Everyone loves a bargain, but a new book illuminates the dangers of cheap stuff
My mother still owns, and uses, the same vacuum cleaner she bought early in her marriage, just after World War II. She still lives in the house my father -- not a carpenter by trade, but an electrician -- built in the early 1950s with the help of his brothers, a small but sturdy Cape Cod-style dwelling with hardwood floors and solid wood doors that close with a hearty, satisfying clunk (as opposed to the echoey click of hollow-core doors). Today the idea of anything -- a household appliance, a piece of furniture, a house -- being built to last is almost laughable. When your vacuum cleaner stops sucking, you most likely haul it out to the curb and trek to Target or a big-box home-goods store to replace it. Even if you could readily find someone to repair it, the trouble and the cost would be prohibitive. If you need a bookcase, there's always IKEA: Sure, you'd prefer to buy a sturdily built hardwood version that doesn't buckle under the weight of actual books, but who has extra dough to spend on stuff like that? The IKEA bookcase is good enough, for now if not forever.
That cycle of consumption seems harmless enough, particularly since we live in a country where there are plenty of cheap goods to go around. But in her lively and terrifying book "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture," Ellen Ruppel Shell pulls back the shimmery, seductive curtain of low-priced goods to reveal their insidious hidden costs. Those all-you-can-eat Red Lobster shrimps may very well have come from massive shrimp-farming spreads in Thailand, where they've been plumped up with antibiotics and possibly tended by maltreated migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. The made-in-China toy train you bought your kid a few Christmases ago may have been sprayed with lead paint -- and the spraying itself may have been done by a child laborer, without the benefit of a protective mask.
"Cheap" is hardly a finger-waggling book. This isn't a screed designed to make us feel guilty for unknowingly benefiting from the hardships of workers in other parts of the world. And Shell -- who writes regularly for the Atlantic -- isn't talking about the shallowness of consumerism here; she makes it clear that she, like most of us, enjoys the hunt for a good deal. "Cheap" really is about us, meaning not just Americans, but citizens of the world, and about what we stand to lose in a global economic environment that threatens the very nature of meaningful work, work we can take pride in and build a career on -- or even at which we can just make a living.
Discount chains pretend to be the most democratic of enterprises, willing and able to fill our every need at a price we can afford: Ingenious slogans like "Design for All" (Target) and "Save money. Live Better" (Wal-Mart) make that point pretty well. Shell asserts that an excess of cheap goods -- and the drive to make and sell them ever more cheaply -- is putting a deadly squeeze on workers worldwide. Most liberal-leaning citizens are aware of the profit-making schemes of Wal-Mart and, even if we actually shop there, find them distasteful (although Shell notes that among economists, the chain has its defenders).
But Shell asserts that even outlet malls and seemingly benign, friendly, progressive stores like IKEA are part of the problem; along with more obvious bad guys like Wal-Mart, they perpetuate a cycle that, far from nurturing creativity and innovation in the marketplace, ultimately benefits a relative few at the very top of the economic chain. Shell notes that before retiring in February 2009, "Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott Jr. took home in his biweekly paycheck what his average employee earned in a lifetime." You might say that, for Scott, the good news is that everybody can afford to shop at Wal-Mart; the better news is that he himself doesn't have to.
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