long before breaking down.
“They just don’t make them like they used to,” consumers grumbled, but they soon grew accustomed to the changes in what was available in the market and learned to accept the shift in quality as the price of being able to afford more consumer goods than they were before. Corporations noticed this change in spending habits, and the age of rabid consumerism began in full swing. Fueling this surge in cheap but affordable merchandise was a public that was generally on firm ground financially, meaning that they could afford to buy things that struck their fancy even if they were not designed to last. After all, products were so affordably priced that they could easily be replaced when they inevitably broke down.
The Illusion of Saving Money
While consumers were under the impression that they were saving money during this period, the corporations manufacturing and marketing these products raked in the cash. Cheaply made merchandise that lasted a third as long as quality goods simply meant that consumers would buy three times as many products as normal. At the same time, the low cost on cheap merchandise did not mean that consumers were squirreling their money away in investments or retirement savings. Instead, they were actually spending more than ever before on other consumer goods that they could not possibly need.
The money that was saved on cheap clothing was just spent on more cheap clothing or other low priced goods that would last a season before breaking or simply being discarded for the latest trend. The age of the super consumer continued well into the 21st century, by which time an entire generation of consumers had reached adulthood without ever knowing of a time in which people generally valued quality over quantity. Those who had not bought into the consumer feeding frenzy began to lose hope that the public or the marketplace would ever change.
The Reemergence of Quality
It is always darkest before the dawn, as the old saying goes. Just when it appeared that consumer culture of the West had gone off the deep end for good, our society seems to have been pulled back from the edge of the cliff by the growing disillusionment with cheap consumer goods. As it turns out, our saving grace has been the bursting of two bubbles that have woken up the people and the marketplace that trend of quantity over quality stands to destroy our very way of life. Quite suddenly, our society had a cold, rude awakening that our behavior was devastating both our economy and our planet.
The first of these factors is the severe global recession that has had an impact on the vast majority of the way that consumers think about how they choose to spend their money. Over the course of a few short months, millions of people found themselves out of work with mounting debt and an uncertain future. As consumers stopped spending and waited for the economic storm to pass, they were forced to notice the low quality of the goods in their home.
People began to realize that cheaply manufactured goods are worth very little when you can no longer afford to replace clothing or appliances the moment that they showed signs of wear. At the same time, unemployed citizens began thinking about where there products were being made as many of the few manufacturing sectors in America finally disappeared.
The second major factor that is moving the marketplace toward reevaluating the value of quality made products is the increasing interest in energy efficiency and green technology. Despite political squabbling, there is very little debate in the scientific community that global climate change is real. It is also increasingly clear to average citizens that the increased carbon emissions that are causing global climate change are directly impacted by consumer activity. At the same time, there is also a growing movement towards energy efficiency and green technology due for economic reason. Succinctly speaking, energy efficient technology has a positive impact on the bottom line of nations, corporations and consumers because these products simply last longer and are much cheaper to operate in the long run.
Unlike the mass produced products of the late 20th century, the emerging market sector of green technology values quality craftsmanship extremely highly. Be it a hybrid automobile, a mobile computing device or an offshore wind turbine, only products of very high quality are energy efficient enough to have minimal impact on the environment. Similarly, products that are made to last for many years to come result in far less carbon emissions than cheaply made products that must be replaced due to shoddy craftsmanship.
Despite the decades long decline of the quality that we have seen in our consumer products, it appears that industries are finally getting the message that the public will no longer put up with cheaply made products in favor of saving a few bucks. While it may take time for this revolutionary sea change to affect every consumer industry, it is clear that our society is finally making a shift towards maintaining a healthy balance between quality and quantity.
It will look like this: How to Keep The Balance Between Quality and Quantity