When I asked Edward Semmelroth, who fixes antique stoves for a living, to compare appliances now to those made in the past he says, ''it's like comparing apples and oranges. Older appliances life spans are measured in decades, not months. The very fact that I have stoves that have worked for 50-70 years without problems says a lot.''
Mark Steiner, Director of the Multidisciplinary Design Laboratory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, thinks the question of product quality isn‘t so black and white. ''Our market driven economy tends to reinforce the throw it away and get a new one culture,'' but continued Steiner, ''in general, I'd say reliability has improved.''
In the 1980's and 90's many American corporations, feeling they were losing ground to the Japanese, adopted practices, like TQM and Six Sigma, emphasizing quality control above all else. However, quality control does not a good product make. Although, as a whole, initial reliability and energy efficiency have improved, things like durability and serviceability seem to have fallen off the map entirely.
''Quality means different things to different people,'' said Steiner, continuing to say, ''we could probably make things last forever, if we spent more time actually thinking about it.''
But that begs the question, is that what people want? With all this emphasis on consumer satisfaction it seems that if most people wanted products to be more durable then they'd get just that. What if most people don't mind when things break, but are now actually coming to expect it? We are used to upgrading our computers, our TVs and our iPods every few years; why not replace our appliances too. So maybe people hope their products break, or least they don't complain about it when it happens. It may be worse than that. ''I believe that many people tend to dispose of products prematurely,'' says Steiner.
And what does this mean for the environment? It would be one thing if our throw away products were actually designed to be thrown away, but they aren't. Only a small percentage of products are designed with a recyclability or end-of-life strategy in mind and the fact is, although recycling would be a step in the right direction, it isn't a solution.
As consumers it's our responsibility to insist on better products. It's not enough for a product to look good; it has to be built to last. That may mean paying a little more upfront, but if the product lasts longer who knows, you may even save money. Consumers can demand product longevity by refusing to purchase products with short life spans; unfortunately, until companies start printing lifespan expectancies on their products there is no sure way to tell a good product from a bad one just by looking at it.
For now, consumers trying to make informed decisions before purchasing a product have to do a lot of research. A good place to start is online at sites like consumerreports.org and epinions.com where you'll find the opinions of product testers and regular consumers alike. Don't forget these sites after you use them either; make sure you remember to post your own opinion once you've finally settled on something. Love it or hate it, tell the world. The more the dialog of product durability is heard the more likely things are to change.