The scurge of cheap stuff

In the last little while, there’s been a lot of advertising for Kmart and BigW (both the same sorts of stores, essentially lower priced department stores).  One of KMart’s slogans is ‘We make low prices irresistible’ – and on the surface, most people think that sounds great.  Who wouldn’t want to ‘get more for less’ or ‘make your dollar go further’.

And I do have a set of measuring cups ($2) and a double adapter ($3) and a powerboard ($15) from Kmart.  (Can you tell I’ve been doing my house inventory?)  It’s hard to buy a double adapter elsewhere, cause $3 is small change.

Recently, the cost has been weighing on my mind. How can something be THAT cheap?  How is it being made, to make it that cheap?  Will buying something more expensive be getting better quality, or just the same thing, produced in the same way, but overpriced .

Less than 6 months old, and close to non functional
Less than 6 months old, and close to non functional

It’s all very well to speak about buying ‘quality’  What is quality in a double adapter or a power board?  They are all plastics and electronics.  How do I know one is of a better quality than others? Am I buying a name brand, more than ethical production or safe production, or longevity?  And with electrical items, I’m not confident that ‘second hand’ is better.  I’m not even sure many thrift shops would be interested (or willing) to sell these items for fear of the repercussions should they not be electrically safe.  Or, I could ask for these items on freecycle – but the time waiting for a reply, and picking them up – is that worth it, when for $3, I could just have the double adapter NOW.

With measuring cups, sure I can buy metal ones (remember the Bradley Cooper lookalike?) I drafted this post long before I went to Vietnam, and bought metal cup measures, still made in China, that still get spots of rust after a run in the dishwasher.

I have been enjoying browsing and buying at op shops (known as thrift shops elsewhere), but I also get annoyed when they have signs of wear – something fraying a little, a stain I didn’t notice.  It’s almost like there’s no perfect option (even new items can end up shop soiled!)

It’s incredibly difficult to work out value, from price, and the ethics of production.  How do you reconcile these dramas?

17 Replies to “The scurge of cheap stuff”

  1. This bothers me. I've even read KMart's policies on 'fair wages' etc. How CAN they sell $5 pants and shops and still pay fair wages (which their policy asserts they do – no sweat shops, out workers etc.) But logically factoring in transport, mechandising and production costs…someone is missing out at a $5 price point.

    Quality and sustainability is the other thing. This week I bought a paper-trimmer (to trim the dozens of worksheets I print for classes – so they fit neatly in their workbooks.) Cheap at $12 but not one piece is recyclable. I feel guilty…I picked the 'easy' option in a busy life but that choice is wrong on so many levels.

    All up: I mostly choose the expensive option now if it is more recyclable. The criteria of 'quality' is too hard for a novice to assess!

    1. Well you're a step ahead of me – I've not even sought out their policies, but I saw H&M saying similar things in Japan, and I was still skeptical!

      Today I was nerding out, reading a Clipsal catalogue, which is for electricians and is full of switch plates and that sort of thing. I was DELIGHTED to see the 'heritage' option which are wood – yay! (And I reckon might suit a certain Lucinda Sans's home!) But I thought, great, a recyclable option, whereas the plastic is WAY questionable!

      Quality is too hard… I bought a $5 skipping rope at Kmart – never used it. Though, I keep receipts, so perhaps I should just take it back.

      1. Jinx! I have reproduction wood and metal light switches. (Don't fret about the metal on a power switch. Underneath is plastic.)

  2. This is a difficult question, however, I did want to comment on the measuring cups. I was given a set of 4 orange plastic measuring cups as part of a pre-wedding gift in 1979. They have been used at least daily for 35 years and are as good as the day they were bought. I expect they will outlast me! I know that orange plastic is.not ‘in’ but they do not need to be replaced. If we accept that what we have is functional and does not need replacing then the conundrum over purchasing ethics will arise less frequently.

    1. That's incredibly long life of your cup measures. The $2 set I bought (for their blue plastic) at Kmart have already had one handle split off, and another fracture (but is intact). It's so hard to know what will remain functional, even if it's not stylish.

  3. For my plastic needs I stick to Tupperware – the brand, that is. Really long guarantee and you can give the stuff back for recycling if it ever does break. Or at least I assume you still can. One of the first Tupperware containers I got is nearly 20 years old and still perfectly fine so it definitely does tend to last and I think it's worth the price premium (also, love having parties and then getting "free" stuff, even if the rampant consumerism vibe bothers me a little bit – I can get a bit carried away when it comes to Tupperware 🙂 ).
    A friend from choir had a big birthday a couple of years ago and had also just announced that she was buying a new-build apartment. Another friend from choir is an architect (with connections) and suggested we buy her a ceramic light-fitting. I thought it was mostly just a gag gift but it was expensive enough (I think maybe 40 euro for the one switch) and I was surprised at how much I like it. It was just lovely to touch – so much nicer than your standard plastic light switch.

    1. Interesting your mention Tupperware, I went to a 'party' right before I moved out to my own place, but didn't end up buying anything. I might have, should the nice teal colour been the 'in' season, and not the newer purple. Even looking online, the prices were ridiculous. I do know they have a great returns/replacement policy (having had to assist when a club I was involved with ran Tupperware as a small fundraiser – I shepherded lids here and there!). I suppose the idea of a company looking after their whole products' lifecycle should be encouraged, and perhaps if all products did, we might see a similar price across like goods?

      That interesting that a light fitting or switch can be so pricey, isn't it? We've become so accustomed to low cost, mass produced plastic. We would be indignant to think what we want might need to wait (ie, we have a backlog on ceramic light fittings, due to an increased demand ma'am, you'll be waiting 6 months). How things change!

      1. LOL – I just had a party a couple of months ago (first time for about eight years) and was positively swooning over the purple. Love it! The colours are absolutely necessary to Tupperware as the products are so good they really do last for a very long time so the only way to encourage more and more consumption (dilemna for companies who make a product so good it doesn't often need to be replaced) is to make people think they have to have the new colour, I think. But I can live with that (especially since I can resist it), so much better than planned obsolescence! Re the prices being ridiculous though, I don't really agree. It is very expensive but if you were to figure per us, I think it would come out way ahead of cheaper plastic containers. I know I bought cheaper stuff when I was starting out, too – 20 pieces for a tenner and similar. I bought two sets of those and now have one single item (a beaker, the only thing with a screwtop rather than a push-down lid) left, most of them were broken and thrown out within about four or five years. I've never yet had to throw any Tupperware out although one lid just cracked on me the other day so I'll need to replace that (also love that I can just get replacement lids from them). The Frugal Girl had a nice post about this a couple of years ago:
        I think the most important, and most difficult, point is to find that line between being frugal and being cheap.

  4. Ditto, ditto, ditto. I don't need to say, I have the same conundrums. I avoid KMart. But as you say, even if I went to a more expensive shop, how do I know the item wasn't made in the same Chinese factory?

    As to quality. It seems with the rise in cheap, shoddy products, quality manufacturers have gone to the wall or they have been forced off-shore to the same factory or reduce their own quality. Our choice has been reduced. And now we can only buy bodgy products. So we have to buy the cheap, bodgy product only for it to fail in months and then we have to buy another.

    But people seem to want frequent purchases of cheap things. By, use, throw away, buy. Rather than one thing to last, like Fairy's measuring cups. And as you've found, metal products are not necessarily better. Cheap, Asian metal rusts on first wash.

    And some of the plastic used has such an overpowering smell, I get headaches from them. I do worry about the toxicity of emissions.

    Op shops are not allowed to sell electrical items, apparently. I have old Clipsell power boards and you can feel the difference in quality even in the on off switch. The old ones don't click as if they about to snap off or in two.

    What is someone who wants to minimise waste and exploitation to do?

    1. You're right, some people relish the opportunity to shop, and something breaking or needing replacing justifies the trip to the shops. Other, more mature people, curse the need to shop, and spend again!!

      I've found that Lifeline will sell electrical items, after testing them, but you're right, smaller op shops don't bother with the bother of testing and tagging them, and the associated liability.

      I've worked past (sodden) council clean ups in Hornsby lately, and seeing poorly made products out rotting, waiting for the bin men to come for them. It just makes me so sad and depressed (so, too, do 100 apartment buildings all made in the same 10 year span – there's no imagination in design!)

      1. Sadly, some of these flats won't last 100 years as the houses have. And tenants won't care about their upkeep. All these flats going up in Sydney in the last 10 years are the slums of the next 40 years. (My opinion for free!)

        And as to our council kerbside cleanup. Yes, there are some poorly made products outside – especially plastic tat such as kids' toys and storage containers. But worse is the stuff that is still good. Only upside to that is it gets claimed. I have even rescued a few items. The scrap collectors drive around collecting and must love our area.

  5. I don't think there's an "all in one" answer. For me it's a combination of buying used, buying quality and buying from local crafters/builders/growers. I also have a set of plastic measuring cups that have lasted 25 years and they aren't cracked or stained at all! I don't hesitate to buy plastic if I think the item will last for decades, like a bucket. It is frustrating when you want to buy quality and can't – last year I didn't want to buy cotton T-shirts made in Bangladesh so I looked at a much pricier Ralph Lauren Chaps T-shirt and it was made in Cambodia. Price and labels don't seem to make much difference. I still buy some junk I regret, but I keep trying.

    1. I agree that for clothing, buying used is largely solving my dramas, and somewhat for kitchen items. And freecycle or similar can be great for esoteric items that others have surplus to and are happy to part with (thinking of when I wanted a cake tin, and they weren't in vogue new, and seldom in op shops).

      I think we all end up buying, or being subjected to some level of junk, no matter. I suppose we just have to try and avoid it if and when we can, and when the costs are prohibitive, and where there is a valid and suitable alternative. Increasingly, I feel there are some markets where the 'quality' item is no longer available at all.

  6. Ugh, this drives me crazy. It's so difficult to know what some of the phrases businesses use actually mean. I like it better when an outside source (like Fair Trade USA) determines exactly qualifies as "fair" working conditions and checks the business out for you. Even then, you can't always be sure the extra money you spend will be worth it as far as the quality of the item goes.

    And speaking of measuring cups, my parents have a plastic set from when they were first married too, made by Tupperware. They're still going strong. Mine are a metal set that I got about 10 years ago by saving UPC codes on Jif peanut butter jars 🙂

    1. Glad I'm not the only one driven crazy by this!! Interestingly, I've never got onto the fair trade buying. I'm skeptical of the increased costs mainly. I did note my parents had supermarket brand chocolate last night, and it has a fair trade logo. Says something for consumer pressure that the 'big name' in grocery stores is putting their cheap brands through the fair trade process.

      Oh wow, I remember jam jars you kept as drinking glasses… Haven't seen one in years… but I did grow up with them, every last one was 'redeemed'!

  7. Sarah, this issue bothers me every single day. Like you I am trying to work out how to live with quality goods, within a budget, and with my conscience, both for reasons of social justice and the health of the planet. It is very hard. I mostly don't buy things! This is easier for me of course, because at 43 I already have a lot of stuff!
    The trade off I have found is time. Shopping for what you need right now at Kmart is quick and easy. Scouring freecycle, op shops and independent, quality businesses for what you want takes a lot of time and thought. And a willingness to wait. Patience. Hmm.
    And clearly, from the other comments, even plastic has become a more shoddily made product over time. Is that the most depressing thing you have heard today?

    1. Thinking on budgets yesterday, I wondered 'where do you draw the line at 'increasing' your budget on items'. Like, if you're accustomed to always finding the cheapest way of doing things (I was at an airport, so this was in the context of transport and accommodation) how do you decipher a 'good deal' when it's not the cheapest of all choices? What value to you assign to middle of the range? And that's before you even factor in currency differences and standards of living!!

      And the time – you're right. I don't yet have kids, but I can't imagine adding children to what I already bemoan is a busy schedule, and still trying to maintain my ethics and preferences when buying items, and still not spending every penny and not saving any!! I mean, to trawl countless stores for second hand sieve, or a tray that suits you requirements, takes so much time, and time is money, whereas, I could buy new, at some exorbitant price, and who knows how long it'll last!?

      Realistically, at 29, like 43, there is little I 'NEED' to buy, I have a household of stuff. But somehow, there's always something mentally on a list of 'like to have'.

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