Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppell Shell

The way we define ourselves is determined by who we are as consumers, and if we are what we buy, well then, a lot of us are turning into piles of shoddy, plastic crap.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 296 pages
Author: Ellen Ruppell Chell
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-07

The world is drowning in bargains. While the traditional enemy of humankind has always been privation, the specter haunting us today is abundance, or rather, the abundance of disposable objects masquerading as useful goods. As Ellen Ruppell Shell points out in her somewhat depressing new book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, the mad hunt for discounted merchandise is killing us just as slowly and surely as starvation.

Shell begins her arguments on sales floors of the retail behemoths, where shoppers fill their baskets with food, clothing and trinkets boasting prices that seem too good to be true. In fact, they are. Those cheap prices may delight shoppers trying to stretch their budgets in a crummy economy, but they are the antithesis of real value, as they trick customers into placing immediate gratification over actual gain. “And with discounts, Shell notes, “everyone feels like a winner, no matter how much they lose.”

The battle between value and cost is just one aspect of the problem. Merchants have become adept at offering products that are, in essence, simulations of the products they purport to be. Behold the $59.99 Ikea bookcase: “Loaded with heavy books, the board shelves begin to crumble. If the owner attempts to modify it--such as trying to put in a couple of supports to bolster it, the screws lose purchase. Try too hard or too often, and the particle board crumbles… In a very real sense, [it] is not a bookcase but a subspecies of bookcase: a cheap bookcase.”

It’s plain that the Ikeas and Wal*Marts of the world have pulled a fast one on their customers by luring us in with prices that are literally too good to be true, and then luring us back to buy more junk once the junk we bought last time disintegrates. But this is only the most obvious facet of the scheme. While consumers may be ecstatic over the “deals” at big-box stores, they don’t see the cumulative effects of those bargains on our environment, our economies and our quality of life.

Cheap goods require cheap labor, which flattens middle-class wages and keeps the world’s poor locked in low-paying, dead-end jobs. Cheap goods require massive exploitation of natural resources and huge expenditures of petro-chemical energy. Globalisation spreads the fun around.

“With mega-retailers demanding ever-lower prices of their vendors, manufacturers have no choice but to move their operations to where they can find cheaper and more compliant workers,” Shell matter-of-factly observes. China, the undisputed sovereign of low-priced (though sometimes lead-laced) goods, is a perfect case study. In some proportion to the number of dollar stores spreading across the Western world, China has added thousands of factories, power plants and cars to its landscape.

While some economists see this as a good thing, Shell points out that China is paying a heavy price for these new accoutrements in the form of toxic air, wretched working conditions and massive social inequity. And with its products, China also seems to be exporting its problems, as “global corporations squeezing labor in China… are today brandishing the threat of low-wage competition to roll back decades of hard-won gains in wages, benefits, and dignified treatment for workers in the United States.”

Still, everyone likes a bargain. Humans are psychologically predisposed, it seems, to snatch at low prices. Shell has no problem proving this, although some readers might have trouble following along with her through the entire history of retail, including the psychological theory of pricing and the biographies of half a dozen discount store founders.

One might expect at the end of Cheap to find a heart-tugging plea for a return to value over price, or for treaties that protect workers’ rights, or for legislation to curb the worst instincts of the retail barons. But nope, there’s just half-hearted nod in that direction, in which even Shell admits that the power of the bargain is too much for the average person. “Bargain hunting is a national pastime and a pleasure that I, for one, will not relinquish,” Shell writes. “But knowing that our purchases have consequences, we can begin to enact change.”

Maybe. Maybe the current recession will get folks to buy more of the things they need, rather than things they’ve been tricked into thinking they want. Maybe craftsmanship will make a comeback, greed will trend negative, and planned obsolescence will become a thing of the past. Or just as likely, we’ll continue to shop ourselves into oblivion.

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