The other day, I was shopping for my daughter’s 16thbirthday present, which dictated that I visit stores like Forever 21 and H & M so I’d have half a chance of selecting something she would actually wear. While I was browsing through the stores with throngs of female “tweens”, I was amazed at the incredibly cheap design of the clothing. Virtually everything in those stores is designed to make it through one season. I’ve purchased rags at Home Depot that are made of better material.  Its pretty obvious that apparel marketers are selling fashion rather than durability. This made me think about how the same trend toward marketing inferior products is beginning to dominate much of US industry including construction materials. I decided to delve into this topic to see if I could determine what is causing this disturbing trend.

Why is the quality of clothing, electronics, appliances, building materials, automobiles, etc. on the decline? The answer turns out to be more complex than just blaming greedy US manufacturers, outsourced Chinese fabricators, or the sluggish economy. There happens to be several factors that are driving this development. Although the deterioration of quality has affected all industries, I’ll focus on the factors that seem to be shaping the construction industry.

Just as rapidly changing styles are driving the clothing industry to use materials that only last one season, the construction industry is also a slave to fashion. Look at the rapidly changing designs of appliances, lighting fixtures, furniture, and plumbing fixtures. Interior finish colors, floor covering, and hardware finish frequently change based upon consumer preferences and what’s trendy at the time. It’ll be a sad day when granite countertops and stainless steel go out of style, because kitchens across the country are going end up in the landfill. This rapidly changing style influences manufacturers to design products with only a ten year lifespan. There is no need to design a shower head to last more than ten years if it’ll be replaced in eight. That stainless steel refrigerator is designed for a seven year lifespan since it will be replaced by white enamel in the next decade. Manufacturers are designing their products to perform for the fashion lifecycle rather than focusing on enduring quality.

Another element that contributes to the decline in product quality of the construction industry is the speedy development of new technologies. Innovative technologies have had a big impact on the sales of appliances, windows, wood alternatives, lighting, home automation, and home entertainment. There is no need to design kitchen appliances that will last for two decades if consumers are going to exchange them for Wi-Fi enabled products that can be controlled with a smartphone as soon as the technology presents itself. Why would a manufacturer waste resources designing a durable product if it is going to become obsolete with a technological change? Consumers are paying for new technologies, not for products that will last for a lifetime.

Another contributor to diminished quality in construction products is the mindset of the American consumer. The typical American has been conditioned by advertising media for his/her entire life. Thousands of advertising messages play every day and reinforce how Madison Avenue wants us to think and behave. The typical American consumer has become a sucker for the media. The hypnotic effect of the advertising machine convinces the populace that happiness can be found in a new living room sectional. We are well trained to appreciate the sizzle rather than the steak. We want new stuff, and we want it to be inexpensive. So manufacturers have responded by providing low-cost products using inferior materials like laminates, plastics, and substandard metals. Where manufacturers used to be focused on building a better quality mousetrap, they are now designing to meet a price point. So when you hear someone say, “They don’t building them like they used to,” you only have yourself to blame.

Finally, many markets in the construction industry are very mature and have succumbed to a commodity status. Product design has matured to the point where there is only minor differentiation between manufacturers. Take a look at the window business for example. There are very few differences between one US manufacturer and another. They use the same glass, wood, aluminum, finish, weather strip, and hardware. They achieve the same results in a battery of performance tests. In an effort to compete, these manufacturers have scurried to cut costs in materials, manufacturing, and distribution. The result is a host of manufacturers that produce mediocre quality products at a minimum cost to the company. I represented one manufacturer for many years that had an edict to cut 10% of their costs every year for four years straight. Although they gained a competitive advantage in pricing, they lost the quality that originally made the company a success. 

Given the influences outlined above, there is going to be an influx of material heading to the landfill over the next couple of decades. I believe there is a big opportunity for companies to design and manufacture quality products that double or triple the current lifecycles. Re-View has been successful in occupying a small niche market that demands a 100 year lifecycle window, which proves there is demand for quality products. I think there is a nascent trend that recognizes the positive impact of increasing product lifecycles, but until that trend catches on across the board, I’ll have to settle for purchasing this T-shirt that looks nice but will probably fall apart after five wash cycles.

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