The Disposable Economy


If my bed still looked like this, this blog post never would have been written.

Today my night owl self woke before dawn because my bed has turned into an awkward hammock. What was once a humble mattress is now what my fellow insomniacs online call a “canoe bed” because our mattress has formed two body-sized depressions. I found the term after some expert research googling “dent in bed neck pain” and “back hurts fix bed.” I came upon a post which promised to fix my issue for just $9. (Spoiler alert: you put pillows under the mattress.) What struck me was not the post itself, but the 80+ comments by people who evidently have the same exact pillowtop mattress as me. Before I inherited this mattress as part of the stuff that came with my boyfriend, I slept for years on the same mattress – a sentiment echoed by many other sleepless web commenters. The consensus seems to be that the newer mattresses just aren’t made as well.

It’s not just mattresses. The quality of many products have seen a sharp decline over the last decade. Jeans once designed to withstand the continued beatings of a working man’s day now fold to the pressure of a school girl’s walk home within six months’ time. Cheaply-made parts leave consumers replacing whole appliances instead of just the pieces. Supermarket staples are made with cheaper ingredients or come in smaller boxes.

Over decades of American prosperity, consumers got hooked on cheap and disposable items. The appeal is obvious. There are few these days who prefer to hang on to the humble handkerchief when compared to disposable products like Kleenex. And buyers don’t need to worry about the quality of that side table from Ikea because at $9, if it were to break, a replacement could be easily afforded (assuming you didn’t need that money to fix your sagging mattress).

In the ’90s and ’00s, wages started to stagnate and the buying power of the average Joe went down, so in order to keep goods cheap, the era of the big box store and mass production kicked into high gear. Larger stores meant companies could carry a greater variety in one place, making it exceptionally convenient for busy parents. The generation whose sensibility helped them make it through the Depression saw their buying power decline as they reached old age and fewer mom and pop stores were created to cater to their desires for quality-made products. The big box stores succeeded, multiplied, and streamlined their goods so consumers could count on getting the same product in Portland, Maine and Phoenix, Arizona and get it at a very low price. Large corporations squeezed out smaller stores who couldn’t lower prices by manufacturing en masse or utilizing cheap labor overseas. Mom and pop stores and handmade items lost their allure.

Nowadays, the result of our move towards a disposable economy has turned around and bitten us in the ass. It’s the reason a $10 shirt you bought at Old Navy might have lasted you a few years in 2000, but the same shirt is now so thin the fabric rips, develops holes or even develops runs like pantyhose after only a few weeks. It’s the reason why when you go to the store to buy a lawnmower, your choices are between a lawnmower that is priced cheaply but may only last you a year or a quality-made, warrantied lawnmower with a price that is unrealistic on the budget of the average consumer.

But that’s been changing recently. A new generation is slowly bringing back cache to buying for quality not price. In fact, young consumers are more than willing to pay more for things like organic and locally-grown food, craft beer, even shoes and glasses from companies like Toms and Warby Parker that promise to give a second pair to a person in need with each purchase. IFC’s Portlandia lampoons the behavior with skits such as one that features a store that only sells knots or another in which a restaurant customer played by Fred Armisen badgers his waitress about the source of the chicken on the menu – “I’m gonna ask you again – is it local?” The jokes are on trend because the movement has grown and continues to spread throughout towns across the country.

Why, then, can we not buy quality-made clothing items, appliances and, yes, mattresses within our our price range? One of the basic tenets of a free market economy is if there is demand, a business will seize the opportunity to cater to it. Right now there is a building demand for the goods that people purchase to be long-lasting, made responsibly, and cost an attainable price. Enterprising individuals should take this opportunity to get back to selling American products that are well made and made to last. Until they do, you’re likely to find more sleep-deprived consumers taking to their blogs to air their grievances about the iron maidens they have for mattresses.