Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

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Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

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from Xerography Debt #29 Review by D. Blake Werts
I know, I know; not at all a zine. But there aren’t many books these days that have the ability to significantly alter this “old fart’s” living patterns! Even before finishing Shell’s CHEAP, I felt compelled to share what I was learning with family and close friends. This title was recommended to me by a like-minded colleague, and sensing that many readers of XEROGRAPHY DEBT already have at least a passing distrust of the US “capitalist market” system, I wanted to bring this book to your attention.

In short, this book is about America’s love affair with all things cheap. Detrimental side effects include the indirect trashing of the American work force, a severely declining middle- and working-class community, and the off-shoring/outsourcing of American jobs. Looking globally, human rights violations are increasing to meet this demand as well as a growing trend in environmental disruption to supply the resources. If is sounds like a book full of gloom and doom, well, it mostly is. However, Shell provides a liberal sprinkling of history and facts that the general consumer tends to overlook.

As you well know by now, I prefer to let the author’s words speak for themselves. Here is an excerpt to give you a taste for Shell’s work: “Americans love a bargain, and that is not about to change. But sometimes what looks like a bargain is really just a bad loan. The latest economic meltdown gave evidence that a globally integrated world economy is not secure when built on a shaky foundation of ’more and more for less and less.’… ’Too cheap to fix’ electronics seem less attractive when their life span only briefly exceeds that of their warranty and their broken innards leak heavy metal into our landfills.

“’Everyday low prices’ are built on everyday crummy lifestyles, not only for Mexican cloth cutters and Thai shrimp farmers and Chinese toy makers but for all of us. There is nothing innovative about building business plans on the backs of insecure, low-wage workforce, about depleting resources and polluting environments to cut costs, about squeezing producers until the fail or quit or cheat. Shutting the American middle class out of town on a rail of low prices is not the path to prosperity of growth.

“Globalism is our reality and our future, and it brings with it a sober responsibility. Free markets are important—essential—but they are only free if we make them so. We are consumers, certainly, but also citizens of the world whose needs and wants are linked to—and dependent on—the needs and wants of others. Our practice of scouring the world for cheap resources and cheap labor is not sustainable. It is a great relief to know that in a true global village we can love a bargain without compromising our standards or values.

“The next consumer revolution will be bloodless, requiring neither bullets nor even bullhorns. We have the power to enact change and to chart a pragmatic course. That power resides not only in the voting booth but in our wallets. Bargain hunting is a national pastime and a pleasure that I, for one, will not relinquish. But knowing that our purchases have consequences, we can begin to enact change. We can set our own standard for quality and stick to it. We can demand to know the true costs of what we buy, and refuse to allow them to be externalized. We can enforce sustainability, minimize disposability, and insist on transparency. We can rekindle our acquaintance with craftsmanship. We can choose to buy or not, choose to bargain or not, and choose to follow our hears or not, unencumbered by the anxiety that someone somewhere is getting a ’better deal.’ No longer slaves to the low-price imperative, we are free to make our own choices. As individuals and as a nation we can turn our attention to what matters, secure in the knowledge that what matters has never been and will never be cheap.”

Since reading CHEAP I have altered my consumption patterns significantly. I’ve learned to ask many more questions and even have begun to enjoy searching for responsible alternatives. Please give this book some consideration. I highly recommend it. (Posted on 8/12/12)

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