Built to Last

What if everything was built to last?

It’s easy to decry the lack of quality in today’s mass-produced items. Far better to patronize a local craftsman who puts her heart and soul into her passion, rather than trot down to the closest dollar store, even if the budget is stretched quite a bit by the former option. The craftsman will make something more beautiful, durable and enjoyable than whatever shoddy, cheap option the factory will foist upon you.

And that’s the crux of the issue, isn’t it? Quality matters, but quality costs. Durability doesn’t come cheap. Some argue that rich people do actually end up saving more money by buying better-made items that last longer, but those arguments neglect the sizable percentage of people who must live paycheck to paycheck and can’t even afford the necessary initial lump sum.

That last sentence reveals the sad truth that mass production simply works remarkably well. The giant explosion in population and material comfort in the last century was mainly the result of mass production of pretty much everything: medicines, houses, cars, clothes, food, etc. And it’s not as if the items produced were of poor quality. Rather, they are just good enough, or maybe even better than we imagine. After all, not every craftsman is actually very good at his or her job. Industrial mass production may not ensure durability or artistry, but it’s arguable that it could equal the output of smaller producers.

But it’s not a very strong argument. After all, anyone who has plopped down a sizable sum to invest in a quality pair of raw selvedge jeans knows that they simply are more comfortable and longer-lasting than your standard outlet store’s denim. So let’s just assume that individual craftsmen and smaller producers in general make better quality items due to their greater care and devotion and skill. Or if that seems too much a stretch, let’s just presume that instead of being built for turnover, items were built to last. After all, some items are built for rapid turnover; it’s simply how companies thrive, isn’t it? I make much more money for a car dealership and manufacturer if I buy a new car every few years. My clothes rip and tear; my plates crack and shatter; my hardware becomes outdated.

However, there are really only a few arguments in favor of this turnover:

Innovation: Moore’s Law and other inevitable (at least thus far) advances in skill and technology ensure that things will become outdated. Few things can’t be improved in some fashion. My Chromebook is somewhat limited in its hardware; buying a new one for a decent increase in computing power could be justified.

Profit: by spending more money on new, hopefully improved products, I may generate more income for those involved in the products’ creation.

Necessity: unavoidable accidents like tearing a giant hole in the crotch of your jeans (rest in peace, sweet New World-branded, well-worn companion), breakage, spills and the like.

The rub is that none of the above arguments need always apply. They can, but they don’t need to. My Chromebook will be perfectly adequate for the foreseeable future, despite its malfunctioning speakers. My clothes may not be as nice as they used to be, but as long as they are clean and fit reasonably well, I can ignore a small off-color stain or tear. Only a higher degree of necessity would prompt me to replace something I own.

And I’m willing to bet that most people act similarly. After all, most people don’t have enough money to consume conspicuously. Thus, we replace out of necessity, and hence we complain about poor quality that prompts such replacement. And that’s where the craftsmen versus mass producers come into play. We suspect that mass producers purposefully design items to break down…and in many cases, we may be right. The problem is, they do that for a reason, and that is cheaper items are more profitable, because we keep on demanding them.

Random note: Ellen Ruppel Shell shows in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture just how damaging discounts can be; the book is definitely worth a read.

Any product on a shelf is usually a collusion between a consumer and a producer. We want the lowest possible price for the best quality, and so we and the producers compromise…with the result being mass production. So let’s take away our demand for cheap goods as well. Let’s presume that we have the wherewithal to invest in quality items in every aspect of life. What would that require?

Well, for one, if cars and lamps and cups and chairs were manufactured to the highest possible standards, then everything would be more expensive. But we assumed we’d have the funds, so that’s settled. What next?

Profits would probably narrow for producers/suppliers, because even as prices would rise for consumers, costs of production would rise as well. And population growth and new markets would be increasingly crucial new sources of revenue. The market for innovation would probably become more exacting. After all, why upgrade from an iPhone 5 to 5S unless it has some particularly special feature? Is increased battery life really that crucial?

(At this point, it may be painfully obvious that I am not much of a gadget guy and especially no aficionado of Apple.)

Other markets would swell or shrink as income share would shift to compensate for higher prices and better quality. The proportion of income spent on food would probably skyrocket, which would be good news for farmers, since their need to depress prices by growing monocultures in bulk would slacken. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too preposterous to speculate that a taste for quality in furniture, tools and the like would translate into a demand for higher quality food as well. In that case, most mass-produced food that is demonstrably bad for you or poor quality would disappear.

Now, before we can opine upon how such quality standards could come about, let’s offer a quick defense of mass production, because as noted above, it’s not all bad. In many cases, mass production is responsible for reductions in poverty and vast increases in quality of life. The issue here is that as always with advances, some negative effects occurred (because nothing in life is free); namely the shoddiness generated in cost-cutting by substituting worse materials and lesser craftsmanship.

So it would seem that there’s a happy middle ground between the nostalgic vision of the local craftsman with a quaint shop only a short stroll away from your own door, and the mass production facility buried away in an unfamiliar country, and I, for one, think it is in an increased self-reliance and local sourcing.

The coming revolution in small, cheap 3-D printers will probably do three things: one, strike a sizable blow to the production of cheap plastic goods, two, clutter the world with discarded designs and waste plastic, and three, show people just how many household items they could craft to their own specifications. And that’s looking ahead; even now, nearly everyone I know enjoys pursuing a particular hobby or craft in order to save money and tweak things to their particular needs. My sister-in-law makes her own clothes, while my brothers have begun brewing their own beer. Nearly everyone I know saves money by cooking for themselves.

And the next logical step is to reduce dependency on other outside sources of raw materials and household items. Of course, I have neither the time nor the resources to build my own tables and such, but why not contribute to my local (state or town) economy by purchasing something made around here?

The great thing about such local producers is that you generally can visit and inspect the items yourself, rather than trust reviews on Amazon (most of which are probably fake anyway). And not only the quality of the items, but also the person who made them, or at the very least, the factory or production facility where it’s made. Or, perhaps, you can get some clearer information on where it comes from.

For example, every once in awhile I drop by a local farmer’s market because then I get to look the farmer in the eye, see that his frozen ground beef comes from a place not quite 50 miles away, and pay knowing that the money is most likely not disappearing into the international ether. This is a bit of an extreme at times; normally, I’d be just as content buying soap from a factory located nearby, or maybe beer made from hops and brewed locally.

Of course, there are caveats to these issues. I can only type on this Chromebook because the rare earth minerals it contains are found and mined in a few places in the world. Modern manufacturing techniques and cheaper costs of living elsewhere enabled the low price of my tablet. That’s why I think that a compromise between local sourcing, self-reliance (such as making your own food or mending clothes whenever possible) and international production is probably the best option. There’s no need to drastically reverse the trend of production, but there’s also no need to abandon what worked in the past.

The most difficult thing in all of this is that taking the time and energy to find things that are built to last, or building them yourself, is arduous, at first. Like any other virtuous regimen, it takes a while to form and then still requires some effort to maintain (like running every week to stay in shape). But there’s a peculiar pleasure in making your own things that people still crave; something about stamping your own personality on an item is appealing. People point with pride to bargains or their own skill in obtaining a rare item…probably because it adds a personal touch and reflects well.

So why not explore your own talents to a larger degree? Most people can build a small table with a few lumber scraps, sand it down, polish it, and present it with pride as their new coffee table. Others, like myself, focus firmly on the culinary arts. Since we probably already do it, why not kick it up a notch? Various apps and websites are only begging us to start doing more for ourselves, ranging from self-education courses at Coursera to DIY fashion pages on Pinterest.

Perhaps, in the end, it’s the most satisfying thing of all to make something that’s built to last, because so much in this world isn’t, and what’s more, we aren’t. The unknown sculptors of Renaissance statues still live on, in a way that most of us would probably enjoy. We may not be able to sculpt, but why not make something that can at least be passed down through your family?

When I was a kid, my dad, elder siblings and I built a tree-house that still stand in my family’s yard. It’s sturdy, small, comfortable and sufficiently similar to a small tower that one can imagine all manner of scenarios while perched on its roof. For all I know, that tree-house will outlast me…and that’s a good thing.


P.S. There is an issue lurking around the paragraphs above, namely, the morality of consumption when it ties in with trade economics. Some would argue it’s adequate when I pay for goods made in Mexican maquiladoras, as some of my money is going to pay the wages of those who need it. Others would state I should only shop in fair trade shops, where the wages are more equitable. Obviously the latter is preferable, but what if I begin shopping more locally? Am I depriving poor people elsewhere? The even more obvious answer is that rather than sending my money through wasteful channels elsewhere, I am addressing poverty in a more cost-effective fashion by spending my income locally. With fewer channels and layers to travel through, my dollars will count more if they stay in close circulation.




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