Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Caveat Emptor: Four Commandments of Consumption

Dear Readers: The theme of this blog is things--things that tell a story about life, relationships, society, culture. Things that are in some way significant, beautiful, historical, necessary, or useful. But the fact is, some things are just things. (Or, as George Carlin would say, “stuff.”) And some stuff is, quite simply, annoying. This is a rant about annoying stuff. If rants aren't your cup of tea, I hope you'll scroll down and check out some earlier posts. :-)

A week or so ago I got a new frying pan. Our old one, a copper-bottomed pan that belonged to my mother, had become warped and didn’t cook evenly.(I have a theory that there are two kinds of people: the Matching Pan People--who refer to it as "cookware"-- and the rest of us. We are proud to be among the Unmatched Pan People.)

So anyway, I bring the new pan home, remove the cardboard covering, and peel off the label, which is taped smack in the middle of the pan. I start washing it so I can make a nice vegg
ie and scallop stir-fry. A full thirty minutes later, after scrubbing with boiling water, soap, a scouring pad, and Comet cleanser, I have finally gotten rid of the sticky residue left from the tape, or at least enough of it that I am fairly certain it won't form a chemical reaction with my ginger sauce and kill us. I fail to notice that the pan also has tape on the bottom, so now it is permanently scorched in.

Which leads to one of the vexing enigmas of modern consumption: Why do stores ruin products by attaching labels that damage the things they are selling? For example, those little T-shaped plastic strips holding price tags on sweaters and socks that pull the threads when you try to remove the last little sharp bit that is always buried in the fabric.

Even more annoying are the deliberately shoddy products, where the manufacturer’s only goal is to get you to buy the item, like a fly-by-night snake-oil salesman who will be in the next county by the time your hair turns green and the diarrhea sets in.

Such companies put all of their effort into marketing. What do they care if the thing falls apart or doesn’t work after you’ve paid for it? How many people will take the trouble to return a $1.99 utensil? Example: We have a pasta spoon that is so heavy on the handle end that if you rest it in a pan or bowl, it flips out, flinging sauce and noodles everywhere.

The most annoying of all are the stealth-crap products, those whose shoddiness doesn’t become apparent until a few days or weeks after you buy them. The pants with the hem that falls out after the first washing, the jackets that lose their buttons, the new shoes that lose a heel when you're walking down a flight of stairs (it happened to me).

Case in point: I bought a silver metal bathroom set that included a soap dispenser (the spigot broke in two weeks), a toilet brush and a toilet paper holder. Now, I may be missing s
omething here, but what is the one purpose of a toilet brush? To scrub the toilet. And what is one thing that is always in a toilet? It doesn't take Helen Keller and Teacher to spell out the answer: W-A-T-E-R. So wouldn’t you think a container designed to hold a dripping toilet brush would be made of stainless steel? No such luck. It is made of a metal that rusted through in just a few months, leaving marks on my floor. (I apologize for this graphic photo. I swear the stains are nothing but rust!) Of course, it has no manufacturer’s mark and I can’t remember which of the ubiquitous box stores sold it, so I can't file a complaint or get a refund. Instead, it is one more piece of trash for a future Wall-E to compact and stack into a massive pyramid of waste.

Such experiences have led me to create the Four Commandments of Consumption:

The First Commandment: Thou Shalt Buy No Crap. I will buy quality things that will last, or I won't buy them at all.

The Second Commandment: When Possible, Thou Shalt Buy Used. It's better for the environment -- no packaging to dispose of and it keeps perfectly useful stuff from ending up in a landfill. Best of all, there are no labels to remove!

The Third Commandment: Thou Shalt Ask 'Can I live without it?' Shopping for shopping's sake seems to be the new national past-time, encouraged by shows like Sex and the City and stores piled with doodads so cheap that we figure, well, why not? But a little item that seems to cost just a dollar has hidden costs, from cluttering the house to clogging landfills.

Which brings me to the Fourth Commandment: (non)-Garbage In, Garbage Out. For each new item that comes into the house (excluding groceries and cleaning supplies), at least one object must go, either in the garage sale, Ebay or charity pile, or in the trash. The result? Equilibrium, Koyanaskatsi, Life in Balance, Less Stuff to Dust.

Do you have any Commandments to add? What is your most frustrating product story? Post them in Comments


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with this post! One of the main points of today's consumption so-called craze, is everybodys working, moms and dads, singles etc. Us people, don't have time to shop and examine every nook and cranny of a certain product. If we take the time to ask, the answers we want aren't always answered, because who ever is selling it hasn't a clue about the product itself. We may take a product home, and eventually discover it's of poor quality. We are annoyed. We may in some cases, return it, if we have all the proper papers, packaging etc to do so, if we bother. If we don't, well, it's replaced by another hopefully better product. Maybe we're lucky, maybe we're not. In all honesty, the company and the manufacturer who sold it in the first place, knows all this about us "the clients" and their lack of time, patience etc and literally take advantage of their clients. It is dishonest in my opinion that companies do that with their clients. Shoddy products should be somehow exposed and quality brought back to our shelves.
    It's more environmentally friendly in the long run. My frying pan has been in my family for as long as I can remember. I inherited it and it is a most treasured piece of resistance! LOL! A very heavy black iron skillet. I love it. My kid will get it one day and she will be told of it's durability etc. It is a piece of fine quality and probably didn't cost an arm and a leg when it was originally bought and maybe nowadays, they are hard to find and cost a bundle - but regardless, I think it's worth it. Buying cheap stuff that breaks will cost just as much in the long run. Better to get quality first and hunt around until we find exactly what we are looking for.

  2. I liked hearing about your frying pan, and I'm sure your daughter will treasure it. It's funny -- the things I cherish most aren't the expensive things, but things that remind me of loved ones, like grandma's rolling pin.

  3. We have moved very far away from the principle of few possessions of high quality that served prior generations. Mass manufacturing is almost entirely to blame in my opinion; products made in this way cannot be designed for longevity or else the factories would shut down.

    It's wasteful, environmentally unsound and frustrating for the user, yet it also provides a lot of jobs and income worldwide. At least it used to!

    I like your Commandments. Having never really been an active shopper (as in the American way of shopping), they are close to what I already do. The converted always like being preached to! :)

  4. No..no...no intent to preach! More owning up to my own wasteful ways. My vexed relationship with things was part of the impetus for this blog. In paring down, I started to really think about the things around me. Too much of it is wasteful junk. But a lot of things carry history and emotions and echoes of people who are gone. Those things I'll probably keep. The rest? Out the door!

  5. You raise a very interesting issue. Thinking about my own situation, I have very few objects that fit that description of carrying emotions and echoes. Maybe a few old LP records, some books, a jacket - little beyond that. On the other hand, I have writings and some photographs that are greedy with emotion but they, particularly in this digital age where they exist as bits and bytes (either directly or scanned), have become transcendent in relation to the original medium of record. They get carried onward in the digital wave as technology supplants technology. Very different from the dusty notebook at the back of the shelf.

  6. Nice blog, Frankie. I like the variation of tine. I too have a vexed relationship with modern 'things'. Wasteful packaging especially--like the tiny sim card which is in a huge hard plastic outer casing impossible to enter without sharp implements. And then it stabs you back. But old stuff--the stuff which carries memory (like your grandfather's pipe)--that's a different matter altogether. Those are the objects which provide a bridge for the generations. My father's and grandfather's medals, forinstance, have provoked many conversations between my mother, my children and I. Lucy at http://www.scribblecitycentral.blogspot.com

  7. sorry--variation of tone. that'll teach me to proofread!

  8. Thank you Lucy. I'm so glad you visited, and glad I found your blog. You're a wonderful writer, and I'm looking forward to reading more of your work.