Back to normal? (Part 1)
It really irks me when people say things will return back to normal after COVID-19. It’s like Trump saying “Make America Great Again!” Was America great? What was our so-called “Normal”? Let’s take a closer look.
Exhibit A: leaky spray head. Two years ago my trusty old spray head died after nine years so I started my odyssey of finding a replacement. Went to a reputable hardware chain and got the most expensive model. It broke after one season. Went back to a different store and bought a different model. It too broke after one season. And a third one broke a few months later. I cannot find something as cheap and as reliable as my old spray head.
Myth #1: We enjoy high purchasing power and abundant freedom of choice. Purchasing power means the degree of obtaining material or service. High power means we can obtain more. Compare to yesteryears we may have the illusion that we can buy more, but look at what we bought. In my example I bought three spray heads, spent about $50 with tax. This is much more than the $8 I paid for the old one years ago even with inflation accounted for. Not to mention the time and energy I spent on getting them. Did I have lots of choices? Sure, I could go to the handful of stores in town or shop online. But I will be getting pretty much the same product back. Cheap material, fancy-looking designs, built to last only one season.
Fact: Current Capitalistic Consumerism Economy wants to limit consumer choice and ship more products. Henry Ford famously said we can have any colour we want as long as it is black. Since then not much has changed. Repackage, rebrand, re-colour, re-launch is the way to fool our eyes and to open our pockets. There is a concept called “Designed Obsolescence”, it is so evil that we felt embarrassed to talk about it in business school but everyone is doing it. Can we make a car that last 50 years with only minor maintenance? (remember, humans build the pyramids, aqueducts, windmills and waterwheels and landed on the moon). We CAN build long lasting cars. We don’t want to because we are on the mindset that says “millions of people will be out of work.” What if those people went to work on the next thing: build toasters that will last 50 years? and next, cellphones, computers, TV’s, headphones, microwaves… and finally, god-willing, a garden spray head. Before you know it we would have a society who takes pride in our output. We would have customers who feels good about acquiring a tool that last and can justify the material and energy that went into its production. A society with a holistic, sustainable mindset is meant to last.
Exhibit B: A four dollar sketching set. I was looking for some art supplies for my toddler and came across this wondrous set of five pencils, a sharpener, an eraser, a case and most impressively a fully articulating mannequin for four dollars plus tax. You know how much a mannequin cost? Between $20-$50 in a real art store. May be more. A mannequin has a minimum of 15 joint with proper tension setting and 30 plus moving precision parts. If we agree the minimum living wage in a third world country is $5/hour then it must takes less than 1 person hour to acquire the raw materials and produce and transport this sketching set. I have an engineering degree specializing in operations management and a master’s degree in business. I can tell you right here right now this is an impossibility!
Myth #2: Technological advancement, operational efficiency and economy of scale can produce anything for almost any price point. There is lot of good things that came out of industrial revolution, scientific discovery, management science, global transportation network, financial monetary system, etc. All these gave us more products for less money but one of the biggest cost reducer is another dirty word in business called “Incomplete Accounting”. Companies are allowed to not pay for certain costs of their production in order to keep the cost down for their consumers. In my sketching set example those are the environmental clean-up costs, the health insurance, safe standards, the minimum wage costs of third world countries. When companies don’t have to worry about their people or the land they can churn out product like you wouldn’t believe. Add in shrewd middle men to the mix and you have products on the shelf for a ridiculously unsustainable price. These immoral products push out good wholesome products like an invasive species. What is the alternative? What if our governments insist on minimal wages, on environmental certificates, on safe labour practises, healthy care etc. on all the companies and all their 2nd tier, 3rd tier supply chains. What if we have a society that only have products for sale that have accounted for all the true costs? What if our society stopped taking advantage of other less informed and lowly educated people? A Society with a Compassionate way of consumption is meant to last.
Stay tuned for “Back to normal? (Part 2)”
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