If you have had the pleasure of recently shopping for a mattress you don’t need me to tell you how overwhelming the experience is. Mattresses are difficult to test sufficiently prior to purchase and all the guarantees and warranties are confusing. But it is the shear number of options that is staggering. Do you want firm or plush? Foam or coil? Organic? Low chemical content? Well it is what is missing in this world of choices that hints at a disturbing truth embedded in our economic system. I’m excited to share with you today a post that has been percolating in the back of my brain for a few years now; a story that I simply walked into when I innocently walked into a mattress store.
Our Mattress Buying Story
This story starts four years ago when Paula and I bought our first married-couple mattress, a fairly standard sort from – I admit it – a national chain. Some time had passed after the purchase when I noticed that some pre-existing back pain was beginning to flare up, causing real sleep problems. It started to become an inconvenient fixture in my life when something occurred to me – I didn’t have trouble sleeping when visiting my in-laws or my own parents. In fact in all the places with heavy old double-sided mattresses I didn’t have as much back trouble. So the solution was simple, right? We would simply replace our mattress with a double-sided model. Well not so fast…
Paula and I quickly discovered that the double-sided option is just about the only one not included in the mattress industry menu. We went to several stores and were told repeatedly that double-sided just wasn’t a “thing” anymore. Mattresses are one-sided now because two-sided is just two heavy and inconvenient. They could order one from overseas if we were really attached to the idea but that sent the price-point into the absurd. We were stumped. Were we really the only ones that wanted a double-sided mattress? Finally, we stumbled into a slightly shady-looking mattress shop we happened to see while driving and felt no surprise when the salesman told us he had no double-sided models. We were voicing our confusion for what felt like the hundredth time when he sat down, kind of looked us over and then told us what really happened to the double-sided mattress.
Until very recently, double-sided mattresses were the standard. Then some of the national brands made a huge push into single-sided mattresses, some even switching their entire production to single-sided around 2000. This salesman had been in the business for decades. He said when these companies made the move he was one of many people inside the industry who simply laughed. The brands were touting the convenience of not having to flip the mattress but this salesman knew what it really meant: a mattress with a fraction of the life expectancy – a mattress designed to require frequent replacement. He said that at the time he was certain that consumers would reject such a swindle, yet here he was some fourteen years later without a single double-sided in stock.
Over the next couple of years, I started noticing commercials that drove home the point that mattresses are no longer products designed to last forever. In fact, they suggest that to actually get years of life out of your mattress meant you were dirty, disgusting, and should be ashamed of your mattress. Coincidentally, I also started noticed a lot of brand new mattress stores opening all around me in Central Austin.
Luckily, Paula and I found a local one-man mattress factory in Austin which specialized in double-sided mattresses. [As it turns out, this man had also been in the mattress industry for a few decades and started his own shop when the transition to single-sided happened because he just figured that single-sided was cheating the customer]. But while our story had a happy ending, the sad truth that this story illustrated about our economy left me anything but sleeping peacefully.
The practice that the mattress industry has tapped into is called planned obsolescence – the deliberate production of items that don’t last in order to generate more sales and higher profits by selling that same thing over again when a replacement is needed. Planned obsolescence occurs in situations where there is a lack of market competition so that producers feel they have a good chance of capturing that replacement sale. Proponents argue that this technique can drive progress forward when the next generation of products includes upgraded features that improve safety, functionality, etc.
On the part of the consumer, planned obsolescence is generally taken for granted in many industries. You might expect a car to last about ten years, laptops five, and phones maybe three years. Producers spend that ten-, five-, or three-year span priming the customer for that next purchase, inundating us with advertisements, product shows, and just plain hype. Even if a consumer wanted to extend the life of the original product, it might not actually be feasible. Replacement parts become difficult and then impossible to find or older models are no longer “supported”, not to mention the social stigma associated with old technology.
Pro-Finance and Anti-Economic
Too often we use the terms “financial system” and “economic system” interchangeably, yet perhaps nothing illustrates the distinction between the two quite like planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is a pro-finance but anti-economic growth strategy. Financially, it keeps common measures of growth such as consumer spending, employment rates, average annual income, and gross domestic product (GDP), moving upward. Economically speaking, however, planned obsolescence is not an efficient use of scarce resources. Truly efficient allocation would consist of an economy in which producers produced goods that lasted as long as possible and products that wore out quickly were considered failures in need of correction. Growth in such a system would be environmentally conscience and incrementally add to our wealth (the accumulation of net assets). Measures of progress and growth would adjust the gross domestic product by netting out the amount of wealth being thrown away and would prioritize the accumulation of net assets or wealth over income or consumer spending.
Doesn’t exactly sound like our reality does it? With this understanding, we should be greatly disturbed by how our economy is destroying wealth. Books that only grew more appealing with age and wear are moving to e-readers and tablets that require replacement. Our parents bought mattresses that were double-sided and expected to last practically forever if flipped and rotated, yet now they’re being made so that you can’t. Silverware has traditionally been passed down through generations; even it is becoming increasingly disposable. I’m expecting my grandfather’s heavy old tools – his hammer, wrenches, and screwdrivers – to last long enough to give to my son yet I’m doubtful that the same can be said about anything I’ve bought myself.
This trend leaves me with some big unanswered questions:
- How do our families get ahead if we must constantly re-purchase goods that our forbearers should have accumulated and passed on to us?
- How long can our planet and environment sustain this throw away culture?
As inconsequential as this little anecdote about the mattress may seem, I believe that the phasing out of the double-sided mattress is in fact a clear signal to fiscal conservatives and liberal environmentalists alike that something is wrong with our current economic system. Writing this in the wake of the recent election, I have to believe that some of the angst so evident in our country now is similar to the frustration I felt in mattress shopping. It’s a feeling that somehow you’re getting played. A feeling that some people are getting ahead and that many are falling behind because something in the system itself is not benefiting the common man. Might some of the problem be this confusion as to where economics ends and finance begins? Might some of it be planned obsolescence? After spending the past few years ruminating on a mattress of all things, I’m inclined to think so. But a new year approaches, and maybe with it will come a new eagerness to flip the trend on cheap, throw away goods and return to the locally made, quality products that built the wealth of this nation.