I have been shaving for more than 20 years and like most men I have religiously bought new razors and blades as they came out. Why wouldn’t I when each new model offered a smoother shave. Yes, it got a bit expensive but wasn’t it the “the best a man can get”?
But an accidental experiment last year got me thinking, “Have I been duped into a wasteful indulgence?” and “How do you live sustainably if we consumers are so easily duped to be wasteful?”
On one of my long-term oversees business trips, I forgot to pack extra shaving blades and instead of buying new ones, I just kept using my old blades. It was mostly because I was too busy to go shopping and also because I spent the entire trip cooked up in my hotel in front of my laptop overdosed on coffee.
After a few weeks, the shaves were no longer as smooth and they did leave some patches. But it was not too long before I figured out that using hot water between swipes made the shave reasonably smooth and best the way to avoid patches was ….wait for it… to shave over those patches a few times.
It got me asking how long a razor blade actually lasts, and so I decided to find out after my trip. I continued to use the same blade and it has been one year now and I have yet to change to a new razor blade! I recently asked my wife if she noticed anything about my shaves and she said she did not notice any difference. I was as adorable as ever.
On doing some research, I found a 2012 article by Fortune magazine on how Gillette is starting to talk about how long their blades last. But just take a look at their advertising over the past few years and you can see that they are primarily focused on selling customers new razors. In their 2017 Annual report, P&G (the parent company) actually boasts of an innovation award that they have won for their new Razor Gillette Fusion ProShield. You guessed it, I did not buy the new ProShield.
Now, Gillette blades cost only around $2 per blade and even if you used 1 per week you will only spend ~$100 per year. But the question still remains, is the industry that generates around $10 Billion in Sales in the US creating sufficient value for its customers and should their creativity and innovative spirit be better spent elsewhere? Also, does the social benefits warrant the environmental impact of producing these products?
I believe that if consumers were much more informed about the true useful life of the blades, if consumers were made to care about living sustainably even if it involved minor inconveniences and if consumers were made to see that a scruffy look is kind of sexy, then the industry will likely be just a fraction of what it is today.
I am not advocating minimalism. Consumerism satisfies many indulgent fashionable quirks, shaving is just one of them. But it should not come at the expense of sustainability and ignorance of the customer.
One concern might be that, without excess profits and economies of scale, the industry might not be able innovate. Maybe, we would never have arrived at the innovative long lasting blades we see today, if not for certain consumers who are emotionally driven to products that they really don’t need.
If an innovation does not address a true social need of sufficient magnitude then it does not deserve to happen. Those creative thinkers and tinkerers might be better served in making other parts of our lives better. But if on the other hand the need for a clean shave is strong enough, it is much more likely that the innovation will occur. And it will happen without massive spending on advertising that misinforms the consumer of the true value of the products. In 2017, P&G’s marketing expense was 28.5% of Sales while its R&D was a measly 2.9% of Sales.
So we have to ask ourselves, how did we get here and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
One of the reasons, Gillette has been able to get away with shaping consumer demand that ignores long term usability, is the lack of competition. Gillette with its innovation, marketing sophistication and scale has been able to corner the market. It currently has 65% market share in the razor category. It has diligently files patents which protect its innovation for many years. It will take a significant investment by a competitor, not only to build a product, but also to build the branding to re-orient customer preference, before it can take market share away from Gillette. Such benign monopolies are unavoidable in certain markets especially when it has to do with a confluence of innovation and luxury.
We cannot leave it to market forces alone to protect consumers and create sustainable habits
What we need is greater consumer advocacy. We need organizations and systems that educate customers and are able to help us see beyond the marketing tactics of companies like Gillette.
We need a cultural shift away from over-indulgent consumerism with a healthy dose of skepticism throughout our consumer lives.
And most importantly, to change the world, we need to change our personal lives.
I for one am resolved to have more bearded days in life and to talk about the benefits of facial hair to however might listen!