January 9, 2023

How China Feeds Our Urge to Consume

Our desire to have the newest and the coolest doesn’t come without costs.

In today’s hyper-fast, ultramodern, shiny, chic, have-it-now, have-it-your-way consumer culture, it’s all about having the coolest items at your fingertips as quickly as possible. We can own virtually any household or consumer item tomorrow, even if we discovered its existence only yesterday. We can have it shipped to our doorstep from the other side of the world. It seems our dream of the ultimate consumer culture has come true.

Or is it a nightmare?

Have you ever heard or uttered the classic lament, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to”? Well, that’s certainly the case these days. The tradeoff of the push-button power we as consumers now possess is that many of the items we buy are of markedly lower quality than they were just 10 years ago. Even items from stores, labels, and brands that we trusted for years are letting us down. We spend money on these products only to be flummoxed when they arrive in shoddy condition and break or fail faster than expected.

Some want to blame the consumer culture, and this certainly plays a part. We as consumers have become spoiled by the technology and global supply chains that allow us to have whatever we want in short order. The most cynical of cultural commentators will say that we’re weak, that we’re easily brainwashed by advertisers, that we have too much money and too much credit. The case can certainly be made for the spoiled modern consumer living in a materialistic, easy-charge culture. Global companies and suppliers, social media trendsetters, and mass-market entertainment have played key roles in convincing us that we simply cannot live without the latest version of our tech toys or the latest trend in fashion that arrived 10 minutes ago and will be old news 10 minutes from now.

But there’s more at work here than just our uncontrollable desire to have shiny new objects.

Consumer engineering, a theory devised in the early 20th century by advertising pioneer Earnest Elmo Calkins, stated that effective design, advertising, and marketing by companies could create artificial demand for a product. Perhaps the most successful practitioner of consumer engineering in modern times was the late Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple Computers. Jobs made millions of people believe that they couldn’t live without portable music. Behold, the iPod. Then he convinced everyone they need a smartphone. Now Apple produces a new version of the iPhone every year or two, with millions worldwide lining up to buy each new version regardless of whether they need to replace the one they currently possess.

This brings us to another practice that companies engage in called planned obsolescence, which is the practice of designing products to have a determined length of service rather than to last as long as their component parts will continue to operate. This is not to say that all the items we buy are made to deliberately fail at a predetermined time. That would violate consumer protection laws and companies would never do that. But it’s extremely difficult to prove whether a product is designed to last as long as it possibly can. Is it mere coincidence that we’re constantly on the hunt for and purchasing new automobiles, home appliances, tech products, clothing, and so forth?

Paradoxically, we’re convinced that newer products will last longer, even though we don’t plan to hold onto them for long. But in an era of high-tech advancement, while we have products that do much more and are more versatile, these products actually aren’t built to last like those we purchased in less technological times.

Why not? Because we like our products cheap, and the one country in the world that has mastered cheap manufacturing like no other is China. Prison labor, lax worker safety laws, playing fast and loose with international trade rules, and completely disregarding environmental impacts have all made China the world’s manufacturing powerhouse. International conglomerates, many based in the U.S., will endlessly virtue-signal their concerns for the poor and for the planet, but they turn to China to manufacture their goods, because they want to trim costs and maximize profit.

American consumers — beset by inflation, business stagnation, and significantly reduced career advancement opportunities — are caught between wanting to live the good life sold to them by marketers and fulfilling that illusive dream with cheap goods.

Breaking this cycle of conspicuous consumption won’t be easy. We have to remember that quality is more important than quantity, that not everything has to be disposable, and that something made to last is more valuable than something made merely to sell.

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