Friday, August 22, 2008

As products get crappier, malls get gaudier, especially
for upscale buyers, and especially overseas. This is
one section of several theme areas in a mall in Dubai.

This summer required our household to consider some major purchases, and it was an eye-opener. It began modestly, but with portent: the old microwave gave out. The next one lasted about a week--among its defects, the light stopped working. We took that one back, exchanged it for a different brand. That one took several weeks for the light to go out. We don't much like it, it's pretty shoddy and beat up already, but it doesn't seem we'll get anything better even if we try.

Then the stove developed a glitch that involved it turning the oven on all by itself for up to a few minutes. When this began to happen more frequently, we consulted two repair people, who diagnosed it as caused by two different problems, but came up with the same price for fixing it--which was nearly the price of an identical new stove.

Our stove was about four or five years old, but salespeople of new stoves told us that these days that's all they last: five years. I admit to coming from a generation in which gas stoves lasted 20 or 30 years. Refrigerators lasted almost as long, and again we were advised not to expect too much of our new one.

I realize that new appliances have new features designed to be more energy efficient, which might increase the initial cost. But why would it affect how long they last? We also had trouble finding appliances without additional bells and whistles we didn't want or need.

As we all know by now, practically everything we buy is now made in China or some other place overseas, beyond our health and safety laws. But add to that this fairly shocking shoddiness, and we understand some of the consequences of ceding our industries. It's also a predictable consequence of the Wal-Mart- China alliance and the fixation on lowering costs, which now goes way beyond Wal-Mart to most of the products available to other retailers.

American consumers, consumed by low prices and with no thought of the waste involved, are also to blame. When Wal-Mart figured out that if they sold lawn mowers at a low enough price, it wouldn't matter that they lasted but one summer. Consumers would just come back and buy another one the following spring. Let the landfills fill up. Let future generations worry about it.

It's a psychology that in a somewhat different way also affects a somewhat different segment: cutting-edge electronics. I've also been shopping for an Ipod type MP3 player, and I liked what I saw about a new Creative Zen player. But scanning the reviews on Amazon, I saw a question about the battery--could it be replaced? The answer was, no. But it would last two or maybe three years, and by then, you'd want a new player anyway. This response was not written by the manufacturer or retailer, but by a consumer.

Now I can guess that because this player is so small that its battery is simply built into it. But the attitude that a two or three hundred dollar device is expected to last for no more than a couple of years is appalling.

But what is really disturbing is the attitude that throwing this stuff away at that rate has no consequences. The millions of discarded cell phones alone are creating environmental havoc. We are being polluted and poisoned by e-waste at a fantastic rate. Well, not we consumers so much right now--a lot of this is shipped off to poison people who can't afford to buy any of it. But our ground water, our land and air are all inevitably at risk.

All for...junk.