Finding value used to be relatively simple. High quality products would last a long time. Bought at a heavy discount or second hand, these were the real bargains. But things got more complicated. I find myself more and more moving towards cheaper items.
Requiem For Old Underwear: What Quality Used To Mean
Meet my pair of red Patagonia Capilene boxer shorts. I’ve been praising its loyal services to far too many people. They finally ended in a bin in Sri Lanka after 20 years of regular use, more than 60 countries and 6 out of 7 continents. Yeah I know, very sexy. But how many of your possessions in regular use have logged two decades of heavy use?
I wish all my things could last that long. And I’m still willing to pay for that. I have a few more clothing items from the last millennium still in active duty, all from Patagonia. They are a tribute to quality products. And a long gone era. The label still says “Made in USA”.
A decade ago I bought a couple more of these legendary boxer shorts. They too are of excellent quality, but they are already starting to show serious signs of wear. “Made in Mexico”. And a cursory look at the company webpage tells me that the latest iteration comes, ironically, from Sri Lanka.
The demise of premium products
I still love Patagonia products. They remain a leader of the outdoor clothing industry in terms of quality, sustainability and ethics. But they too had to adapt to globalization and other market forces. For most of the competition, it’s a lot uglier.
Big brands like The North Face became fashionable. As they were swallowed by the branch giants, prices kept creeping up. And quality tanked. Just look at their duffel bags. A very unpractical and fragile strap design for travelers hauling heavier loads. But hey, you get the Everest base camp look at the airport.
And it’s not just the companies. The average consumer too has changed. Outdoor and travel industry made it from niche to mainstream. Based on my observations the premium segment changed a lot in recent years. The same holds true from smart phones to shoes. As prices rose, quality stayed the same or declined.
The Old Quality/Price curve
The quality price relationship is not linear. Cheap items are usually of low quality. Conversely, the premium segment commands significantly higher prices. But like fine wines you get less and less added quality for every extra dollar spent.
In my opinion both extremes of the curve are rarely interesting. The 10$ shoes you can purchase in Asian bazaars never last more than a few weeks. Junk. Not worth it. At the other end of the spectrum, a 1200$ Hilleberg tent is a tribute to durable materials and excellent craftsmanship. But accidents happen, bags get stolen, UV rays degrade fabrics. It’s unlikely to last three times as long as a 400$ model.
So where does that leave the budget traveler hunting for value? Theoretically we are looking for items on the curve that are not too far from the maximum quality but only cost a fraction of the top price. This is obviously a simplification, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
The Value Shift
Some premium brands still stand out. Their quality is simply that good. Or their customer service sets them apart. Take Therm-a-Rest camping mattresses. They still honor their lifetime warranty, no questions asked. You can’t say the same for Aliexpress products.
But at the other end of the curve there have been some big changes too. There are more and more products of decent quality at bargain prices. The Chinese, Indian, Brazilian and Russian middle classes are starting to (re)discover the great outdoors. They might be willing to buy a tent for a hundred bucks or more, but not for a grand.
And it’s not just cheaper Chinese products whose quality keeps getting better. Some American and European companies too are capable of producing quality alternatives without the premium price tag. The sweet spot on the quality/price curve seems to be gradually shifting.
a lighter burden
One could argue that premium products are still better in terms of reduced waste and environmental impact. It’s a valid and important point. But the 10-30% difference in quality and durability is easily offset by taking extra care and owning less stuff.
In the end, what we buy still comes down to personal needs, preferences and budget. But aiming for the value sweet spot has another big advantage beyond going easy on your wallet. Not lugging around 5 figures worth of gear and electronics is also way more relaxing. Theft and loss don’t seem quite as daunting anymore. You don’t get labeled as rich tourist quite as quickly. No need for pricey travel insurance policies. Overall, I think it’s a win-win situation.