Cheap by Ellen Ruppert Shell is a good book; it is making me reconsider some of the ways I shop. She has taken a look at the history of discount cluture by looking at the beginnings of stores like Woolworth, Kmart, and Walmart and how they changed the shopping culture around them. She looked also at Target and Ikea. I tend not to think of them as discount stores, but they undoubtedly are.
Toward the end, she sings an ode to craftsmanship. She points out that we have become a culture that expects disposable products. When a lamp breaks, we go buy a new one. Not because fixing the old one would be too hard, but because they are so cheap it’s not worth the time. We buy bookshelves made out of particleboard that can’t stand up to the weight of heavy books, so we rearrange our storage of them (heavy books only on the sides of shelves and paperbacks in the middle) rather than buy sturdier bookcases. We have begun to rearrange our lives and habits to fit our cheap, disposable possessions rather than demanding and paying more for quality, durable goods.
Craftsmanship has become a rarified thing, only affordable for the well off. In our parents’ and grandparents’ day, craftsmanship was expected. People paid fair prices for goods that would last. With the advent if discount culture, people are willing to pay low prices for low quality goods and be satisfied with them. We expect them to break or wear out quickly. We don’t expect to have that bookcase for long because we know it will buckle under the weight, but we buy it anyway and simply replace it with another cheap one when the first wears out.
We have become so divorced from the makers of our goods that it takes research to find out where a good was made or a vegetable grown. We expect to get everything right now at the lowest possible price. We abhor sweatshops and child labor, but all of us who have shopped at a dollar store or a discount store have all but demanded those things. If the only way to provide lower prices on furniture and clothing is to exploit those most desperate for work in the developing world, that’s what most businesses will do (and have done) to keep their market share. We as consumers turn a blind eye to the abuses because we have no idea, and oftentimes don’t want to know, that it’s happening. But, really, how else do we expect a blouse, made in China and shipped across the ocean, trucked to a store, and marked up, to cost only $9.99?
The bright side to all of this is that, if we knew what was going on, many (if not most) of us would accept a slightly higher price for goods that were more durable and made by workers treated fairly. The poorest among us have been forced into the position of buying inferior goods for very low prices and accepting that that’s all they can expect. With some changes in regulations and wage law, the poorer segments of the population might be able to have a choice. Durable goods for slightly more, or chesp for less. As it stands, none of us have much choice, poor or not. The choices have been whittled to cheap for cheap, or durable for way too expensive for the dwindling middle class to afford.
Ok, I’m off my soap box now. Sorry that my California Liberal was showing, I try to keep her in check but every once in a while she bursts forth. 😉 It is a good book. Capitalism isn’t bashed, she just believes in taking it back to its Adam Smith roots. She highlights several ways the situation could be made better and just as, if not more profitable (as well as sustainable), than it is now with some changes. Her history is thorough and interesting and leads inexorably to her conclusions. I recommend it.