Australia has a great tradition of industrial design and invention; but our everyday consumer goods tend to world's worst practice.
We suffer in three ways: a laissez-faire market economy (with minimal regulation and less enforcement) promotes shonky goods; a love of DIY and cheapness endorses poor quality; and a general lack of appreciation of design and sustainability diminishes our choices. Three examples can illustrate.
In my weekend workshop for joinery there are old fashioned hand tools and some power tools, the latter mostly purchased from that big green hardware chain. But my favourites, and the best tools by far, are a German-made track saw, orbital sander and dust extractor, not available at mega chain stores.
This is because popular chains like Bunnings know that “lowest prices are only the beginning”, as the motto goes, without finishing the sentence with “of the end of quality”. Bunnings deals in the ‘price point’, meaning the lower end. It achieves this by sourcing a range of power tools from a small number of large firms who deal in a wide range of brands, giving the semblance of choice, but in reality, they are mostly mediocre. I was once told that Bunnings expect that one in every two of a very low-priced power tool will be returned as faulty, to be replaced at no cost, and that this loss is factored in.
As a result of these low-quality goods most tradies don’t shop there, a point acknowledged by GM Michael Schneider who has said “many trade products don't have a natural home within the product architecture of the Bunnings format”. Leaving aside the egregious use of the word ‘architecture’, what he's saying is “Bunnings doesn’t supply quality that a tradesman needs professionally”.
QUT retail expert Gary Mortimer backs this judgement: “there's a perception broadly that Bunnings is still very much a consumer-based handyman business”. Let's also leave aside the egregious use of the word ‘handyman’, because one thing Bunnings does exceptionally well is to have a diverse and gender equitable staff, with a spectrum of abilities (reflecting their increasingly diverse customer base).
Chains have made an art form of selling lower quality goods. The customer wants cheap and cheerful, and that's what they get. And they are very successful – Bunnings contributes 60 percent of its parent company Wesfarmers’ profits, and they own some of the biggest retail chains such as Coles, Kmart and Officeworks. So, expect the ‘Bunnings formula’ to spread.
Despite this success, what Schneider is admitting is that many tradies don't see Bunnings as being relevant for them, as they don’t sell a full range of high-quality equipment like Festo, Hilti, Ramset and Makita. Tradies looking for these well designed and engineered specialty tools currently shop at small local or national chain stores that cater for them.
So, last week, according to the AFR, Bunnings announced an expansion into similar higher-end retail businesses, promising at least 75 specialty tool shops in the near future to fill that lacuna. Which seems to me to be an admission that it offers almost everything you could want to build a house, except quality tools to do it with.
Far better would be to offer a wide choice of quality to the ‘handyman’, a full range in one store, such that we don’t discriminate against the better and best to ostracise them to a store never seen by the general public. Seeing the best, what tradies use, is intrinsic to educating consumers on quality.
The rise of white goods (fridges, washing machines, dryers and dishwashers) is the story of 20th C design. And Australians love them. We used to get by with just one fridge, but now we seemingly need many more: a big 3-door in the kitchen, a compact bar fridge in the rumpus room for drinks, the wine fridge under the stairs or in the cellar, and a freezer in the garage for fishing bait or long-term freezer storage.
All those fridges are a huge problem: as they proliferate, they burn more energy, the older ones have ozone depleting gases, and they end their life on the street waiting to be ‘tipped’. As power and water demand rose steeply, a national mandatory labelling scheme, using stars, was introduced in Australia in 1992 to indicate energy and water efficiency, and we were only the third country to establish the system, after the USA and Canada.
Testing on televisions, dryers, washing machines, refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, and dishwashers rates them on a 6 star range, (now with an extra 4 stars for super efficiency). This system, promoting ‘the sustainability of white goods’, is similar to most other OECD countries, but unlike them Australia does nothing with that information, other than offer it as ‘consumer advice’. No regulations prohibiting the sale of poor performers, no taxes or discounts to encourage better choices.
We spend so much of our income on our dwellings, to purchase or to rent, that we seek the cheapest goods to go into them. A boon to local goods retailers, none more so than Gerry Harvey of Harvey Norman with 193 franchise-operated stores in Australia. A veritable cornucopia of white, stainless and (now trendy) black goods, with goods with lower star ratings featuring the lowest costs.
Harvey has recently been heavily criticised, particularly by federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh, for holding on to $22 million of Jobkeeper payments despite declaring a rise in profit after tax of $438 million on revenue $2.34 billion. But he has said he gave little thought to paying it back, as “it’s a tiny amount of money”. Probably the same way he feels about raking in the millions selling poorly rated (i.e. poor design quality) goods.
Harvey sometimes recalls his poor upbringings, as some sort of justification for the capitalist free-for-all that now dominates his thinking. He once said that the bad thing about giving money to the homeless was that it had a tendency to “help a whole heap of no-hopers survive for no good reason”. Not likely to donate some scratched seconds to your next social housing scheme.
But at least he’s honest in his ‘green-hate’. Far more insidious is the ‘greenwash’ being increasingly practiced by international companies. Take IKEA for instance, who have recently taken out double page ads, touting their sustainability credentials; somewhat undermined by Choice (surely a rolled gold Aussie institution) awarding the Ikea Nedkyld fridge “The Shonky Award for... spoiling your food, expensively”.
“The fridge uses more electricity than it claims on the energy rating star label and foregoes fancy features like a chiller and temperatures inside the freezer can change by 10 degrees C, meaning it isn't safe for long-term freezing, and your food is likely to go off or be spoiled prematurely”. Add that to the poor-quality melamine foil-faced particle board Billy bookshelf (one is sold somewhere around the world every minute), with shelves that bow under books. They now offer to take them back, and so they should.
Australia has the least take-up of electric vehicles of all the OECD countries. We seemingly believe, quite erroneously, that our huge land area and suburban based cities give rise to driving long distances, for instance between home and work. The reality is that 80 percent of all trips in Australian cities are less than 80 kilometres per day.
This is where an electric vehicle, or EV, shines. They’re faster, quieter, more reliable, easier to maintain and most models will do 300+ kilometres on one charge. But we have a strong aversion to EVs. We seem to be stuck in the ICE age (ICE = internal combustion engines). It’s like Commodores and Falcons never died. Why don’t we warm to EVs?
It’s not for want of design choices – there are over 70 EV models worldwide from manufacturers big and small. It’s not because we don’t like new cars – more than a million sold each year speaks volumes. And it’s not because we are a small market – NZ, with only 20 percent of our population has almost as many electric vehicles as the whole of Australia.
I think the reasons are threefold: price, government disinterest and sheer bloody-mindedness.
Yes, EVs are expensive up front, but the running costs are far lower, and the design quality means far fewer breakdowns and less maintenance. But like power tools, we premiate price over quality; and like two-star fridges, we skimp on purchase price to pay more for operating costs.
On the second point, it’s not that governments are disinterested, moreover they are actively discouraging support for EVs. Typified by Michaelia Cash - surely one of the most irritating federal MPs to ever put on a (pant)suit - with her declaration that Labor’s support for EV’s would be “a war on the weekend” and that there would never be an electric Ute. As a public service for LNP pollies, I’m happy to point them here to read about the huge range of electric utes now available.
More concerning than the rhetoric is the lack of support for infrastructure: a chicken and egg situation when the populace at large has ‘range anxiety’, so they don’t buy EVs, so there aren’t many EVs, so charging stations are not desirable or profitable. The wrong kind of circular economy. And now some states are even introducing taxes to discourage their uptake.
Our bloody-mindedness shows through in how the general public are deeply conservative ‘design consumers’. Far from being the early adopters that we like to be touted as, when most new technology is launched we sit back to see what problems may arise. We are the flip side of Singapore. And our love of ICE cars may mean we become the 21st C version of Cuba.
Can we fix this?
We need a concerted campaign to emphasise design quality in consumer goods, to influence the public mind: focusing on sustainability, durability and maintainability. But this would require a federal government to understand the words ‘design’ and sustainability’, rather than shouting ‘taxes’ and ‘affordability’ (i.e. money, money, money).
It would be helpful if governments had a more enthusiastic approach to regulation for quality, not just safety. And a greater regard for the everyday qualities of good design. But I'm not hopeful that those changes will happen any time soon. Rather, I think we'll continue on to be a nation whose consumer goods are cheap, cheerful, and crappy.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]