The Brittle Spear, Part I: A Disposable World

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As the tip of a spear grows ever sharper, it also becomes more brittle. 

Much has been said about planned obsolescence where companies engineer products to fail earlier than they should. Rather than make a product last as long as it can, they build in fissures that will rupture at a future date, breaking the product, so a new replacement one will have to be bought. Engineering fault lines designed into your new phone makes for some exciting speculation.

At the same time, market forces may have a more fundamental impact on the quality of the next thing that you buy. Low-value competition and value chains where choice is price-driven mean that businesses judge suppliers by one KPI alone: price. Quality is a minimum viable measure, and then only price matters. In such a world, your thing will be made from lots of things all obtained for the lowest costs. 

Some recent developments have had an impact, strengthening this effect. In the first and second industrial revolutions, clusters of cooperative companies “grew up together” where there was a limited competition but a focus on relationships, long-term growth, and quality. Initially, no one could, in any kind of repeatable way, make a million of anything. So, when finding suppliers, quality, and quality-at-scale were the key differentiators. What would then happen is that the local department store would go national, requiring a million shirts, 20 million buttons, three million liters of dye, eight million kilos of cotton, etc. Fearful of losing the one order that could place them in a higher orbit, networks of firms cooperated to make high-quality, mass-made goods. Teams scaled to reliable mass production together (generally, I know that there are a lot of exceptions to this). 

Now, the clients are often multinationals, so more short-termist, and mercenary. With average CEO tenure lower and without family ownership, businesses now want to massage “good” quarterly numbers and focus on cash and cost. Therefore, outsourcing is now a question of paying the least for the product that meets the minimum standard. If a Chinese factory that has been knitting your sweaters for a decade, implements a daycare and more training for workers, this comparatively small investment could make them lose your next order. With agency dilemma at the very core of the economic system, quality is under siege.  

Consumers are now also spoilt for choice through many more buying options from a “flatter” world. There are many more stores (online and off), all selling a variety of goods. Your clothing retailer, supermarket, and dedicated sunglasses retailer could all be trying to sell you very many different models of sunglasses at price points from $3 to $300. We can be thoroughly surprised now by the intensely low cost of some sunglasses and as surprised at the stratospherically high cost of others. Both compete for the same faces and it seems as if pricing is completely divorced from functionality and a price-quality determination now. Veblen goods abound, while other items in the same category are packaged litter. Specialized online stores will sell the same goods at better prices, and new brands will proliferate as barriers to entry to manufacturing, distribution, and retail are lowered. These factors all combine to put cost even more in the driving seat. With fickle consumers and more competition, global success is ever more elusive to market participants. 

Whereas we first bought things because we needed them and replaced them when they were beyond repair, now we shop for fun. A new top bought to pass the time rather than for intrinsic utility and quality has to be cute or fun, not good. Things impulse-bought to entertain can be cost-driven, as well, and make a supposed rational consumer even more fickle. 

Simultaneously, we are all in constant communication with the latest trends and more isolated from them. On the one hand, global brand avatars on Instagram instantaneously globally popularize the same thing everywhere; on the other hand, we’re all in filter bubbles. So, there are global stars, movies, and music, driving trends across many categories in many countries, but also limited reach events taking place at the same time. Your DIY star or emo poet may be specific to you and your fellow participants in that subculture, but their appearances and likes will help drive others shaped by—I shudder to think—Cardi B. Even if you don’t like or watch Cardi B., stars themselves have less staying power with, across all fronts, supergroups being replaced by an endless parade of one-hit wonders and three-year famous arcs. This results in a reduced half-life for stars, trends, and products.   

These Larkees are treated so that they look used but can’t stand up to much use at all.

I still have my first pair of Diesel jeans bought one Hollywood-starlet-lifetime ago, but the latest pairs have grown thinner, with more plasticity, and have lasted a year or two. At a high-end department store, I tried to find a wool sweater with a friend that was actually wool, not with added polyamide or in another material. In the women’s section, we could not find one actual completely wool sweater. In the men’s, only very few. I was once doing a 3D-printed wearables project, and a thin film producer told me that their films could last for eight washing machine cycles. I replied that they would then need to do a lot more development work, to which he said that, in fact, most clothes are washed less than eight times. Increasingly, so much clothing is so low quality that they can’t recycle it or use it as rags for industry; instead, it is burned. 

Sticker Sensor thin films made by the Lee Research Group at Purdue.

We are creating a disposable world where firms are penalized for creating long-lasting products, and low quality is the norm. More fickle consumers and global competitive pressures will make success greater for some but less tenable for many. Rather than create the best products in all categories, we’re differentiating our junk, segmenting our trash, and converting our money into delayed landfill. 

Images Creative Commons Attribution, Renett Stowe, David Hilowitz, Marco Verch, Adifansnet,

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