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The power of brands in consumer culture has been much criticized, for encouraging needless consumption and masking the environmental and social costs of production. But luxury branded goods surely have some redeeming qualities when compared to the own-brand or white-label products which can be bought cheaply in a supermarket.

  • They tend to last longer.

  • In the case of items like watches and electronics and cars, the higher price of prestigious brands is usually dictated by costs such as craftsmanship, design and marketing – in other words, job creation in fields with low direct impact on the environment.

  • With food and clothing, it could be argued that a well-known brand creates a link between the consumer and the producer, thereby exposing the producer to consumer boycott in the case of environmental or social abuses.

So which is more sustainable? Buy cheap clothes or electronics but in greater quantity? Or support the design and marketing budgets of multinational corporations?

Update: This recent opinion article suggests that luxury clothing is indeed more sustainable than cheap clothing, by definition. The author's main argument is that high-value production means less consumption and less wastage:

If you buy more expensive clothing, it doesn’t guarantee that your clothes will be exceptionally well-made, or that workers haven’t been exploited in their making. [...] And even expensive clothes are responsible for polluting the environment when the textiles they’re made from are dyed, and when they’re eventually discarded and left to sit in a landfill. But it may reduce the likelihood of worker exploitation. And if nothing else, spending more should mean buying—and wasting—less.

To clarify, the premise of this question has been amended to assume equal expenditure. At issue is whether or not luxury goods are more sustainable – dollar for dollar – than budget items, taking into account the impacts at each stage of the production chain.

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    I question your assumption that branded or more expensive goods tend to last longer or are of higher quality. It may hold for certain types of goods or brands, but certainly not all. I think the reverse is more often true; very cheap stuff is usually produced by 'cutting corners'; using low quality materials, bad labour conditions, dumping waste materials, etc. – THelper Mar 2 '15 at 9:50
  • Limiting the question to just two options, 1) buy cheap and waste the rest of the money and 2) buy expensive brands and have no money left "to do damage with", is a flawed premise. There are other options, e.g. spending larger amounts of money not on "brands" but on other quality products such as organic or fair traded goods (lets assume those are equally expensive) or just not wasting the leftover money on "damage" but invest those savings in a sustainable manner (such as reforestation or fair funding of third world projects or whatnot). – Ghanima Mar 2 '15 at 19:45
  • Why not buy expensive clothes made by artisans from renewable materials? Your either/or isn't clear. – That Idiot Mar 2 '15 at 19:48
  • Do you not all at least agree that this is, in general, an interesting question? It is certainly one I have thought about a lot. Is it really impossible to answer? If not, how should the question be phrased? @Ghanima I fully understand that there are many variables. By simplifying them I am trying to make the question answerable. I agree with yours and That Idiot's solution, but do you not agree that most consumers are concerned firstly with the binary tradeoff between quantity and quality? Hence the binary question. – Jortstek Mar 2 '15 at 21:57
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    Re "... have no money left to do damage with?": One can always donate the non-spent money to the environmental charity of one's choice. Or save it for retirement, or just a rainy day. Seems as though you're stuck in the modern consumerist mindset, where everything you earn must be spent on consumer goods, even if those goods provide you with no real pleasure or utility. And so we see people buying 'stuff' that's used at most a few times, then stuffed into closets, garages, and storage units. – jamesqf Mar 3 '15 at 20:15
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No. Sometimes yes, but often enough no - so that looking at whether a brand is 'luxury' or 'supermarket' is not a good replacement for looking at the actual sustainability of the product.

I can't cite a single, unified source, but when I read independent test reports of a variety of products, price or the fact there's a recognised brand is a poor indicator of actual quality.

Instead of using brands as guidelines, look at the factors that actually indicate how sustainable a product is:

  • With food, how is it grown?
  • with large electrical devices, how is power consumption?
  • with small gadgets, how long do they last?
  • etc ...

It may well be that more often than not big brands win this race. But you make a smarter decision when you don't take 'expensive/branded' as a proxy for sustainability.

  • Thank you. I agree with this "neither-nor" response – and hence it is not really the answer to my question. My question is a pragmatic one, about second-best scenarios. Once you are already in the suburban mall or big-box hypermarket, is choosing high-value a proxy for reducing damage? I noted a couple of solid reasons that it might be. This situation applies to real-life people, at the beginning of their journey to sustainability. I am disappointed that people are seeing the question as some kind of apology for mindless consumerism. – Jortstek Mar 4 '15 at 20:27
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Re "...the higher price of prestigious brands is usually dictated by costs such as craftsmanship, design and marketing...", I have to disagree, at least as a general rule. Perhaps more is spent on marketing to convince the gullible that say a Cadillac Escalade is more "prestigious" than the virtually identical Chevy Tahoe, but will it really last longer or perform better? You judge: http://carsort.com/compare/Cadillac-Escalade-vs-Chevrolet-Tahoe

Or take jeans: will an expensive pair with some designer's logo on the butt really last longer or fit better than a pair of Levis or Wranglers?

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    Seems reasonable that lifespan and performance do improve at least a bit with price. But I also mentioned 2 other issues: the nature of the economic activity generated by the marginal price increase; and the corporate accountability that comes with a brand-consumer "relationship". And also the crucial variable of opportunity cost: what the same consumer would be expected to do with saved money. Thanks for the answer, I know that this is a tough question. – Jortstek Mar 4 '15 at 21:05
  • For some of us Wranglers and Levis are expensive logo brands. And no, they don't last longer than well made brands at half the price. Just don't go for the 5 Euro jeans at the market. – RedSonja Jan 7 '16 at 12:11

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