• A Light Bulb Went On

    Durable goods are catagorized as manufactured products that last three or more years: cars, furniture, appliances, and the like. The importance of consumer spending on these goods to the American economy is considerable. Three-quarters of the nation's Gross Domestic Product relies on it. 

    Increasingly over time, the world economy is dependent on a constant turnover of goods and an ever-tightening cycle of purchase, use, and discard. The ability of the Cuban people to maintain and restore automobiles that are over a half century old is seen as a clear sign of that nation's disfunctional market economy. Replacement parts for these classics are often improvised. Though it is now possible to purchase new imported cars in Cuba, the price for them is far beyond the means of the average citizen. Strangely, the few new cars being purchased lend themselves far less to the type of durability and creative maintenance the Cuban public is used to. The unpleasant discovery for this disfunctional economy will be that these newer cars that won't run nearly as long once they become used.

    In a firehouse in Livermore, California, there is a incandescent four watt lightbulb whose carbon filament has been burning continuously since 1912. In the early part of the 20th Century, many light bulb manufacturers were advertising light bulbs that lasted for 2,500 hours of illumination. In 1924, it was quietly decided among the major light bulb manufacturers to limit a light bulb's life to a maximum of 1,000 hours. By that time, the Shelby Electric Company of Shelby, Ohio, the maker of the now-legendary Livermore bulb had been out of business for a decade.

    Lasting durability, which some may consider a primary factor in evaluating the real quality of a product, now only functions for limited markets and smaller manufacturers. The vanishing fix-it shop in America is testament to the fact that modern mechanical items no longer respond to repair. Their increasing complexity reduces the number of individuals who can acquire the skills necessary to diagnose and address problems. Manufacturers very often design consumer goods in ways that make access and part substitution impossible. Often, replacement parts are not available from the manufacturer to begin with.   

    It is true that consumer items, especially automobiles and large appliances have become more energy efficient over the last 20 years. But during that time, the warranty for critical parts have declined to insignificance. The standard warranty on the compressor for a refrigerator, original or replacement part, is one year. One year is the limit as well for the motor of a dishwasher or front load washer.

    There is still quality to be found, albeit at a price. The American Giant Clothing Company manufactures sweatshirts, hoodies, and t-shirts with the stitch techniques and strong quality fabrics that characterized standard activewear fifty years ago. American Giant crewneck sweatshirts are domestically made of 12 oz. cotton fleece. They also cost $89.00 apiece. The on-going problem, beyond paying a hefty premium, is the consumer frequently has to wait for inevitable backorders on selected items. The demand is great. The manufacturing process is comparatively slow. The inventory is only available on-line. One might think in order to ensure quality in this current consumer economy, these contingencies will probably need to remain in place.

    I used to live in Norwich, New York, a town of about 8,000 residents. There was a Champion sportswear factory on a sidestreet, which made sense for the time. Champion, it turns out, was founded in 1919 in Rochester, about 150 miles away. Since then, Champion has become one of the many subsidiaries of Hanes and moved their corporate headquarters to North Carolina. Their manufacturing is done abroad. The company is a long way from that brick factory in Norwich, perhaps even further from 12 oz. cotton  fleece.

    One can argue the wisdom of out-sourced manufacturing as effectively as the advantages of energy-efficient light bulbs and large appliances. But it would seem that in this current environment of disposable consumer goods and a world economy that's increasingly dependent on market growth, a truly revolutionary act would be to manufacture items that lasted longer, could be repaired more readily, and were clearly good value for the money paid for them. Is that $89.00 for a sweatshirt from a website? Or $260,000 for a new Peugeot in Havana? As consumer goods proliferate throughout our world, as they inevitably and increasingly will, could the principals of quality and susainability follow them as well?