My beloved 10-year-old black bra finally broke last Christmas. The elastic had some slack and it’d been fraying for a while, but its death sentence came when the underwire popped out the side. While it wasn’t particularly special — just a normal T-shirt bra — it was comfortable and had clearly lasted a long time. So, I did what any sensible person who is afraid of change would do: bought the exact same thing, from the same brand, again.
I eagerly waited for my shipment of my new bras (in two trendy colorways!) to come in. When they arrived, I noticed that there were a few key differences: there was a new fourth clasp, the band was tighter, and the material was a whole lot softer. Certainly, these were improvements, I thought.
I was wrong.
Within a few washes, the hooks had become mangled, unable to neatly adhere themselves to the clasps. Instead, they would claw at my back. The straps frayed quicker than I expected. Nothing changed in my care; I had assumed that because I treated my previous bra carelessly throughout my teens and college years, these new versions could withstand similar conditions.
I felt unmoored for months. Why would the same item be worse years later? Shouldn’t it be better? But here’s the thing: My lackluster bra is far from the only consumer good that’s faced a dip in comparative quality. All manner of things we wear, plus kitchen appliances, personal tech devices, and construction tools are among the objects that have been stunted by a concerted effort to simultaneously expedite the rate of production while making it more difficult to easily repair what we already own, experts say.
In the 10 years since I bought that old bra, new design norms, shifting consumer expectations, and emboldened trend cycles have all coalesced into a monster of seemingly endless growth. We buy buy buy, and we’ve been tricked — for far longer than the last decade — into believing that buying more stuff, new stuff is the way. By swapping out slightly used items so frequently, we’re barely pausing to consider if the replacement items are an upgrade, or if we even have the option to repair what we already have. Worse yet, we’re playing into corporate narratives that undercut the labor that makes our items worth keeping.
“If you change the style regularly, people get tired of the style,” says Matthew Bird, a professor of industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design. “They start to treat cars like sweaters — it’s become grossly accelerated. The pressure to make more stuff, of course, lowers the quality of what’s being made, because the development and testing is just accelerated even more.”
The design process, explained
Design is more than the mere aesthetics of an object; it can also be a solution to a problem. These problems do not necessarily have to be physical or tangible — systems and virtual environments are also subject to design. Ideally, design is the marriage of appearance and utility that creates a considered end result.
When we’re producing objects or services for millions of people, we’re talking about industrial design, or the professionalization of these processes at scale. According to the Industrial Designers Society of America, industrial designers often focus on three things: appearance, functionality, and manufacturability. That last part is where the most change is happening.
Historically, Bird says, if a craftsperson wanted to make something — say, a tea kettle — you would adjust it with each attempt. Maybe the first iteration was hammered metal and the handles were uncomfortable. Perhaps the next was ceramic, but it didn’t sing when the water was ready. You would go back to the drawing board. “Eventually in a couple of generations of tea kettles, I would be making the perfect form that did everything perfectly,” Bird says. “It’s all great because I was responding to my customers one at a time and it was handmade.”
The first major shift came when the Industrial Revolution introduced machinery and tooling into the design process, exponentially increasing the scale of production. Now, instead of hammering out one kettle, you could use a machine to stamp out the parts. Rinse and repeat. However, if you designed a bad tea kettle, you would be stuck with thousands of them — a huge, expensive mistake. This is still the case.
While machines have dramatically increased how much can be produced and how fast, humans are still mostly involved every step of the way from ideation to production. Today, nearly everything is assembled by human hands, even if some parts are 3D printed, cast, or spun by machines. “You’ve done all these other steps, and then you have the person who sits there and actually puts these pieces together,” says Cora Harrington, a writer and lingerie expert. “It doesn’t matter how complicated. It doesn’t matter how simple. We don’t have robots that put together our clothing automatically, so it’s all done by an expert.”
The Great Depression, too, changed the very nature of consumerism. The economy desperately needed stimulation — and consumer goods were one way to do it. It was around this period that advertising heavyweight Earnest Elmo Calkins laid out a selling strategy that came to define purchasing habits for the next century: “consumer engineering,” or how advertisers and designers could artificially create demand, often by making older objects seem undesirable. Real estate broker Bernard London is often credited with coining this process as “planned obsolescence” through his 1932 paper that suggested the government put a lease on products’ life. “That’s when manufactured products started to be sort of done in season for the cycles and fashion,” Bird says.
Fast-forward a handful of decades, and now several generations of people are conditioned to buy the new thing and to keep replacing it. Companies, in turn, amp up production accordingly. It’s less so that objects are intended to break — functional planned obsolescence, if you will — but rather that consumer mindsets are oriented around finding the better object. But “better” doesn’t always mean long-lasting when companies are incentivized to produce faster, and faster, and faster.
Cutting corners and moving fast
Let’s circle back to the bra I bought a decade ago and its lesser younger sibling.
When I spoke to Harrington, the lingerie expert, about my dilemma, her first question for me was about price. To my recollection, the old bra and the new one were about the same: somewhere between $30-$40. That, for Harrington, was the key: In the last 10 years, in the wake of the climate crisis and the pandemic and steady and then skyrocketing inflation, the cost of fabric, other materials, and labor have all increased.
It can be difficult for consumers to recognize that the landscape has changed because they’re not primed to see the full picture, Harrington explains. She mentions how when she writes about the state of fast fashion, she often gets pushback from new readers who say their older fast fashion pieces have lasted a long time. “Yes! Many of us bought cheap clothing 10 years ago that’s still fine,” she says. “But 10 years ago, our clothing was higher quality than it is now. That is actually part of the point.”
It’s actually impossible to buy the same bra I had in high school for the same price. It’s simply more expensive to produce now than it was then.
“People don’t exactly want to pay more for all that stuff,” Harrington says. “So what has to happen if everything is more expensive and the customers still want to pay the same price, something has to be cut and that’s often going to be the quality of the garment.”
Usually that’s accomplished with a change in material. This could be a thinner, new-to-market fabric, or a more fragile clasp, for instance. The average customer isn’t going to know the difference, especially when shopping online. “There is an entire generation of consumers at this point that doesn’t actually know what high-quality clothing feels like and looks like,” Harrington says. “It gets easier, I think, for consumers to just not know any better.”
The electronics industry is also susceptible to material changes because products are competing against each other on price point, says Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of the Repair Association.
“Even though designers may say, ‘Oh, this is just as good,’ the components themselves are increasingly plastic instead of metal,” she says. “They’re using more glue instead of screws. There’s some definite design trends that are making these things not work very long. A friend of mine was a big HP reseller and he said that it used to be that you could take that $4,000 HP LaserJet that you’d have in your office, drop it off the back of a truck, and plug it in. It would still work. But that was no longer the case as new generations came around and they were made with more and more plastic.”
Then there’s the classic way companies keep costs low: underpaying and overworking workers. The speed at which workers are expected to produce and deliver goods is faster than ever before — and speed will always be at odds with quality. An increase in consumer demand for same-day or two-day delivery, as well as the hunger for real-time microtrends, are both incentivizing companies to churn, churn, churn.
Take a gander at ultra-fast fashion giant Shein’s $100 billion valuation. Social media helps accelerate the trend cycle even further. Consumers are buying five times more clothing than they did back in the 1980s. In order to produce goods that fast, both the quality of the item and the quality of life for workers have to take a hit. This is happening alongside a decrease of prices for the consumer (not rooted in reality!) to encourage more trend-oriented shopping and haul buying.
“Time is money,” Harrington says. “Even as poor or cheap as that garment worker’s labor is, it’s still a significant part of the garment because there is no way to replace that labor. Some of what you’re seeing in that race to the bottom is that literally the time is not being spent in making the thing that would help the thing last longer. If you spend cheap money on something, you cannot expect it to be high quality. You have to make a choice there.”
Finally, there are shifts in production methods that help companies avoid higher labor costs. Again, robots do not wholesale make our things, but for products like phones, computers, remote controls, and the like, it’s often cheaper to design in a way that reduces human labor. This can mean using as few parts as possible; if you can design by plate or by chunk, especially if the object has to be manually completed, it’ll save a lot of time, and therefore money.
“In the design of objects, they’re trying to reduce the amount of labor, and that changes what the object is,” Bird says. “That produces cheaper goods, but it doesn’t necessarily produce better goods.”
While pinching pennies can sometimes lead to interesting solutions to old problems, a whole new suite of issues tends to unfurl. For the fashion industry, it’s easy to look at the rise of synthetic materials, which offer utility for exercise clothing as well as a way to avoid using animal products. Synthetic fabrics, however, are made from petroleum and have propelled the industry to become one of the top carbon polluters in the world. Synthetics also have a paradox problem: They fall apart easier, but they don’t entirely decompose as well as natural material.
The tech industry has similarly had to contend with the fallout of seemingly improving on products while at the same time simplifying design elements to save money. Apple’s butterfly keyboard is a prime example; the thinner keyboard was great for reducing a laptop’s weight, but the keys got stuck all the time. Because the keyboard was designed to be one piece, a consumer couldn’t fix a single stuck key by themselves without the right equipment — they had to go to the Apple Store to either replace the keys or the whole keyboard. Kitchen appliances and other utilitarian objects are now also suffering the same fate with the inclusion of techy selling points (touchscreen blenders, automatic espresso machines, those goofy fridges with the screens on them), but with little maintenance infrastructure or the ability to repair those new features, Gordon-Byrne says.
“One of the problems being a designer is that you solve some problems and in the process of solving them, you invent all these new problems,” Bird says. “That’s just an inherent part of design. There’s no way to not do that. If you’re creating innovation, you’re also creating future problems.”
So the cycle continues.
What it takes to keep what you own
Design has shifted more toward manufacturability and appearance than functionality, when it should be a balance of all three. Arguably, it’s nearly impossible for corporations to avoid participating in the trend cycle as long as consumers have an appetite for more — whether it’s a predilection for cooler clothing or whatever new incremental, yet buzzy technology just came out. At the same time, the blame does not lie on consumers’ shoulders; corporations are responsible for creating and stoking the “new and more is better” culture we have today.
Perhaps if companies took the first step and made their products feel timeless both in form and function, there’d be less demand for new things and a decreased pressure for speed. But major corporations will almost certainly never go for that, and it’s unlikely the majority of consumers will unlearn current buying habits.
“A better iPhone would be one that I can use for 20 years and keep upgrading,” Bird says. “But that’s not how we define better, right? Nobody wants an iPhone 14 because it will last for 10 years. They want it because it has a fancier camera or whatever.”
Even if you do want to hop off the treadmill of constantly buying and keep what you already have, companies have made that harder too. Your goods probably have a shorter lifespan than they did years ago, and if you want to repair them — especially tech — you’ll come up against major barriers.
For years, Apple opposed right-to-repair laws, claiming they would expose company secrets. Because their screws are proprietary, you need special equipment to open up a device. This meant swinging by the dreaded Genius Bar or an authorized third-party shop to fix a broken screen until 2021, when Apple announced it would finally sell the parts required to open (and therefore fix) a device following years of activism from folks like Gordon-Byrne and pressure from regulators. Apple’s products still remain some of the toughest to repair on your own, according to iFixit, but the company is not alone in opposing right-to-repair; Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Tesla, John Deere, and General Electric have all spent billions lobbying against right-to-repair laws.
“Why I’m fighting so hard for a right to repair is that nobody is telling me I can’t sew a button,” Gordon-Byrne says. “Nobody is refusing to sell me a needle and thread. Where that’s exactly what’s happening with technology. It shouldn’t happen. That level of control should not be their level.”
There is hope thanks to consumer action, says Gordon-Byrne. New York was the first to pass a right-to-repair law last month, and the Federal Trade Commission has been investigating the issue.
“I see this every day,” Gordon-Byrne says. “Consumers are so much more powerful politically, legislatively than they ever dream — and it’s not the act of voting. That’s probably the least powerful thing. The most powerful thing is for a consumer to literally pick up the phone, call their local representative. Let me tell you, when I sit down with a legislator, I can hand them a list of 400 names of their own constituents that say, ‘I want my right to repair.’ That’s huge. That moves the needle. It moves the ball.”
Learning how to fix your own stuff can be simultaneously overwhelming and empowering, says Zach Dinicola, the founder of Mr. Mixer, a company that repairs KitchenAids in Kansas and other parts of the Midwest. It’s a “crying shame” that there are efforts to make it harder to fix things on your own, he said, which is why he shares tutorials with more than 450,000 followers on TikTok.
“I think that there are more people who want to fix it,” he says. “They just don’t necessarily know it’s an option. People don’t know what they don’t know. There’s a DIY person in all of us. If someone can present the information in a format that’s easy to follow along, more people would be willing to do that.”
The beauty of fixing an object and keeping it around in your life, Dinicola continues, is that they become very sentimental. “That’s one thing that I just know from being in this business,” he says. “These mixers really become part of the family, especially when they’re handed down from grandmother to mother. I’ve worked on third- and fourth-generation mixers that have been handed down from great grandma to grandma to mom to daughter.”
You could probably say the same thing for vintage clothing — what’s better than getting a chic leather purse from your mom’s closet or the cool secondhand shop in your neighborhood? Although no one is prohibiting people from repairing clothing, the lack of quality in modern fashion means it’s important to be thoughtful about what you’re buying and how you’re taking care of what you already own. Knowing what material your clothing is made of is key to knowing how to wash and dry it, which can elongate its life. “If I visit the tab for fabric composition and there’s nothing there, it’s an instantaneous red flag,” Harrington says. “You want to know what fibers are in the garments you’re buying. That in and of itself is something everyone can do. That can be the first step toward getting more familiar with what quality garments might look and feel like.”
I hate to say that the onus is on us, but in many ways it is. Corporations aren’t going to do this work for us, or without us. Consumers need to be able to identify quality, learn to take care of what they own, and advocate for regulations and legislation wherever right-to-repair doesn’t yet exist. Buy less or secondhand, and when you do buy something new — it happens! — make sure to do your research.