The difference between crap and quality

I’ve been working on the difference between crap and quality for weeks; this particular follow up to the the previous post, for the last five days. My draft is 11 pages long in 10 pt. font with skinny margins -all in an attempt to get to my closing argument. Defeated, I think I will start with that and hope for the best.

It is annoying to hear trash talk about “cheap” clothes and from every quarter. I include people who sew for pleasure, to custom clothiers to manufacturers of all sizes. Where ever it lies, there’s an identifiable pattern. The smaller or newer the operation, the more they talk trash. Here are my reasons why you should stop -other than that it identifies you as a wannabe– because is is unbecoming, unkind and gratuitously insults other people. Some of whom you hope will do business with you.

  1. On one hand we pat ourselves on the back that we can make stuff ourselves so we aren’t stuck with having to buy cheap crappy stuff. Yay for us, we score one point.
  2. People who don’t buy our stuff but buy stuff we think is cheap and crappy should subtract one point.
  3. We also pat ourselves on the back that we can sew stuff so we aren’t stuck with having to pay higher prices for the good stuff because we can just copy it. More yay and another point for us.
  4. People who aren’t as good as we are because they can’t or don’t sew, score another minus point.

Now, heard are constant complaints that consumers don’t want to pay the price of our stuff, some of it custom made (that some of us make, score another point if you do) yet at the same time, producers get upset when consumers buy other stuff that costs the same or more than our stuff. So which is it? People are too cheap if they don’t buy your stuff so if they have the money to buy someone else’s more expensive stuff, they’re stupid? Stupid or cheap are the only options? It seems more likely that the customer doesn’t agree the product represents the same value (so you should do something about that) but saying consumers are stupid or cheap isn’t going to win them over. Chances are excellent that the customer in question isn’t even your market so why would you worry about it?

But I digress. Trash talk is a mechanism people use to reinforce group identity. It’s also a way to justify one’s choices. I’m hip to that, maintaining the cultural identity of the group is a good thing but it should not come at the expense of others if for no other reason than that it is self-serving. Here’s the result:

  1. Other people should not buy cheap crap. They get minus points if they do.
  2. But if we buy something inexpensive, we pat ourselves on the back for being thrifty.
  3. Other people should pay full value for our stuff. If they won’t, they get more minus points.
  4. But if we don’t buy a name brand, it’s because we’re smart enough to know it’s just smoke and mirrors (unless of course, we become a big brand and then it is okay).
  5. If other producers (brands etc) expect other people to pay full value, we think they have a lot of nerve.
  6. However, if we have the expectation of getting full value for what we make, it is okay. It is only foul and nefarious for somebody else to value and price their products accordingly.

People are missing the point of value. As in, you don’t decide what value is for another person. If you think we could determine value for everyone and follow that argument to its logical consequence, we’d all wear the same things. How boring. And we’d miss out on all manner of potential humor and most of us would go broke (but that’s further along).

Some people don’t have the money to buy what you think is best or even care to allocate their spending that way if they could. Maybe they’re doing well enough to put food on the table or sending all their money to support orphans in Haiti but the above amounts to a double standard. If we buy something at the thrift store (that we have the skills to modify or care for to extend its life), we pat ourselves on the back for being thrifty and having skills. However, if someone else who is poor or chooses to limit their consumption or doesn’t have the skills (or time and money to acquire them) and buys something new but low cost, they are bad people for only caring about buying the cheapest stuff possible, regardless of “quality” and we subtract points from them. Let’s assume you’re right, they are bad people and bad customers. What does this solve? Do you want this customer? Think about that.

Whether anyone likes it or not, no single individual determines value for anyone else. To do otherwise is uncharitable and unkind. You would be upset if a single struggling mom on welfare were spending her time making handmade silk outfits (or cashing in her food stamps to buy your stuff) instead of looking for a job or training for one. On the opposite end, someone who can pay $1,500 for her daughter’s prom gown might see the money spent as a very good value. For all you know, that gown maker has hired that struggling single mother who now doesn’t need welfare. And sure, you could say that single mom could do better for herself but we return to two points (in part a repeat from comments in the $300 jeans post). One, the gown producer has found a way to find customers who will pay. And two, how do you expect that mom to find customers willing to pay that kind of money when people like you, with a lot more skills and resources to find customers, cannot? To suppose otherwise is very unkind because it means you expect someone who has less than you to work with, should be able to do something you can’t in order to be considered equal to you.

The value of taste
Taste is another facet of value -remember, value can only be determined by the individual- so fashion-fascists or as I call them, fashcists, are very annoying. Besides, everyone is convinced they have great taste so if everyone has great taste already, how come we aren’t all dressed the same? It’s a good thing we don’t, it would be terrible for business. If everyone dressed the same, we wouldn’t need the product diversity you see in stores and a lot of people would go out of business, like manufacturers, fabric suppliers, retail stores, sewing factories, clothing designers, store clerks etc. It would be awful for the economy. On the other hand, some people don’t care about clothes, whether it’s buying, selling or making. They don’t have the money, time or whatever.  They still need to wear clothes -and “quality” pronouncements are often subjective because the proper context should be value. Doing otherwise amounts to elitism -I don’t know anyone who mucks out a barn in custom made, perfectly fitted outfits with french seams and seed pearls. Someone needs to fill that purpose so why criticize it just because it’s not what you like, make or buy? There’s a price continuum; you can’t have the high prices you’d like to get (but not pay) if there aren’t low prices on the other end. And, you can’t have “good” stuff without “bad” stuff.

Value of time:
Another thing that is often erroneously equated with quality is time. This isn’t wine and even if it were, there are people who are happy with screw-top or born-by-date beer and they keep plenty of people employed. What is a disservice is to imply that quality, craftsmanship and technique are mutually exclusive in a more rapidly produced product.

Fast doesn’t have to mean low quality or even low value if having defined procedures  saves time and lowers costs. For example, I’m sure you have a great recipe that you can throw together very consistently; you have practice, defined procedures and ingredients that never fail. Now someone else could get lucky and have their dish come out just like yours once but it would take them longer and they’d have more failures without defined processes and key ingredients that result in the quality outcome. Is theirs better quality because it took them longer? I think not.

The opposite is also true, slow doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality either (as in the case of hand sewn work arounds). Besides, as I’ve said before, we already have slow fashion in that it takes 12 to 16 months to deliver a pair of jeans that only takes 18 minutes to sew. If slow fashion were optimal, we’d all be industry titans by now. On the other hand, the value of time is defined by whoever is doing it. It may take GAP et al 12 to 16 months to deliver styles but they are bringing their own competencies for which consumers reward them with purchasing. It could be their competency standards are color fastness, adhering to specification, dependable replenishment or whatever. It’s a matter of value which is subject to opinion.

The point is, producing fashion quickly doesn’t necessarily mean crappy quality; if anything it can mean the opposite. Because it’s done so quickly, it holds that it must be done well on some level or it wouldn’t be able to be done so fast. The issue most people have with fast fashion is value. It likewise doesn’t necessarily mean that fast fashion is disposable although that is its value for some people. Do I think disposable clothes are good? It doesn’t matter what I think, nobody cares.

Brands are a cognitive shortcut
Personally, I don’t care about wearing clothes; my driver is making them. My wardrobe planning is defined by not embarrassing who ever I happen to be with. I hate to break it to you but there’s a whole lot of people like me. In fact, I dare suggest that more people are like me than not. People dress to fit in with their crowd, including most women who dress for other women, not men. The issue here is social value and fitting in; if your friends are embarrassed to be seen with you, they’re not going to invite you places where they can be seen with you. By the same token, people think brands are over rated but brands are useful to identify your tribe. Be wary that it is self serving for you to think that having a successful brand is okay vs someone in another niche that seems dumb to you is not okay. For example, many people in my tribe judge certain brands to be conformist or conspicuous consumption but the tribe does value other brands that signal in their own way (Prius etc).

What to say instead: “Not my market
If the subjective topic of value (crap vs quality) or style of another brand comes up, the appropriate value neutral response is “not my market” or “not my customer”. Not only is it kinder and less likely to alienate anyone (colleagues, customers, retailers etc), it’s better because it is true. Saying “not my market” implies you’re not qualified to comment because their customer is not your customer and you don’t know the market. And trust me, unless you’ve shared space on the same rack, you don’t know the market.

Most discussions about quality are really about value. Since value is a matter of opinion, live and let live. Our businesses depend on it.

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