Why Quality Matters, Even in Tough Times

If every time we pulled out our wallets, we stopped to think about whether or not we really needed something we might have more money left over for things that are truly valuable.
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Last week, I wrote a post about how American consumers can influence agribusiness to abandon its use of antibiotics in livestock by choosing to purchase antibiotic-free meat, and a comment I received in response to my advice, "Vote with your wallet," has stuck with me:

"Vote with your wallet if you have money in it. If you don't, you are on your own and you'll be eating crap that you can afford."

It's a common sentiment since the economy came crashing down, and one that is easy to sympathize with. After all, times are tough; a lot of people are barely making do, worrying about whether or not they can put food on the table at all, let alone organic/free-range/grass-fed/locally raised beef. Shouldn't we be buying the cheapest stuff possible to scrape by (hello McDonald's dollar menu!)?

Still, though it may seem counterintuitive in tough times, keeping the "green" faith may actually pay off in spades. Here's how.

Invest in your health.
While it's tempting to survive on the recession diet of fast food, cheap booze, and candy (I'm not kidding; The New York Times reported in March that candy sales are booming despite the economy), it is possible to still eat healthy--and even organic--on a very limited budget. Whole Foods may somewhat deserve its "Whole Paycheck" moniker, but even there, it's feasible to shop economically. Skip the prepared foods section and hit up the bulk bins to stock up on beans, rice, and pasta. Cook up inexpensive cuts of sustainably raised meat in a delicious stew (traditionally a peasant dish, after all). Buy tubs of store-brand yogurt and tofu for cheaper sources of protein. And above all, remember: A high-quality diet means reduced health care costs for you in the long run, not to mention the added energy to hunt for that new job--or the stamina to keep the one you're lucky enough to have.

Think long-term, not disposable.
It wasn't long ago that I congratulated myself on a picking up a cheap hair dryer. But when it bit the dust a few months ago, I was dismayed to learn that the maker, Remington, does not offer repair service for dryers past their two-year warranty; what's more, the company doesn't offer a recycling program of any kind. It's short-lifecycle products like these that seem like a quick fix at the time of purchase, but wind up polluting our landfills and costing us more in the long run. (If you haven't seen "The Story of Stuff" yet, watch it now.) And Remington's warranty is considered generous in the personal products industry; most manufacturers only offer a one-year limited warranty. So that drugstore hair dryer may only cost you $19.99, but if you have to buy a new one every year, in five years' time you'll have spent more than if you'd bought a professional-grade dryer that comes with lifetime repair service. (Solano, for instance, offers a two-year warranty on all its dryers that you can renew every two years, indefinitely.) Don't have the money right now to shell out for an item that's made to stand the test of time? Look for a high-quality hand-me-down on Freecycle or Craigslist.

Know that price is not the arbiter of quality.
Our society has come to expect that a designer label means something is top-notch, but a high price doesn't always mean high quality. Some of the most durable items can often be had at a reasonable price: The $40 Levi's my father wears nearly every day, for example, are still going strong after many, many years (classic fashion is eco-friendly fashion, since it never goes out of style). Conversely, many items that were once expensive can often be had for relative peanuts once they've reached vintage status: My husband bought his 1985 diesel Mercedes three years ago for $5,000 and it's still going strong after 182,000 miles (that's when cars were still built to last).

Finally, think before you buy.
It sounds obvious, given the state of the economy, but for many of us, it's hard to get out of those old consumerist habits of equating pleasure with purchasing. But if every time we pulled out our wallets, we stopped to think about whether or not we really needed something--no matter how small the buy--we might have more money left over for things in our life that are truly valuable and long-lasting. Never forget that the first of the three R's of environmentalism is Reduce. Then, reduce that impulse to purchase, just because you "want"! Think about it: What do you truly need to make you happy?

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