31 August 2013

Quality

A market in Provence - personal photo

Two years after the first encounter, I read Dominique Loreau's L'Art de la Simplicité again this summer. It is quite surprising how, after defining my own values and choices, my take on the book has evolved. I still agree with several points she explains in her book, but I also find myself diverting from her opinion on several matters. Now that my own vision is more defined, I have decided to write small chapters on various elements of simplicity. The first one: quality.

Quality is a very important component of the minismalist philosophy. Whatever the source, there seems to be a consensus over the idea of "quality over quantity". But what does this concretely mean?

Quality and Budget

When I read Loreau's approach on quality - choosing rich material and fabrics, having things custom made in your home to fit your needs... - it sounds like minimalism is limited to a wealthy elite. Same for Life Edited, their appartment is great but it cost a lot of money to put all this together.

Although I admit that the "luxury" of thinking about minimalism supposes a lifestyle comfortable enough to not have to care for essential needs, I think the "quality over quantity" approach can be pursued with almost any budget.

The reason is, I think quality is not about how luxurious chosen items are, it is about adopting a certain mindset - prioritizing the overall quality of an item over its price or the quantity of similar items you own.

Quality budgeting: What I do is define two things: a price range I afford & decide to pay for an item type, and a set of quality requirements. For example, if I decide to buy a handbag, my price range would be 100-150€, and my quality requirements are the fabric (leather) and the finish (pockets for metro card and keys...)

Defining "Quality"

"Good quality" is a very subjective notion, really. Depending on everyone's values, habits, taste, the characteristics of a high quality item are different. I personally believe that minimalism is a mindset defined by your own criteria, and so should be quality.

Don't let marketing and advertising tell you what a quality item should be, but define your own quality requirements, depending on your taste and habits. For example, a famous brand doesn't necessarily mean higher quality, especially nowadays with a lot of companies increasing their margin by decreasing product quality and keeping prices high thanks to the brand notoriety.

A higher price doesn't necessarily mean higher quality either. I noticed that higher priced clothing sometimes wore out more quickly than a cheaper alternative. It is true that as a general rule, since quality items require better materials and a longer fabrication time, they are more expensive than low quality alternatives, but on a case by case basis, price isn't always a reliable factor of quality.

Defining quality: I have my own set of criteria when it comes to asserting the quality of an item I am looking to purchase: the materials/fabrics used, the finish touches and little details in the fabrication, the overall shape , sturdiness... I always carefully inspect items before purchasing, which is why I rarely buy anything online unless I have the opportunity to see the item first.

Practicality

As a conclusion on this little quality chapter, I would like to mention one very important factor of the quality of an item: how practical, convenient it is to use every day. I agree with Loreau on that point, when she says that every little annoyance is extra stress in your everyday life.

For example, if you tea cup is ill conceived and you have to carry it a certain way in order not to get burned, it is not practical. If a very beautiful coat doesn't have pockets, it can be a little annoyance when you want to go out quickly without a bag. In other words, practicality should be one of the criteria of the quality of an item.

Thinking of practicality: Before buying something, ask yourself: how am I going to use it every day? What are the characteristics the object needs to have in order to be practical and easy to use for me?

I have a very good example for that: when I arrived in Paris I purchased a Chemex coffee maker because it is so stylish and beautiful. But to be honest, it wasn't practical at all. I had to pour the water little by little over the filter, the coffee took 15 minutes to brew every morning, then I had to lift the filter in order to be able to serve the coffee in my cup, which was lukewarm by the time it was ready, plus half the time the filters would break and spill into the coffee... So after one year, I turned the Chemex into a water jug and bought a French press instead.


The motto of "quality over quantity" is, in my opinion, one of the pillars of living a simple life. Not only because quality items will last longer and save costs over the long term, but also because a well chosen item serves its purpose fully, making your everyday life easier. That being said, I believe that thanks to our consumerist society (it does have advantages), we have such a large offer of anything, that quality items do exist within a reasonable price range, and there is bound to be quality items matching your own quality requirements.

What do you think? Is quality a major factor of choice when you purchase new items? How has it affected your everyday life? Do you have your own definition of quality, depending on the item type?

11 comments:

  1. I try to go for quality items, but I've also learned that quality (and crap) can be found at all price points. But sometimes the expression that pay more, cry once, buy cheap, cry twice...does ring true.

    I agree with you about practicality being an issue as well...and under that could fall maintenance. And that can range from dry cleaning expenses to salon visits to mechanics!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, it is very true that for clothes, or any other items really, maintenance is a big factor of practicality. I hate dry cleaning stuff, so annoying (and expensive)!

      I also agree about quality and crap being found at all price points. I used to have a "ranking" of brands with their price/quality ratio according to my past purchases but I realized it wasn't accurate, because both quality and price vary over the years. Plus, for one same brand, some items have lasted years and others have broken after one season.

      So now I tend to either go for small creators/hand-made items if I can find some, or for a lower price point while checking carefully the finish of the clothes to try to predict quality as much as possible... I have abandoned high-end mass market brands though, too expensive and risky if the quality isn't good enough.

      Delete
  2. Very interesting post, Kali.

    I'll admit that I've been at the half way point in L'Art de la Simplicité for about a year. She lost me when she started talking about custom-fitting your apartment. It is still an interesting book, though, and it also made me realize that my version of minimalism has a much bigger "make do" element to it than some other versions. I personally would often rather just cope with how something is (e.g. my apartment), than spend my time, money, and environmental resources on making it more optimized.

    Regarding quality, since I started reading about minimalism, I have bought a few items at a higher price point, especially clothing. Some of it has worked out, and some of it - well, I feel like I totally got sucked into the consumer world. Given the amount of "minimal" blogs devoted to finding just the perfect this, the perfect that, I sometimes wonder if it's all just a different, more intellectual form of plain old consumerism.

    And, as you say, it's hard to know what will last and what won't. I thought about that the other day as I was putting on a much-loved cardigan that I bought at h&m in 2005 and have worn regularly for years - it barely shows its age. That said, I found it kind of expensive by h&m standards - maybe there is something to that?

    I am trying to step away from wanting perfection, and instead just make do with what I have, and buy what I can afford. Easier said than done!

    That said, when you do have the knowledge to tell the difference, it is hard to buy poorer quality. We have started buying higher quality food (mostly bio) and the taste difference and peace of mind (fewer chemicals, smaller footprint because it is mostly local, better animal treatment) are so huge that I cannot see going back, unless forced to by finances.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think l'Art de la Simplicité is an interesting read because she goes through most life subjects (clothes, interior, food...) and offers her own take on simplicity, but I agree that some of her advice seemed too "perfect", time consuming or extreme for me. I totally agree with her concept of tailoring your appartment to your needs in theory, but in practice, when you don't have the money to buy and custom-remake your home it sounds like a waste of time and energy. Like you, I prefer to find ways to make do with what I have.

      Regarding quality and minimalist blogs, to me there are 2 different concepts: the idea to get away from mass consumerism by constructing a quality wardrobe that lasts for years (as opposed to buying tons of cheap items every season), and the idea to use minimalism as an excuse to buy more expensive stuff - which is to me, as you say, a more "intellectual" form of consumerism. Brands have well understood this "minimalism trend" and actually base their marketing strategy on that. In my opinion, it is not a question of clothes but a question of mindset and relation to the clothes. My personal goal when I started editing my wardrobe was to ultimately spend less money and time thinking about clothes, and I agree that spending so much time trying to find the perfect this or that is very time consuming, and doesn't match my idea of minimalism or simplicity.

      It's interesting that you'd mention the idea of higher end products of chain stores, I am currently looking into new knits for A/W (I can't seem to put together a collection that lasts more than a year or two), and I just purchased a GAP merinos wool knit as an experiment to go for quality items in chain stores to see what happens with that. If it lasts years like your H&M cardigan did, then it's a quality/price ratio win!

      Finally, it is true that once you have used better quality it is harder to scale back down - that's the first step of choosing your own quality standards though. My parents always bought quality food for us, and even when I was a student, I always bought fresh quality produce - a proof that you can choose quality over quantity with almost any budget :)

      Delete
  3. Such a great post! I totally agree that not only is quality a totally subjective matter, but that price is no longer (if it ever was) a good predictor of the quality of any given item. I have a few super cheap high street treasures that have lasted through years of constant wear, and then there's the occasional higher end purchase that pills too easily or came unraveled at the seams. And then there are some that, just because of the annoyance factor you mention (which I think is too often overlooked, even by our own selves in the heat of the purchase moment) get such little use that they turn out to be outrageously expensive when you look at cost-per-use, whereas if those little niggles weren't present you would be able to amortize it much better over the years. For me dry cleaning is one of those annoyances, and I know it's super important, but I have also successfully washed cashmere sweaters and silk shirts in a delicate cycle. If I'm sure something won't hold up through a wash, it's a good indication that I won't wear it often, which is a warning sign not to buy it. Just as an example. Really though, I just wanted to say I think you raise some really interesting questions and issues here, always love these discussions you start!

    http://www.nomadicd.com/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just finished reading through the other comments and saw that dry cleaning has already been acknowledged, guess I should have been a bit more thorough in my reading before I opened my mouth! Ah well, at least I know I'm not alone on that now...

      http://www.nomadicd.com/

      Delete
    2. Thanks for your comment! It is interesting to see several persons point out maintenance (for example dry cleaning) as a factor of practicality, is certainly is! It is also true that when I take a look at the items I seldom use, most of the times it is because there is one of these little annoyances I hadn't thought about when I made the purchase.

      It is really disheartenening when you discover expensive items wearing out quickly isn't it? Over these past few years I am under the impression that a lot of high-end mass market brands have decreased the quality of their products while increasing price to capitalize on brand notoriety and increase margins, so my global price range for many items has lowered. At least when a cheaper item wears out you are not surprised, and on the contrary, as you mention, some cheaper items turn out to be surprisingly sturdy!

      Delete
  4. "...the materials/fabrics used, the finish touches and little details in the fabrication, the overall shape , sturdiness... I always carefully inspect items before purchasing, which is why I rarely buy anything online unless I have the opportunity to see the item first."

    I do this too! I double and triple check seams, for loose buttons/threads, stains, scuffs, holes, etc. if I'm buying in-store, so I don't have to make a trip for returns/exchanges if it's a defective garment. It takes all of two minutes to look something over.

    I appreciate your writing this post. I feel that I'm becoming a more mindful shopper and I like to see how other people make their decisions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, I'm happy to hear it helps :) It is true that it doesn't take much time to inspect an item when picking it up at the store, and it can save the annoying process of bringing it back to the store with the receipt and getting it exchanged. I also experienced that on the long term, it helps picking items that will last longer over time, there are some little details that tell a lot about an item quality.

      Delete
  5. Adore this post! It seems we share many similarities in our approach and thoughts. Lately I haven't been writing as much, but definitely still living those philosophies! For starters, I love that over my years into minimalism I have found my own version of it and that is a very free-ing thing in itself. While I use the label "minimalist", I don't subscribe to all that the stereotypical image of minimalist entails. I don't think any of us do. Because we all have our own perspective and priorities. Quality for me is also about budgeting. But sometimes I consciously choose poorer quality knowing that it's an item that will be battered and better quality wouldn't protect it from that. For example, summer white tops - I don't buy the best quality I can afford because I know that it will get yellowed by sunscreen and perhaps dirty from my dog walks and sitting on the grass with him. For me, it's all about being a conscious consumer. Conscious of my motivations, decisions and implications. Love your work dear!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the kind word! It is nice to hear there are other people out there who also live minimalism and simplicity by their own rules, it is true that it is free-ing, but also I find it helps tailor a lifestyle, habits and choices matching our own values, ethics and constraints.

      I see what you mean with your example of the summer tees! It is true that a high quality item can only withstand so much. Another typical example of that is small children clothes: if they are going to live in them plus grow out of them in a few months, no need to invest in a too high quality - as long as the items do match the practicality criteria (comfortable, easy to use...)

      Delete