Dispatches from Belgrade: In Serbia, It’s Quality Over Quantity
There is no Amazon Prime in Serbia. Most goods imported from other countries take a lifetime to get here, and once they do, you’re bound to pay double what you’ve already paid in customs fees. This is what my Serbian friends told me before I moved here, but, at first, I didn't quite understand.
Throwaway culture is so ingrained into the American value system because we are spoiled by too many choices. Products are offered by literally thousands of companies. Those products come in different models, with varying functions, and more. It’s often cheaper to buy a brand new product than get it repaired. A hole in a sweater? An excuse to buy a new one.
When it came to spending frivolously, my vice was using delivery services too often. I became dependent on them when I was living on my own in Brooklyn at the height of the pandemic. Privileged? Yes. Practical? Also yes. I don’t regret living the delivery life, but it did present problems later on, when I had to fly back from Serbia and pack up my entire apartment before my lease ended.
I had to make up for some of the money I’d lost on delivery, so I sold a lot. I gave away more. I took with me only what I really thought I’d need or could not get for my new life in Belgrade. Surprisingly, that amount fit into three bags, and made me realize how little I had accumulated over the course of a single year.
Shopping with my Serbian architect was an eye-opening experience on the opposite side of the commodities spectrum. We put a lot of time, effort, and money into things that mattered. I found myself agreeing to certain aspects of the renovation process I never would have agreed to do back in the states. I just wanted to make my broom-closet of a bathroom more functional by removing the wall that separated the main bedroom from the living room. Aleksander, a seasoned architect and interior designer, had other thoughts.
$10,000 later, the bathroom was expanded and doubled in size. The kitchen was reduced for functionality, but required custom-built cabinets and shelving. The laminate floors were replaced with tile slabs. The entire apartment was repainted, hydro-isolated from mold build-up that I hadn’t seen when I had bought the apartment originally, because housing inspectors aren’t required when you buy a home in Serbia like they are in the US.
When it came to appliances, Aleksander showed me expensive ones. But since I had spent so much on the actual renovation part, I didn’t want to spend more than was necessary on stuff I wouldn’t even use. “What about this cheaper version?” I asked.
“That brand is garbage,” he told me point-blank. “This one has a higher energy efficiency rating, and has a five-year guarantee.”
Guarantees. Warranties; This was another part of Serbian commerce culture that was new to me. I can’t recall the last time I even used a warranty, much less looked for products that specifically had one at all.
The kicker was the vacuum Aleksander swore I needed was a model that used a water filtration system instead of vacuum bags. It cost roughly $120, a price I’d never pay in the states.
“I’d just get whatever is cheapest,” I explained to him.
“What happens when it breaks?” He asked.
I shrugged. “I’ll buy a new one.”
“Buy the one I recommend,” Aleksander insisted. Begrudgingly, I did. I’m glad I did. It’s such an amazing vacuum, I look forward to using it every day. It’s also helped changed my perspective on what it means to be a sustainable buyer.
Serbians look for quality over quantity because, realistically, they need their purchases to last a long time. There are fewer choices, and the local economy doesn’t allow for people to just change up their household objects at the drop of a hat. When you’re only making $300 to $500 a month, clothing gets mended by hand, appliances are fixed by the head of the household. Even food is meant to be preserved and last longer than anything you buy off the shelf.
I thought about all of those vacuums I tossed, some simply because I didn’t like them. Did they end up in a landfill somewhere? Guilty as charged, I guess.
My new home is filled with Serbian products that are built to last a lifetime. I couldn’t imagine the kind of quality I’d get back in the US, not to mention how much I’d pay for it, only for it to break or get scratched or whatever less than a year into owning it. I’m more motivated to take care of my personal belongings, instead of just paying for the convenience of not being inconvenienced.
This post is part of a month-long April CircleAround series, tied to Earth Day. A 2018 UN report warned that, as relates to climate change, we had until 2030 to make drastic changes to avoid irreversible negative consequences. We asked writers — and readers — to share news and advice on what we all can do to help, or stories on inspirational women in the climate space. To see all the posts in the series, visit here. And if you'd like to contribute to the series, send us your thoughts to info@circlearound.