How long do you expect a pair of jeans to last? How about a t-shirt? A pair of shoes? In the Grist article Is Your Stuff Falling Apart, Blame Walmart the writer shares valuable insight about how Walmart has driven down the market for quality goods–and not just because they’re cheaper:
By using its market power to drive down the quality of manufacturing, Walmart gains an advantage over department stores and independent retailers because quality (and the knowledgeable service that typically goes with it) is no longer an important factor in a consumer’s choice about where to shop.
Walmart has changed consumer habits. We no longer think that a quality shirt that will last exists in any store–even an independently owned one with top-notch service. So, we figure we may as well buy a cheap one at a store that doesn’t offer any service whatsoever. And, as the writer points out, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: “As local stores and other competing retailers are weakened, manufacturers become more dependent on Walmart.”
The lowering of standards is a powerful thing. It’s easy to underestimate what it means that we no longer expect more than we’re given. I’m currently reading Jim Stanford’s Economics for Everyone –a great book if, like me, you feel like Economics is a bit too mystifying to engage in. Stanford identifies that one of the key tenets of neoliberalism (the belief that governments should not play a significant role in regulating the economy), which we’re living with today–both on a City and on a Federal Level, is:
A ratcheting down of popular expectations. There has been a deliberate and multidimensional effort since the early 1980′s to construct a whole new cultural mindset, in which people stop demanding much from the economy,and accept insecurity and vulnerability as permanent “natural” features of life.”
Sound familiar? Just like the tiny holes in your cheap t-shirt that appear after only a month of occasional wear, neoliberalism is about the fundamental lowering of expectations. Garbage becomes privatized. They start charging user fees to swim at the community center pool. Migrant workers wages are cut. You think to complain, but to whom? We’re living in the age of the “broken window.” The broken window theory of criminality basically posits that when people feel the world around them is in disrepair they are more prone to commit criminal acts. When we have holes in our clothes, and everything’s poorly made we are primed to expect less–of our government, of our economy, of ourselves and of eachother. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Or perhaps more likely, a bit of everything thrown together.
Don’t believe me? If you can afford it, go buy one nice, good quality, locally manufactured pair of jeans and consider how wearing them alters your perspective on the world. Be sure to report back.