Book Review – Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

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I am currently finishing up a book called “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture” by Ellen Ruppel Shell, and wanted to let you know about it. For anyone concerned about the invasion of the big box stores in our country, the decline of mom & pop stores, and of real craftspeople, this book is for you. Shell is a a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and professor of science journalism at Boston University, and her credentials are definitely seen in this book – it is well researched and full of eye-opening information… all without being judgmental. The costs of our desire for “cheap” are high and are slowly creeping into every aspect of our lives – blighted landscapes, high unemployment, the demise of small, personal stores, a huge trade deficit, and mountains of disposable goods.

While most books about our discount culture focus on Walmart, Shell actually tends to focus more on the household giant IKEA, purveyor of incredibly inexpensive “disposable” furniture. Walmart is an easy target, as there is plenty of information out there about just how much damage they inflict on our communities. (You know how I love to talk smack about Walmart!) But IKEA is one that is rarely discussed, and Shell does a good job of explaining how they fly under the radar while selling us on cheap design. In regards to a table that is being sold at IKEA for $69, she has this to say:

I asked a master furniture maker what he thought of this, and he responded with awe. “It’s mind-boggling,” he said. “I couldn’t buy the wood for that price, let alone build the thing.”

That pretty much sums up the IKEA story – cheaply made goods meant to be replaced every few years. Inexpensive design for the masses at questionable environmental costs. But before you think I am above falling for it, I will fully admit that I’m not innocent myself – I have shopped and probably will shop again in an IKEA store (albeit not for furniture anymore). I love reading their catalog and walking through their showroom, as most people do. However, I will give some extra thought to buying anything there from now on, after reading this book. I recently bought a desk made from wood and steel, handmade by a craftsman in Minnesota, who even signed his name on the underside of the unit. It weighs a ton, is solid as a rock, and will last seemingly forever. I paid a good deal for this desk, but I know he was paid well and I received a well-built piece of furniture that will never need fixing or disposing of – both things I can feel good about.

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Comments

  1. One of my favourite quotes from this book:

    “We rail against exploitation of low-paid workers in Asia as we drive twenty minutes to the Big Box to save three bucks on tube socks and a dollar on underpants. We fume over the mistreatment of animals by agribusiness but freak out at an uptick in food prices. We lecture our kids on social responsibility and then buy them toys assembled by destitute child workers on some far flung foreign shore. The Age of Cheap has raised cognitive dissonance to a societal norm.”

  2. Thanks for the book recommendation! I’ve just added it to my Amazon wish list. Can’t wait to check it out.

    I cannot understand the obsession with cheap. People want to spend the least amount of money possible on things so they can save money and go out and buy more cheap things. It’s all about accumulating stuff, which is something I’ve been trying to avoid for years.

    A cheaper product just means that someone else is getting less money somewhere along the production/distribution chain.

  3. My dad was born in 1939 and remembers having shoes made, though he was one of 13 children (2 more were born after WWII) and his family was very poor. At Christmas, you knew you were getting *either* a hat, gloves, or warm woolen socks. Their shoes were made to last, and to be handed down. They were worn to church, school, and outdoors in cooler weather (in winter, newspaper was stuffed in the toes for added warmth). Summer was barefoot season.

    After WWII, in the early ’50s, shoes were made in Japan, and although they cost less and the family could afford to buy them more often, they did not fit as well, and they did not last. There were also cheap goods that came out of Germany.

    While this helped rebuild those countries after the devastation of war, the effect was a new devastation in the U.S. For starters, cobblers were put out of work. They may have gone to work for the auto industry in our area, but factory work is not the same as trade work, even if the pay was comparable or perhaps better. Also, American feet began to suffer. The pre-formed molds were just not designed to accommodate individual feet. Whereas the cobbler used to custom make shoes, imported shoes began to mold feet by forcing bones to grow into the shape of the shoe, often causing permanent damage, especially to kids’ feet.

    There were also wider possibilities for employment before WWII, despite events of the Depression. After the war, our area offered few choices other than manufacturing. Areas of the country began to specialize in economic output. This made localities less able to adapt when things go sour in their particular industry.

    Diversity is good in types of available work just as it is good in biology and the ecology, and for the same reasons.

    Discount stores have limited job diversity.

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