Consumer sagas

Marina Salandy-Brown

“Modern cookers are meant to have a lifespan of five years.” The servicewoman asserts with a completely straight face as she stands in my kitchen announcing the near end of my expensive, stainless steel countertop cooker purchased about five years ago. I stare at her incredulously. I spent a lot of money to have an important kitchen appliance that would not need replacing any time soon. The cooker, a Kitchenaid, is meant to be a premier product, made in the US and comes highly recommended. It looks good but looks matter less to me than reliability and durability.

In the last few months the burners have, one by one, stopped self-igniting. It should be a simple matter of a professional service, one might think, but the servicewoman diagnoses that the jets need changing and the problem is that she cannot access them because the screws that secure the burners housing them have all corroded. To remove the screws would possibly destroy the cooker top. If repairing the cooker top does cost a small fortune, as she has predicted, I will consider scraping it in favour of a cheap brand from another shop and made by a different manufacturer in the full expectation that it would last only five years. But that is not a guaranteed solution because the countertop is cut to accommodate that particular shape and size. I find myself questioning the old adage, apparently Chinese, that good things are not cheap and cheap things are not good.

I reason with the servicewoman that the cooker’s short life span is due to the manufacturer producing a long-lasting stainless steel item that is non-corrosive and using small yet hugely important parts, such as screws, that are corrosive in a part of the item where they are almost bound to corrode. One could be forgiven for being utterly cynical in deducing that it is not an accident or oversight, for where would our modern consumer, capitalist world be if everything lasted a lifetime, as things once did? Capitalism would not function.

The cooker is not an isolated case of consumer exploitation. A much more prevalent one is clothing. My mother thinks it hilarious and a weakness in my womanhood that before washing I read the label on every garment. Unlike her, I understand that you ignore the label at your peril. Modern fibres demand different care and there is nothing intuitive about it. I wager that an assortment of white articles in anyone’s clothes basket would recommend different washing instructions for most if not all of them. Whites do not all like bleach and many fabrics cannot be put in the dryer, some garments cannot even be hung dry, but must be lain flat and certainly not all washed in warm water or with any old washing powder. To overcome the catastrophic outcome of a careless wash some fashion designers sew “dry clean” labels into every item.

The power of consumerism first became apparent to me when I spent a few months in the crowded islands of Japan where living space is at a premium, domestic storage is almost non-existent and where people, because they could have and keep so little, were constantly buying and selling, spending more on their purchases than in the world’s most expensive cities and valuing craftsmanship and achievement. Once the second largest retail market, until China developed, consumers demanded top quality, value added, small items for their yen, which helped drive the revolution in micro design and technology four to five decades ago. I understood that consumers could be social actors and manufacturers could be more than just self-interested capitalist entities.

This brings me to Massy Stores and how little we trust capital and business – with good reason after the debacle of Clico and more simple examples such as expensive, short-lived cooker tops – and to the notion of the citizen consumer.

The Massy Stores initiative to discontinue plastic shopping bags may be altruistic but consumers have responded both self-interestedly and with suspicion. Either we believe it to be profiteering or we contemplate the inconvenience and cost of providing our own bags, instead of seeing the action as a much-needed push to rid the world of plastic waste. It reveals that we are unmoved by environmental concerns and that we have abdicated our social responsibility, leaving it to distrusted business to lead us, kicking and screaming, along the right path.

I believe the consumption of food and goods we either produce ourselves or import is an act of citizenship as we contribute to our society and economy in that way, which is why being sold dodgy, expensive goods rankles.


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