Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, a fascinating new book by U.S. writer and analyst Ellen Ruppel Shell, who examines the ramifications of what she calls “our relentless fixation on low price.”
it’s worth a look. It has everything to do with food. If we wonder why the quality of food produced and sold to us has been diving, while food-related illnesses skyrocket, read on:
Examined in a broader, historical context, our hunger for cheap merchandise has been a destructive force. Sure, we can buy our Costco family pack and eat it too, but at what cost? The culture of cheap has driven down wages (by outsourcing manufacturing and ushering in an era of big-box mega-chains), driven up personal debt (by tricking us into spending more on scads of cheap stuff and less on carefully chosen quality) and created the globalized economy in which underpaid developing-world labour churns out disposable merchandise for the bargain-hungry West.
The culture of cheap is why North America is ahead of Europe in these social problems, where prices have always been high and traditions of quality endure. But only just ahead; Europe has the same discount mania, being the home of Lidl and IKEA and Primark.
These figures from the US were also mind-blowing:
From 2000 to 2007, median family income in the United States (adjusted for inflation) dropped by $1,175 (U.S.), while basic expenses grew by $4,655. In the same period, corporate profits doubled.
As explained later, one reason those corporate profits doubled was, in McLaren’s terms, darkly ironic, and very much tied the prevalence of engineered obsolescence and disposability, which have driven out of business most of the manufacturers of items of enduring quality:
Low pricing doesn’t make us spend less. It makes us spend more. As budget-brand retailers from Frank W. Woolworth to Ingvar Kamprad, the multibillionaire founder of IKEA, have long known, low prices equal high profits.
So the message is simple: buy less of everything, but better quality. And don’t be afraid of paying full price. Let the suckers buy the bargains if they must, as they’ll be outspending you in the process.