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Pulling the plug on quality

May 31, 2019

cordWhen it comes to discussing technology, the focus today is usually on innovation – but that wasn’t always the case. The worrying thing about this is that we seem to have forgotten about quality, longevity and reliability.

That said, given that most tech we buy will be superseded in 12 months, does it really matter? Based on recent experience, I’d say yes. More on the cut cord (pictured) later!

Thirty years ago, I was working as a sales assistant in the ‘TV and Sound’ section of a department store (yes, when we still had VHS video recorders and 21″ – yes, 51cm – CRT televisions at around the $900 price point were the biggest sellers). Invariably customers would ask me which brand or product was the most reliable, which one had the longest warranty, and where was it made (Japan then being the preferred country of manufacture for quality consumer electronics).

People didn’t seem so hung up on features back than, or that they might be missing out on some new technology just around the corner. Most people wanted to know how well it was made and how long it would last. In fact, the first amp (NAD) and speakers (Richter) I ever bought are still going strong, and sound just as good as the year I bought them (1989).

Fast forward to this year, and I’ve just received my third multi-function cooker in three months after the previous two were faulty. We did have a ‘quality brand’ cooker originally, which lasted about two years before packing it in. So, instead of paying a couple of hundred dollars for the replacement, we went for the ’16-in-1 Multifunction Pressure Cooker’ for around $70 from a budget online retailer. My thoughts were, why bother paying a premium if it’s only going to last two years anyway? Also, how amazing to have a single device that has 16 different cooking functions! I think the old one we had only had four …

The first 16-in-1 cooker we received was faulty on arrival, and the second one developed the same fault after a month or so of use. At least the retailer had a pretty slick returns process (I guess they do a lot of them). First, I had to send them a video of the fault, then a picture of the cut electrical cord before they sent the replacement. The cut cord was to prove that I was no longer able to use the device – they didn’t want me to return the whole device – shipping fees would have ended up costing more that the product itself!

So what happens with all these faulty products? They just go into landfill. What a colossal waste of our finite resources in a time when we are facing the biggest threat to our environment we have ever seen.

Really, should I care about having 16 cooking functions? In the time I’ve had a working device, I’ve only used three.

I was given a Wi-Fi extender purchased from the same online retailer, and it was so bad that I stopped using it almost immediately and reinstalled my trusty Apple Airport Express, which is well over ten years old and still going strong.

What worries me is not just all the people who are buying this cheap, nasty technology – or the number of budget retailers out there selling this crap. The biggest worry is the pressure that this price-driven race to the bottom is putting on the ‘so-called’ quality brands to cut manufacturing corners to stay competitive. We are getting to the point where we will no longer have a quality option for tech. The sheer scale of the problem needs to be addressed before it becomes unsustainable (if it isn’t already).

And don’t get me started on other industries. Poor clothing quality, thanks to fast fashion,  is costing Australian charitable recycling organisations a staggering $13 million per year sending unusable donations to landfill. That’s also spilling over into the quality brands. Have you noticed that your new sheet sets barely fit your mattress any more? That’s because manchester manufacturers have realised they can save a few dollars on material by making every standard sizing a little bit smaller.

I could go on, but I won’t. I love innovation, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of our planet. We need to make manufacturers more accountable for the products that they are selling; if not by introducing longer mandatory warranties for technology, then maybe we need to force manufacturers more generally to take responsibility for their product over its entire lifetime. That way, it will force them to think more carefully about the overall quality and longevity of the product, the sustainability of the materials they are using and the ability to recycle or the product at end-of-life. That will also put a real cost on this cheap, throw-away tech that everyone seems so happy to buy.

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