By Donella Meadows
–July 17, 1997–
I don’t travel by air all that often, so I can’t get used to the squeezed-in seats. Every time I get in a plane it seems they’ve shaved another half-inch from the seat width, and the rows are an inch closer together. When the person in front of you leans back nowadays, his or her head ends up right in your lap.
Sometime in the past year the airlines also stopped pretending to serve meals. Now they toss a bag of peanuts in your direction. The peanut bags are getting smaller.
The only time I watch TV is when I stay in hotels, which is about as often as I fly, so I get surprised by rising ratio of advertising to program. Recently I tried to watch a movie, but it was more than half ads. Even PBS has ads now, getting ever longer.
They show ads on the plane too, when you’re strapped in and can’t escape. Ads are everywhere in airports, blatting from TVs, even pasted on the backs of stall doors in the bathrooms.
The squeeze, the squeeze, the money-making squeeze, taking up more space in our lives, filling it with less worth. Grabbing our attention, offering everything, while cutting quality and raising price. The shrinking chocolate bar. The appliance without an on-off switch. (You have to plug and unplug it — saves the manufacturer at least a buck a unit.) The new shoes that fall apart one month sooner than the previous ones did.
Banks charge for talking to a real live teller, the telephone company for information, gas stations for road maps, all of which used to be free. Pensions and health insurance are less generous than they used to be, if they exist at all. Half-pound packages contain 7 3/4 ounces. I don’t know how long it’s been since 2-by-4s actually measured 2 by 4.
The squeeze constricts everything it touches, most recently health care. Once patients were sick human beings, now they’re items on an assembly line. A friend of mine, one of many caring practitioners still valiantly trying to maintain quality, was just told that her patients will now be scheduled not every half-hour, but every 15 minutes.
They used to make house calls; now you come to them, they’re 45 minutes late, they give you 15 minutes and charge you ten times as much.
I don’t think the eternal squeeze is necessary to business, only to a certain size and type of business, one that is so big, so plurally owned, so distant from its products and customers, that it can only measure itself by size and spreadsheets. There are plenty of companies, some large but most small, that still pride themselves on the quality of their products and their relationships with clients. When you interact with them, you don’t feel squeezed.
Around me are family farmers who sell flowers, vegetables or milk, fresh-produced, to folks who live nearby. They take joy in the beauty of their produce and the health of their soil, and they’re content to do good work and make enough to support the family. They wouldn’t shrink the size of a “pint” box of strawberries just to make a few cents more.
Stonyfield Yogurt is a medium-sized company still dedicated to pure product, decent treatment of workers, and premium prices to dairy-farmer suppliers. Interface carpet tiles is a billion-dollar company going to great expense to reduce the environmental impacts of its operations.
I know a guy who has a restaurant in San Francisco that serves inexpensive, colorful, healthy food, lovingly prepared. He always has a waiting list for reservations. “You know,” he told me, “if I charged 25 cents more per meal, I could pay off my start-up costs in 18 months instead of 3 years.” “Why don’t you?” I asked. “Well, I make a fair profit,” he said, “and I don’t want to have that kind of relationship with the people who eat here.”
If you have a thousand customers a week and you could get 25 cents more out of each of them, that would be $250. Not worth doing. But if you have 10 million customers, 25 cents apiece adds up to $2.5 million a week, $130 million a year. No way you could pass up the chance to squeeze out that money. And use it to grow to 100 million customers. If you don’t, your competitors will.
I think our love/hate relationship with business comes from the fact that we regularly encounter these two different kinds of businesses — our friends and neighbors, doing good work and hoping to make a buck, and the players in the big leagues, where they play a different game. Disney and Wal-Mart, once lovable companies, have grown into monsters with no apparent goal except to engulf the world. General Motors, Nike, Microsoft, Texaco, Dow, Sears, Delta at some point had to stop competing on the basis of quality and start competing on the basis of lower costs, attained by squeezing suppliers, customers, workers, resources, regulators, and competitors — especially small competitors still trying to run a heartfelt business.
The five hundred largest corporations, larger than many nations in terms of the amount of money that flows through them in a year, account for one-fourth of the world’s economic output, but only employ one-fourth of one percent of the world’s workers. When they talk at us about the importance of creating jobs, encouraging private enterprise, freeing the market, they’re trying get favors for the big guys by touching our respect for the little ones.
That’s just one more example of the squeeze.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997