What Is a Durable Good? Our Great Expectation
What does durable mean to you?
There are structures that are over 2,000 years old. Now, that’s something I would definitely call durable.
Unfortunately, modern economists have a surprisingly different view on what is a durable good. In this post, I’m going to explain the definition of durable goods by modern standards, how the industry has moved away from long-lasting products to a more “disposable” market, and how we can change that for a more sustainable future.
A Market Built in Dog Years
Have you ever wondered what it means to be a durable good?
Me, I didn’t give it much thought for the first part of my life, but if you had asked me, I would have guessed it meant something that lasted at least ten years or more. I was more than a little shocked to discover that the standard, as defined by economists, is just three years (at the most; some economic authorities set the bar as low as one year).
What does it mean to you when you hear the word “lifetime” in a purchasing context, like a lifetime warranty?
Again, I would have thought that meant my lifetime – this is the only table/ computer monitor/ car battery I’ll ever need to buy. But, when you read the fine print, most of the time you’ll find that the company you’re buying from has a very different definition of lifetime.
I worked for a major furniture company for a decade, including several years as a customer service manager, and I can tell you that a lot of people were dismayed to find that the “lifetime warranty” on that $5,000 sofa they bought only actually meant seven years – the average expected lifetime under normal household use.
Maybe they were thinking dog-years on that one.
Durable vs. Nondurable Goods
The U.S. Department of Commerce divides consumer spending on goods into three classes:
- durable or “hard” goods (things that last at least three years, such as appliances, cars, firearms, or jewelry)
- nondurable or “soft” goods, also called consumables (things that last less than three years or are immediately consumed, such as cleaning products, food, cosmetics, or fuel)
- services (intangible products such as massages, landscaping, tax preparation, or medicine).
Products that are truly consumable, such as food or gasoline, make perfect sense. We are consuming them after all. But products like clothing, including shoes, are also considered soft goods. Gives a new definition to the term “eat my shorts,” doesn’t it?
Some of this flies in the face of how we actually use our goods too. I don’t know about you, but I still have some boots, jackets, and other odds and ends that I got in high school or shortly after. That’s not how producers, or economists, frame these ideas though. These things are just not meant to last.
However, durable goods aren’t really meant to last long either, and they’re not made to be fixed: you replace it and throw the old ones away. (1)
I had always taken it on faith that the durability of products was based on the actual durability of the materials of which they were composed. A pair of shoes or a tire lasted as long as it did because those were just the realities of the rubber, leather, cloth, and other substances that made them up. In some cases this is undoubtedly true; but, for the most part, consumer goods are short-lived by design.
There is one simple economic reason for this: there is a lot more money in producing less durable products. Disposable or less durable goods are generally less expensive to produce and will bring consumers back into the marketplace more often.
If a car is designed to last for twenty years then every sale removes that consumer from the market for a considerable amount of time. Economic growth being the end-all, be-all of modern business that it is, producing truly durable goods can be a hazardous strategy. (2)
History of the Automobile
Cars are the perfect example because it was the automobile industry that truly brought the practice of planned obsolescence to the fore in modern business. In the 1920’s, General Motors observed a slump in car sales due to market saturation: most consumers who could afford a car had one, and those cars were made to last. In response, GM adopted the bicycle industry’s tactic of updating their models annually.
Henry Ford, by contrast, was an engineer at heart and clung to the idea of making good cars that lasted – until the early 1930s, when GM became the industry leader, and companies that wanted to stay competitive had to adopt the same production model. Smaller competitors that could not afford to annually redesign all their models were driven out of business, and the “Big Three” were soon the last companies standing. (3)
Planned obsolescence became the standard practice in virtually every industry, from light bulbs to cars. You can still buy products that are truly meant to last, but the cost of such products are beyond the reach of most of us. For example, how many Rolex watches have you owned?
Our Great Expectations
“There was a long hard time when I kept far from me the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth.” – Charles Dickins
In a way we have been trained to expect things not to last. So all we really look at now when making purchasing decisions is the price tag.
I once saw a hand-carved solid teak dining table for sale for $7,000. I was in my twenties and poor, and that table was about a third of my gross annual income, and the shock of the price tag was all I could see at the time.
Now, I think how a table like that compares to your average $2,000 dining set: that table could last generations if it was cared for, and could be repaired to improve longevity in ways that veneered particle board just can’t.
“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” – Steve Jobs
But there are other factors besides product design that contribute to keeping customers in the market place. One such factor is technological development.
As the pace of technological advancement sped up, new technologies became a perfect way to build obsolescence into consumer products. While leading companies are not in the habit of publicizing exactly when their innovations were conceived or perfected, it’s not hard to imagine that companies that pride themselves on being on the leading edge would also be very strategic about how innovations are brought to the marketplace.
A perfect example of this is personal computers.
If you bought a computer any time in the ’90s or 2000s you probably had the same feeling I had: even if you could afford the top of the line machine, it was obsolete practically by the time you got it home. It seemed like revolutions in processing speed and new hardware were happening almost daily.
Now leading tech companies seem to have slowed the pace of advancement (although it’s hard to say whether innovation is slowing or they are just being more reasonable about how innovations are released). But, all the same, every year or two brings a new model of smartphone or computer operating system. And there are plenty of ways to incentivize consumers to keep up, from the “keeping up with the Jones”-style social pressure to simply refusing to support outdated products.
Fashion and Durability
“And, after all, what is a fashion? From the artistic point of view, it is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”. – Oscar Wilde
Apart from deliberately producing inferior products, or almost immediately making them obsolete through technological advancement, fashion is another way to keep consumers returning to the market.
Creating and reinforcing a strong cultural style consciousness inspires people to replace goods that still have plenty of life left in them for the newest and latest trend. Some products blossom and then disappear (Swatch, anyone?), while other products rotate between a limited variety of options (like the bizarre carousel of two-button, three-button, and double-breasted men’s suits)
It’s Time for Sustainability
It’s not always easy or even feasible: a 10” Finex cast-iron grill pan costs about $175; for that same price (or less) you can buy an entire 12-piece set of stainless steel cookware. If you take really good care of that cookware set you can probably get ten years out of it before you have to start replacing some of the pieces or the whole set. The Finex pan, by contrast, could be passed down to your grandchildren.
Whenever you can, go for the product that will last longer, and buy from companies that practice sustainability and zero-waste policies. And when it comes to replacing your household goods, dispose of the thing you’re replacing as responsibly as possible: if it’s still useable, sell or donate it; if not, recycle as much of it as is recyclable.
If you’re looking to make your next purchase of a household good something that will last, and want to support companies that are producing goods that are truly durable, a great resource we have found is BuyMeOnce, where you can buy such products, running the full gamut from cosmetics to large appliances, made by a variety of manufacturers.
Also, looking to buy reusable items to start your zero waste lifestyle? We have put together a list of sustainable online shops in the US that can help.
So here’s a question for you on the topic of durable goods. Do you have an item that has been passed down in your family for a few generations?
If so, we would love to hear about it!
Thank you so much for visiting Late Summer Mama! I hope you found this post helpful.
If you have questions about any of the topics talked about in this post, please leave us a comment below and we will be happy to help. Likewise, we would love to hear your experience about this subject or any other information about durable goods you would like to share.