Beware of Buzzwords

It’s often said that, as a result of the bad economy, companies and consumers alike have refocused on quality. Brands talk more about their production processes and consumers focus on long-term value. Unfortunately, fifteen years later, what passes for a discussion about quality is often little more than a stringing together of buzzwords. Read through any product description to see what I mean. You can easily flip words around – like Madlibs – to make something heritage this, handcrafted that, or artisanal something or other.

Even when words have meaning, they’re often inaccurate. Just last month, I saw an online video “documenting” a company’s manufacturing process. At the point where the narrator described how their bags were “hand sewn,” the videographer took an up close shot of a seamstress pushing a piece of canvas through a sewing machine. And how about products touted as being “made in England” or “made in the Italy?” Some readers may be surprised to learn that production can often be done in one country (say, China) and then finished elsewhere (say, Italy), just for the purposes of being able to carry a certain country-of-origin label.

The unfortunate reality is that clothing production is much more messy and complex, and quality isn’t reducible to simple measures. In footwear, for example, where Goodyear welting was once an indication of a well-made shoe, it’s now just a gimmick for companies to increase sales. More and more Goodyear shoes are flooding the market, but are made with such low-quality components (in the uppers, lining, and internal structure), that the ability to easily resole may be pointless.

What determines quality will vary from one kind of item to other. What makes for a good pair of shoes, for example, will not be the same for what makes quality knitwear. The best consumers can do is to check out items from the highest-end stores, even if they can’t afford the products inside. This isn’t to say that all expensive things are well made, but if you handle enough expensive things, you may begin to get a sense of what determines quality. In developing your eye, you’ll have a better sense of what to look for when you’re out shopping for yourself.

The other approach – simple, but tried and true – is to rely on trustworthy companies that will describe their manufacturing process in an accurate and meaningful way. If you’re watchful of buzzwords, you’ll not only find more reliable information about what goes into the manufacturing process, but you’ll also know which brands are likely to make decisions in the interest of their customers – even when it’s in components that can be hidden underneath a “hand sewn” “made-in-Italy” label.

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