Built to die: Why don’t things last very long?

I didn’t shave for about a week… Not because it’s never the best idea in the world to shave every day (though a lot of men do for varying different reasons) but because there are just times when we have to let ourselves go a bit and I hadn’t really let it out for a couple of months. And besides which, I actually look better with a bit of a beard (I won’t go into the reason it isn’t a permanent fixture if you don’t mind.) So when it came to return my face to the look of a hairless youth (I know, it sucks!) I dusted off my razor (an electric one) and started shaving… Then half way through I found the little foil that covers the blades and stops them from ripping my skin to shreds had developed several large holes. My razor, because of this, is dead. It still works- If I press the button the blades still go round… But I can’t use it anymore because a major part of it is broken and if I do use it then I’ll rip my own face off. The worst part is it wasn’t that old… Well not really. Two and a half years I’ve had it. And this is a widespread problem, one that is not just limited to my electric razor. It appears that most manufactured goods will break after only a few years use.

Now you would expect a good quality razor to last a fair while (Mine was a Remington and although it seemed to have a problem with shaving my neck it did the job it was supposed to,) especially as they don’t come cheap. A really high end shaver can cost nearly £100 and sometimes more if you want all sorts of bells and whistles with it. Mine didn’t… It was supposed to be half that but I got it on sale for £30. Still, it was a middle of the range, supposedly decent quality Razor and I expected it to have lasted a fair bit longer than it did. But no… After two and a half years it’s gone to Razor heaven- And that’s without using it every day. Imagine if I had shaved every day… How long would it have lasted then? Probably nowhere near as long as it did I shouldn’t wonder.

A similar (although more expensive) razor to the one that broke (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

But my razor isn’t the only thing I’ve had which lasted for less time than it should have done. Take my old Laptop. It lived for a mere three years before it decided to die irreperably. I know that technology such as computers date quite quickly but software is easily updated and for something so expensive to only last three years is ridiculous. I want a Laptop to last for double that at a minimum. And then you have my watch… One day the strap decided it would disintegrate. I can’t remember exactly when I bought it (I know where I bought it, H Samuels in Bangor) but it certainly wasn’t that old.

Looking around I realized that this isn’t limited to just me or to razors or laptops- This is a widespread problem that covers everything from Vacuum Cleaners to Washing machines, Dishwashers, Hairdryers Blenders and Televisions. Products these days just aren’t built to last very long. EVERYTHING has a shelf life of less than five years. There has to be some reasonable explanation for this. If something is of a fairly decent quality then, theoretically, it should last a lifetime. One theory I have read about is this: These products are made to fail. I’m not sure that they’re made to fail exactly, any company producing consistently faulty goods on purpose would be shut down immediately. It’s probably truer to say that things are built with only a short working life in mind, built perfectly well but only to last a few years, And there are probably a few good reasons for this.

First off you have the ‘technological progress’ argument. This especially applies to things like Laptops and Mobile Phones . People often want the latest technologies and equipment so from the manufacturers point of view it simply isn’t worth them making something that’s going to last for twenty years when it’s going to be thrown away after five. Fair enough- to make something that’s going to last longer than however long people will want that product is a waste of time, money and energy that could be utilized elsewhere. But the problem here is that this only applies to certain products. Technological progress is not uniform. Whilst Laptops and Phones and Computers may advance at an alarming rate, things like microwaves or washing machines and fridges don’t.  A microwave today, despite a few added bells and whistles, is essentially the same as it was in the seventies. If you buy a microwave today and one ten years from now the chances are they’ll be very similar machines. The same with things like Kettles and Toasters. There is no reasonable excuse why machines such as that should be built to last only a few years- It’s not like a mobile phone which is going to be replaced as soon as something better comes along. People want their toasters and their washing machines and there microwaves and other domestic electronics to last a good while so they should be made to last more than five years. And yet they just aren’t. These days you’ll probably be lucky if your washing machine lasts for much more than a few years.

And then on the other hand you have the ‘price-quality’ argument. Essentially you get what you pay for, as the old saying goes. Based on this theory a lower price model of something (let’s use a toaster as an example) will fail after only a short amount of time whereas a model from the upper echelons of the pricing range will last for a lifetime. Most people opt for the low-middle price ranges when it comes to buying things- They don’t go for the cheapest option but nor do they go for the hyper-expensive option so if the theory holds true then most people’s products will fail after a few years. But the old saying isn’t exactly true. Quite often the expensive items are only as good as the middle of the road items, which means it makes more economic sense to go for the aforementioned middle of the road items. It is entirely possible to pay a lower price for something and it can still to be of a decent standard and last a good length of time. Likewise, you can pay through the roof for something and it will still break after only a few years. Take for example clothes. I still have a couple of cheap sweaters I bought when I was sixteen and they still work perfectly well. Likewise, I have some cheap underwear from around the same time and they all show no signs of letting up any time soon. I have a Jacket which I paid thirty pounds for back when I was eighteen and although it’s getting a little moth eaten it’s still perfectly good. The flipside to this is that my socks and shoes never last very long. They will last a couple of months before they fall apart and that’s it. The only exception is my Converse which are now getting on for a fairly decent (by my standards) four years old. Really, I suppose it all boils down to the individual type/manufacturer of the product as to whether the price-quality argument works. In some cases the theory certainly holds water, but in others less so.

The third argument, which is probably the most plausible, boils down to a matter of business economics. If a product is going to last a long time then it stands to reason that it will be an equally long time before somebody buys a new one. Everybody has a fridge- and if those fridges each last for twenty years then quite obviously the number of people buying fridges would equate to only a few thousand each year (Mostly newlyweds and new homeowners probably.) This means less fridges are bought, less need to be manufactured and therefore there is substantially less profit to be made. So it’s all about sustaining business. If the manufacturers make a fridge that only lasts five years there will be substantially more people buying fridges more often and therefore a higher manufacturing turn around which inevitably means more profits.  This is, of course, shady and one of the worst bi-products of the capitalist system but underneath all that it is just businesses trying to do what businesses do, make money. There is now so much competition out there shorter product lifespans are the only way to make a decently consistent profit. If everybody was only buying fridges every twenty years the overall market share of the profits between each company would be so infinitesimal that many would go out of business. It is shady and underhand and downright unsportsman like I’ll agree, but it’s not illegal. It’s just the businesses trying to survive, albeit at the expense of the consumer.

Overall the reason for the short shelf life of consumer goods is probably a mix of all three. Some of it may be down to price quality whilst some of it (Laptops especially) may be down to technological progress and the rest due to shady business economics. There is probably no clear cut or definitive answer as to why today’s consumer products only have a short shelf life, all that is clear is that they do last only a few year and there is very little we can do to change that. To (almost) paraphrase Gandalf, it’s not for us to decide how long a product will last. All we have to do, is use them for the time that they’re given to us. And we just have to accept this, no matter how much we may detest having to replace our washing machines every five years. My new razor isn’t going to last forever. One day, maybe two and a half years from now, it will break. And then I’ll either replace it or stop shaving altogether.


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