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The American dream (made in China)
February 25, 2010 3:08 AM   Subscribe

Economics for clotheshorses: Help me learn how consumer goods and services & manufacturing and business practices have changed for better and/or worse.

Like you, I've been a consumer all my life. But I have this vague impression that the consumer experience changed dramatically in the mid-90s (said impression is necessarily vague because I didn't start earning my own living till 2000) and that the retail trade in things like clothes, shoes, books etc. now concentrates on higher and faster turnover, greater variety, shorter product lifespans, lower manufacturing costs and ever-increasing profits, with various consequences for quality.

Take shoes, for instance. Didn't different widths and half-sizes used to come standard? And weren't shoes made to be worn for longer than a season or two? And hasn't clothing gotten skimpier (thinner fabrics, shorter sleeves and pant legs)? And didn't there used to be more store assistants around?

What books or websites can I read to learn more about whether these impressions are correct, and what changes in manufacturing, marketing and consumption have brought them about? I have just finished reading Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, which touches on practices like trimming sleeve lengths on mass-produced shirts by a half-inch to cut costs, but I'd like to know more.

Apologies for the vagueness of the question and thanks in advance for any light more sophisticated MeFites can shed on my consumer paranoia.
posted by stuck on an island to Shopping (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not directly about consumer goods, but take a look at Box, which is about how the shipping container changed the world over the past 50 years.

One other thing to note is that you generally still have the option to pay through the nose for high end goods. What modern manufacturing has done is to make what were once luxuries available to the masses. If you look at older houses, you'll find that all the closets were tiny. That's in part because few people had more than one "good" outfit they'd wear to church on Sunday. Modern closet sizes and the quantity and variety of stuff we put in them would be mind-boggling.
posted by chengjih at 3:30 AM on February 25, 2010


It may be helpful to search for the term fast fashion. Lots of articles have been written about how faster turnover of consumer goods (mainly clothing, sold by stores such as H&M) is changing the retail landscape.
posted by Shebear at 3:30 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I find the blog The Business of Fashion to be quite good for understanding the behind-the-scenes of that particular industry.
posted by ukdanae at 4:20 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


One other thing to note is that you generally still have the option to pay through the nose for high end goods. What modern manufacturing has done is to make what were once luxuries available to the masses.

True, but in the time period she's talking about (mid-90's till now) it does seem as though things are getting even more cheaply made, especially in the last 5 or 6 years. For instance, I used to buy clothes at Wal-Mart all the time, and while they weren't the greatest, they were at least decent. I would still be able to wear some shirts I bought in the late 90's if I still fit in them. Now I'm lucky if they last more than 5 washings. The latest thing is unfinished edges. Seems like everything's got little ruffles and instead of folding the fabric over and sewing a seam, it's just cut and left that way. I made better things in home-ec years ago. Maybe that's part of the problem....people don't know how to make things anymore and therefore don't appreciate craftmanship.
posted by cottonswab at 4:48 AM on February 25, 2010


I head recently in the news that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the UK is blaming the cheap clothing boom for a huge rise in the amount of textiles ending up in landfills in the UK.
posted by jzed at 5:47 AM on February 25, 2010


One other thing to note is that you generally still have the option to pay through the nose for high end goods. What modern manufacturing has done is to make what were once luxuries available to the masses.

-- True, but in the time period she's talking about (mid-90's till now) it does seem as though things are getting even more cheaply made, especially in the last 5 or 6 years.

This phenomenon is exactly the kind of thing I'm interested in. The price has remained low, but the quality has dropped even further, resulting in increased profits. How did all this come about?
posted by stuck on an island at 6:44 AM on February 25, 2010


Is there any objective measure of something like garment quality? I think that's the most difficult thing to quantify here. I mean, in 1950 you could probably gather enough anecdotal evidence that stuff wasn't made as well as it was in 1900.
posted by downing street memo at 8:07 AM on February 25, 2010


I dont know about clothing imparticular, but I have seen in my line of work (office supplies) that the race to the bottom dollar is king. People care more about cost and less about quality.

The obvious thing to blame for this right now is the economy, but I personally think it has something to do also with runaway consumerism and a general "more is better" attitude that is in the background of marketing. For fashion i think the pursuit of variety causes people to buy more than they need lest they be wearing the same outfits all the time. Like chengjih pointed out above, people used to simply have fewer clothes. There's still some remnants of the quality over quantity approach to clothes, such as the "What Not to Wear" television series. At the end of the newer episodes they say things like "For 5000$ Jenny got 25 new outfits!" and it always causes me to think that 25 outfits is only about 6% of my wardrobe, althought the average price point of a piece of clothing for me is $20, not $200. Obviously I am a victim of the whole buy more! dress with variety! assault, but I trying to remedy myself. I give a lot of clothes to thrift stores (most of my clothing, since I have ludacris amounts, is very lightly worn, to the point tha tit looks new still).

An unflesh-ed out afterthought - the clothing thing may also have something to do with the rise of teenagers as a key spending group and marketing disposable rediculous fashions to them (I'm looking at you, Forever 21).
posted by WeekendJen at 2:22 PM on February 25, 2010


I don't know the specifics of the change in clothing manufacture over the past 10 or 15 years, but one important thing is the expiration of the Multi Fiber Agreement in the past few years:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multi_Fibre_Arrangement

So, from the Wikipedia article, you probably have a manufacturing change on the lower end of the manufacturing spectrum, where cheap manufacturers in relatively developed countries (Greece, Portugal) lose out to competitors in Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, etc. So, what you're seeing might be a regime change that's still sorting itself out, where somewhat higher quality producers go away but the bottom of the production spectrum hasn't increased in quality (yet), in an environment of very price conscious consumers in developed countries.

You probably want to look at what Shebear says about fast fashion: a related thing that happened is the rise outlets specializing in fast moving trends. This probably has to do with the retailers and their direct suppliers acquiring mastery over the newer supply chain technologies.
posted by chengjih at 8:49 AM on February 26, 2010


I believe this is related to something that occurs in food packaging all the time: in order for the price to remain stable manufacturers make the amount of food in the package smaller. This is very easy to see in things that have names that no longer describe the actual amount you're getting. A "half gallon" of ice cream is now 1.5 quarts, a "cup" of yogurt is now 6 ounces, a "pound bag" of coffee is 12 ounces. But this is true in all kinds of packaged food. The size of the package stays the same, the price stays the same, and the net weight of actual food decreases.

I do believe that this has accelerated somewhat in recent years. A half gallon of ice cream was a half gallon for a couple of decades, and then went from 1.75 to 1.5 quarts within a couple of years. Coffee, similarly, relatively recently went from a pound to twelve ounces, but I've already started to see 10oz bags.

I believe one reason for this is the recent hyper-focus on profits versus sustainability in the investment sector.
posted by OmieWise at 11:45 AM on March 12, 2010


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