Throwback: Stop Buying Crap

(This, again, was from my former blog 20/Infinity, which started off being about what I would do with a time machine, but quickly turned to — who would have guessed? — ranting. But I like that this one made me giggle while I was writing it, and I actually wrote the giggle into a parenthetical comment.)

Good, But Not Cheap


No time machine needed this week, because this one is appropriate right now. Stop throwing things away.

That’s the best advice I can give. It needs to be said to everyone in this society, including myself. Stop throwing things away.

Because whenever we throw something away and head on down to Wal*Mart to buy a new one, we encourage the culture of consumption that has been gradually built in this country since the 1950’s, and perhaps even earlier — though the scrap metal drives and paper drives and rubber drives and string drives of the WWII era, and the sheer desperation of the Depression before it, lead me to believe that it was indeed the 1950’s, still seen by Republicans across the country as the pinnacle of America, that started us down this road.

We should be able to make things that last, and we don’t do it. And the only reason we don’t do it is because we, as a people, would rather buy something cheap that will only last a short time, and then when it breaks, throw it away and buy a new one. Paper plates, for instance, and paper napkins and Starbucks cups. The only reason we use paper plates is because we can’t be bothered to wash the real ones; ditto paper napkins. Oh — and they’re cheaper. But look at what’s happened: when was the last time you saw cloth napkins outside of a fine restaurant? Does anyone have cloth napkins any more? Where would you even buy them? Maybe I’m just not paying attention, and cloth napkins abound in the linen aisles which I don’t often frequent (Word geek moment: often frequent. That’s a fun phrase. Sorry — back to what I was saying), but I do know that there are a dozen stores that I do frequent, and often (hee hee!), that carry paper napkins. They are the stores I’m in every day, so they are the stores that shape most of my daily purchasing. If they carry paper napkins, chances are good that I’m just going to get paper napkins, and not think about it. And paper plates. And sugar in little paper packets, instead of a bowl. So it goes.

We as a society shape what’s in the stores, and then what’s in the stores shapes us as a society; it’s a kind of biofeedback on a grand scale. When we are given a choice between, say, a $100 toaster that will last for twenty years, and a $30 toaster that will last for two, most of us buy the cheaper toaster, for two reasons: we don’t think that far ahead — the cheap toaster will make toast when I get it home today, and that’s as a far as I’m planning — and we are not willing to wait and save up the $100, or wait and go without the other things we would buy now with the $70 difference. Anyone who can buy the $30 toaster can save up to buy the $100 toaster, but in the interim, there will be no toast — and we can’t abide that. So we buy the cheap toaster, and then when it breaks in two years, we go back out and face the same choice — and come to the same conclusion: this one will make toast now, and I won’t have to wait to spend money elsewhere.

End result? Over twenty years, we spend $300 on toasters, rather than $100. And the landfills are nine toasters closer to overflowing. And the stores stop stocking the $100 toaster, because it doesn’t sell, and after twenty years when we lose our patience and just decide to drop the money on a toaster that lasts, we can’t find one, and we bewail the fact that nobody builds things that last any longer. Oh, yeah: and the toaster repair shop is out of business, because nobody is going to spend the money to fix a $30 toaster (they would to fix a $100 model) and Wal*Mart has built 3,000 new stores and half of the US’s GNP is in Chinese bank accounts.

All right, it’s time to stop beating around the bush and confess. This is not an arbitrary topic, culled from the massive crop of ideas neatly filed in a drawer in my home. This is really about coffee.

My coffeepot doesn’t work. There’s something wrong with the water intake, so when you turn it on it makes that gurgling noise that signals the last sips of water being sucked up, even though there is a full reservoir of water in the machine, waiting to be run through and turned into liquid gold. It’s probably hard water deposits, somewhere inside the tube, because it can be fixed by running vinegar through the Cleaning cycle — it has a cleaning cycle, which I think just makes it go slowly and maybe a little hotter than normal so as to melt away any dirt or coffee oil residue. This happened for the first time last week, and then again today.

The coffee machine is six weeks old.

Now, I admit to drinking a lot of coffee. No, scratch that; I drink an inhuman amount of coffee. It is no mistake that my online handle, for years, has been “Coffeesaint” or some permutation thereof. I invented, and celebrate, Coffee Day (February 11 — join the fun!). I drink something like 6 pints of coffee a day — that would be around 20 cups if I used a normal sized mug, the kind they serve coffee in at Denny’s or IHOP — and on days when I’m tired or crabby, I can hit the gallon mark. I started drinking coffee regularly when I was 18, and for the last 15 years, not one day has gone by that I have not had coffee. So as you can imagine, my coffee maker gets quite a lot of use, since my wife also drinks what most people would consider a lot of coffee on top of what gets poured down my own bottomless coffee-hole. I can understand that my coffee maker will break down sooner than it would in other people’s households.

But six weeks?

We have gone through three coffeepots in the last year, five in the last five years. The last four pots have all come from Wal* Mart, mainly because that is the only large retail store in town, but also because of the monetary impatience I described above. I really don’t want to wait to get a new coffeepot. I don’t want to do without coffee, and I like my morning routine of waking up, turning on the coffeepot (I grind beans and pour water the night before, so all I have to do is hit the button) and then getting in the shower, coming out to fresh coffee. I don’t want to boil water and pour it into a French press or something like that, some low-tech version of a coffeepot that would last many more years without breaking, but would take twice the time and thrice the effort to make my morning coffee. I hate that idea. I just want a coffeepot that will last for more than six weeks, or six months, or two years. I want one that will last, with some maintenance and maybe a trip to a repair shop, for twenty years. But I can’t find one. At least, I can’t find one at a price that will override the momentary temptation of a $29.99 price tag and coffee right now. So I do the same thing everyone else does: I buy that $30 coffee pot and complain.

But here’s an interesting thing. Like most people, I hate being a hypocrite. I hate telling people to do one thing and then doing something different myself. When I assign an essay to my English class, for instance, I often write the essay myself. Even though I don’t want my dog to eat too many salty snacks, if I get out the box of Cheez-its, I give him one — because I shouldn’t be eating them either, so if I can ignore my health for the sake of a happy belly, why can’t he? So now that I have written this little chunk of handy advice, I’m going to have to take it myself. See, I realize that our society is the way it is because we make it so. As I said, there are no decent coffeepots because we don’t buy them, because we’re not willing to do without, or to make do with some less efficient or easy system. We are willing, even eager, to use shoddy goods and throw them away so long as it spares us some effort, so long as it saves us time. And that’s why the goods we buy — everything from our clothes to our computers to our cars to our food — are poorly made, overly disposable, and cheap.

My father told me a maxim many years ago, and it’s amazed me ever since with how many applications it has in daily life (and he’d love that, because he loves aphorisms — I think he’s always wanted to be Ben Franklin. Or maybe Jesus.). I’m positive that it will come up several times in future columns, and I’m not surprised in the least that it has come up in the first five. The maxim is this: “There are three qualities you can have in any thing you pay for: cheap, fast, and good. You can only have two of them at once. If it’s cheap and fast it ain’t good, if it’s cheap and good it ain’t fast, and if it’s fast and good it ain’t cheap.” He told me this in reference to hiring workers, plumbers and electricians and the like, and I’ve found it to be unfailingly true; in fact, sometimes you can only have one of the three. But you certainly never get more than two. Look at my coffee makers: on the whole, machines are faster than percolators and French presses, so I’m always getting fast as one of my qualities; the only question is whether I want a good machine, or a cheap one. For the last five years, I’ve consistently made the same choice.

This is a truth that we as a society need to remember. We have spent long enough buying fast and cheap. We need to go back to good, because good things do not get thrown away, and so they do not use up our resources and they do not fill up our countryside with garbage. Of all the things we can do to improve our world, I think this is the easiest, because honestly, it would make us happier if we owned nice things, good things that worked well and didn’t need to be replaced while we still have the original receipt stuffed in the checkbook.

So my first piece of advice is this: buy good products. If it means you have to save up for the good products, then save the money; make do for a little while now, and then buy something that will actually make your life easier, and save you money, in the long run instead of just saving you money out of this paycheck and simplifying things right now. And my second piece of advice is this: if you, like me, do some things that you know you shouldn’t do, and you let yourself get away with it because it’s easier to ignore the issue than fix the problem, then start giving people advice. It’s like a nicotine patch for hypocrisy.

Now I have to buy a freaking French press.