The Double Edged Blade of Capitalism

Today, for the first time in a long time, I tried out a new product I was genuinely excited to get hold of.

Capitalism is not, as many millennials think, the root of all evil. Neither, as many boomers seem to think, is it the garden of all virtue. There is a balance to be found between public and private interests, and between innovation and foolish obfuscation. The shaving business is a case in point.

If you’re under 40 and don’t have an MBA, you may not be aware that the shaving razor business is a scam so well known it’s part of the Harvard curriculum. It works like this. Give away an attractive razor for cheap or for free, then make a profit selling the owner proprietary replacement cartridge blades that you somehow convince them are better in some way than the crazy cheap standard blades they were using before. Bonus dollars if you hook them young enough they never used the cheaper alternative, or still think of it as grampa’s old school. Why buy 50 blades for $9 when you can buy two for $10 and get half the performance? Ah, but the packaging is so manly and sleek, like what Captain Kirk would get his condoms in.

Electric razors and printer toner cartridges are the same game. So, in case you don’t realize it, are Keurigs–which are literally just instant coffee at 20 times the price and producing 100 times the trash. Why? Why would you buy this crap?

Is it a scam? You betcha. Is it illegal? No. It’s can be illegal to sell a product and require the purchaser to buy a follow-on product for no reason than your market power let’s you get away with it, as back in the day when IBM tried to force buyers of its machine-readable optical scanner forms to buy overpriced IBM pencils where any #2 pencil (and most other pencils) would work as well. It’s not however, illegal to sell a product for which no generic follow-on is available because you invented the damn thing and hold the patent.

Is it wrong? Well, that depends. It’s just capitalism doing its thing, and that’s not entirely bad. Gillette gave us safety razors that were cheaper, safer, and far more convenient than the old “cutthroat” straight razor, and he made a fortune doing it. Schick then gave us the injection razor which used the same blade broken in half and locked inside a metal box because….well for safety, though we used naked safety blades all the time as kids and never cut ourselves because we weren’t stupid, but whatever. If your invention is genuinely better, you deserve a reward. But what if your patent is just a bit of marketing hockey pocky designed to separate consumers from their money? What if your innovation is just adding a needless bar-code to the coffee pod so generic replacements don’t work (like Keuric does) or adding unneeded caffeine to a decongestant purely to extend the patent, or putting ridiculous accessories on a shaver? Then, mister or miss capitalist, you need to eff off and invest in something of actual value.

When Gillette’s patent ran out, market share started falling and we got shiny new twin-bladed cartridge razors which reduced nicks and cuts by simply not shaving as close, then three blades that arguably shaved better by letting you press a bit harder without reaching the skin. Then, from this zenith, we went on to four blades, a lubricating strip, a pivot, shock absorber, and for some reason a vibrating head. Soon they’ll have razors that play the harp and teach trigonometry while you shower. Meanwhile, the cartridges cost thirty times as much as Gillette’s century-old standby, even counting the multiple edges.

This is utterly ridiculous. Thank you Mr. Capitalist, sir, you’ve done your bit for the advancement of mankind. Now go invest in solar panels or self-parking lounge chairs or something before your razor starts offering blowjobs.

When I started shaving, it was with twin-bladed cartridge razors which were arguably an improvement over the “safety razor” my dad used, even though they never shaved as close, and I switched to three blades when they came out because they seemed a tad more comfortable. But when quad-blades appeared, I called BS, both at the useless feature creep and the cost. Ever since then I’ve used disposable tri-blade razors, often those marketed to women and sold by the bagful for less than $1 each. That solves the cost problem but at the expense of a proportionately huge increase in needless material waste. My dad’s razor was steel, just like the blades, and that can be endlessly recycled. Not so the mountains of plastic cartridges and handles today’s shavers contribute to the waste stream.

Many years back I had the idea to make a tri-blade razor that would somehow use the old standby double-edged safety blade but I had not idea how to pull it off mechanically or economically much less to bring it to market. Now someone else has done exactly that.

Buoyed by positive reviews, I just took delivery on a Leaf razor, which is precisely the product I had in mind. The old Gillette-style double-edged safety razor blade was always made to be snapped in half for applications that needed a thinner blade. The Leaf takes three. You can buy them ready-to-use or buy any safety blades from any maker at any price and safely and simply snap them before removing the factory wrapping paper. The head of the razor is a little clamp with a magnet that firmly holds the blades during loading and a thumbscrew that makes them fast.

So what’s that do for you? Well, the selling points are sustainability and economy. The razor is steel, so it never needs end up in a landfill, nor do any of the blades you will ever use. Even the packaging is all paper-based. The Leaf is not cheap, but the blades definitely are. A century-old standard that’s still widely used, safety razor blades of good quality are crazy cheap. Name-brand blades, in fact, can be had for $0.0312 per edge in bulk.

It will take two to three years for the $85 Leaf to pay for itself versus the cheaper of today’s blade cartridges or disposables. It’s solidly well made, and I fully expect it to last that long–and a lifetime is not out of the question. And there are no proprietary follow-ons, no batteries, and no Goddammned extraneous features. It’s a razor. You shave with it.

So how does it shave? Well, as I said at the outset, I was excited to find that out, so with a face full of stubble from the worn-out disposable I’d been using, I stepped back into the shower and with very little adjustment, I can honestly say I got the closest shave I’ve ever had and without a single nick on the first try. Not bad. The blade clamp makes the head a bit taller than a standard cartridge razor, so you have to cut the upper lip sideways or against the grain–I always do that anyway. There is a contour following spring hinge like in better cartrige razors, but the natural angle of the blades relative to the handle is a bit steeper than I’m used to. Fortunately I have opposable thumbs and a brain not yet entirely addled by Madison avenue. I was expecting this and adapting was no trouble at all.

So there you have it. I’m out of the razor blade scam and into a sustainable alternative. Now if we can just do something about the toner cartridges.