Is Your Stuff Falling Apart? Thank Wal-Mart
Photo Credit: Daniel Stone
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My friend Tony’s closet is as good a place as any to begin an investigation of Walmart’s environmental impact. Tony has a pair of Levi’s that date back to high school more than 20 years ago. They still fit him and they’re still in rotation. The fabric has a smooth patina that hints at its age, but, compared to another pair of Levi’s he bought only a couple of years ago, this pair actually looks far less worn. The denim is sturdier, the seams more substantial, the rivets bigger.
Tony’s old pair of Levi’s may well have been made in the U.S, and they likely cost more than his new pair. The new ones were manufactured abroad — Levi’s closed its last U.S. factory in 2003 — and, though Tony didn’t buy them at Walmart, their shoddy construction can be blamed at least in part on the giant retailer and the way it’s reshaping manufacturing around the world.
Since 1994, the consumer price of apparel, in real terms, has fallen by 39 percent. “It is now possible to buy clothing, long a high-priced and valuable commodity, by the pound, for prices comparable to cheap agricultural products,” notes Juliet Schor. Cheapness — and the decline in durability that has accompanied it – has triggered an astonishing increase in the amount of clothing we buy. In the mid-1990s, the average American bought 28 items of clothing a year. Today, we buy 59 items. We also throw away an average of 83 pounds of textiles per person, mostly discarded apparel, each year. That’s four times as much as we did in 1980, according to an EPA analysis of municipal waste streams [PDF].
Most consumer products have followed a similar trajectory over the last two decades. Walmart has done more than any other company to drive these changes, though other retailers have since followed its model. Where once we measured value when we shopped, Walmart trained us to see only price. Its hard bargaining pushed manufacturers offshore and drove them, year after year, to cut more corners and make shoddier products. As union-wage production jobs and family-owned businesses fell by the wayside, many Americans could no longer afford anything but Walmart’s cheap offerings.
Today Walmart says it wants to reduce the amount of pollution involved in making some of the stuff it sells. That seems like a good thing – except that everything else Walmart does is designed to undermine the durability of consumer goods, accelerate the flow of products from factory to landfill, and get us to buy more stuff. Even if Walmart does succeed in reducing the resources used to make a T-shirt or a television set, those gains will be more than outstripped by growth in the number of T-shirts and TVs we’re consuming.
The six-dollar toaster
On a recent visit to Walmart store No. 2659, just outside of Portland, Maine, I tried to find evidence of a shift to more sustainable products, but I didn’t see much beyond CFL bulbs and reusable shopping bags. There were no Seventh Generation cleaning supplies or organic cotton clothes, for example.
I did, however, spot a toaster that retails for $6.24 — a price that renders its longevity virtually irrelevant. If it breaks, just buy another.
Prices on general household goods have fallen by about one-third since the mid-1990s. Given how awash in stuff we were in those boom years, it’s shocking just how much more we buy now. Since 1995, the number of toasters and other small electro-thermal appliances sold in the U.S. each year increased from 188 million to 279 million. The average household now buys a new TV every 2.5 years, up from every 3.4 years in the early 1990s. We buy more than 2 billion bath towels a year, up from 1.4 billion in 1994. And on and on.