Confessions of an EVERYDAY ECOTARIAN

creative, conscious and conserving ideas, thoughts and solutions

Are You Rich Enough to Buy Cheap? : bucking the disposable society February 7, 2009

My new Chaco's Z/2 Sparrow

My new Chaco's Z/2 Sparrow

I bought a pair of Chaco’s today. Considering that I’ve been out of a job for over two years now that may seem somewhat irresponsible. To be honest, it was a bit out of character for me, (although I did get them 40% off with free shipping). I am, after all, the woman who’s worn a pair of cheap $5 flip-flops for the last three summers. However, that’s probably equally foolish considering I have arches that rival those of the ancient Romans. Maybe it was a moment of impulsiveness or reckless spending or maybe it was the beginning of a new way of thinking and acting for me. I recently read a piece where the author was wrestling with the idea of being “rich enough to be poor”. Apparently, it’s an old Russian saying implicating the idea that if you buy cheap things, it will cost you more in the end. So, in theory, you have to be wealthy to buy cheap. Makes sense, right? Well, I think it’s much more complicated in the practical world than it is in the theoretical world, (isn’t that always the case?). After all, if you are already strapped for cash, how do you buy more expensive, higher quality items?

Well first of all, no one is saying that we have to have the best of everything. That’s an entirely different, (and equally misleading) mentality. I’m not talking everything. I’m talking some things. If we take a hard look at what we throw away -and how that’s changed in the last 100 years or so, we see some alarming patterns that I think not only represent a facet of our family economic systems but that also of our larger consumer economic systems.

Data from New York City Waste Collections indicates that the amount of garbage created per person per year went from 92 to 1,242 pounds from 1905-2005. Granted, packaging and containers represent 32 percent of that number, (and that’s another topic to be discussed). However, non-durable goods (products used less than three years) represent 27 percent or roughly 335 pounds a person per year. That’s 335 pounds of junk we each purchased last year that wore out, broke or stopped working too soon, (my flip-flops probably should be in that number, but I’ve resurrected them a few times with super glue). That number alone is about 3.5 times more than the entire amount of garbage per person in New York 104 years ago. Granted, things have changed since then. At some point, however, we need to start asking if this pattern is played out over time, where will we be? Is it something we can afford to continue?

So back to the family budget. How does buying cheap affect us and why do we feel compelled to do it? Well, let’s first take into consideration our extremely human and early-showing tendency to want more.

One of the first two-word phrases my kids learned was “I want”. That phrase along with “Can I…” are enough to drive a parent mad in a consumer-driven, thing-overloaded world. It’s so normal an occurance in our family that we have a code word: Greedy Gimees, (credit to the Berenstein Bears for that). So, to start with, we are all born destined to fight the Greedy Gimmees and if that wasn’t bad enough others, (also endowed with the Greedy Gimmees) have decided to exploit that tendency in us. Not only are we bombarded at all ages with messages of Bigger, Better, More! There is also this interesting little marketing technique, (can I call it that?) called Planned Obsolescence. From Wikipedia:

Planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence[1] is the process of a product becoming obsolete and/or non-functional after a certain period or amount of use in a way that is planned or designed by the manufacturer.[1]

What? They want our hard drives to die and our break pads to wear out sooner? Feeling a little betrayed? A little more from Wikipedia:

The purpose of planned obsolescence is to hide the real cost per use from the consumer, and charge a higher price than they would otherwise be willing to pay (or would be unwilling to spend all at once).

That cheap computer that tanks on you in 18 months isn’t so cheap after all. Not when you have to keep replacing it, (even if it’s only one piece at at time). Which, apparently was the plan all along. A little bit maddening isn’t it? It costs us more money, it ends up as more waste all while we are encouraged to be in a perpetual state of the Greedy Gimmees. I can tell you from experience, the Greedy Gimmees push gratitude right out the back door. And life without gratitude is not very satisfying.

So what do we do about this? First of all I’d like to give kudos to the Brits for taking a stance on it. In the UK, it’s considered a breach of consumer rights to engineer obsolescence into products. They investigate claims of products that consistently fail just outside the warranty period, (just ask Apple).

As individuals, and families, I think we can make an impact by bucking the disposable society. Here are some ideas:

Do research to find quality items that last. Before you purchase something, do a little research about the product. Find companies that are interested in longevity and quality, (they are out there). Use the internet to look at the vast review sites for various products. If you see complaints that a product is failing just on the other side of the warranty date -avoid that product.

Don’t count out second hand stores! If the product made it to a second hand store it just might have a better chance of longevity. Sift through the thrift stores and see if you can find a useful treasure that will serve you for years. My favorite coffee mug is a unique hand-made stone wear thrift store find, (it warms up like the beach in the sun…). It cost me .99 and I use it every single day.

Don’t be an impulse buyer. Impulsive buyers are the manufacturers best friends. They are the ones that planned obsolescence is tailored to. Impulse buyers buy into the ideas of bigger, better, more. No matter what you hear, you probably don’t need it right now. There is very little, (outside of oxygen…and coffee?) that we need right now. In fact, it would probably be good practice to let those impulsive feelings pass. Once you’ve ridden that wave without buying you will realize it wasn’t so urgent after all. The next time those feelings arise, it will be easier to wait them out before you make a buying decision. The name of the game in bucking the disposable society is delayed gratification.

Stop. Think. Then buy.

Save your money and wait for the right buy. If there is something you think you need or want to replace, then save your money, push that sense of urgency to buy back and instead wait and keep your eyes open. My husband and I deal with this by having a mental “list” of things we need to replace. For example, a table saw has been on our list for a couple of years. My husband did a lot of research, looking at reviews and inspecting actual saws. He settled on the one he wanted and then he waited. He waited a year. Now, my husbands business involves weekly, sometimes daily use of a table saw and he was using one that was an 11-year-old Sears special that cost $150 new. However, that old saw kept a’ spinnin’ and he let those urges past until he found a great deal. Just yesterday, in fact, the new models came out and the one he’s had his eye on all year long went on clearance, costing him 40% less than it would have new saving us hundreds of dollars. And instead of the perpetual Greedy Gimmees, he’s filled with gratitude that he now has a really nice saw that he’ll have for many years. Which brings me to my last tip:

Plan on using the item for the long haul. Fight the urge to go with the “Bigger, Better, More!” mentality. If you buy a quality product, then tell yourself you are going to use it for X amount of time -and stick with it. You will learn several things. 1. That you can get by without something bigger and better and 2.That those, (seemingly dire) urges to buy more are just that , urges. If you happen to be walking by the next generation of whatever you have, put your blinders on, remind yourself you made a commitment to fight the disposable lifestyle and keep walking -just let that urge pass on by you.

Sometimes, when I realize how enslaved our entire economy is to the idea of a disposable society, (some have argued that it was planned obsolescence that brought us out of the Great Depression) I wonder if our economy can survive otherwise. However, I know that people are endowed with this desire to have meaning in their life -to have their work mean something to themselves and to others. I’m just not sure manufacturing a ton of cheap junk is all that meaningful to anyone. Maybe, we could trade our disposable society for one that encourages high quality, carefully made items that will be with people for years. Maybe then we could afford to buy more expensive items and we could afford to pay the people who make them a fair, livable wage. And instead of being in a state of the perpetual Greedy Gimmees we could instead be in a state of perpetual gratitude for the care that was put into the items that go with us and gather memories during our lives.

So the next time you are considering a purchase ask yourself, “Am I really rich enough to buy cheap?”