The Continuing High Cost of Cheap

We’ve talked about this before, but I think the horrific fire and the resulting deaths in Bangladesh require that we revisit the topic.  Hundreds who worked under what the Pope is now calling slave conditions, were burned to death.  And people are angry.  They are justly angry.  But I feel the anger is a bit too conveniently focused.

Some are calling for the owner of the building to be tried for murder.  And surely he is the most directly complicit.  He’s kept the workers at slave labor payment and under deadly working conditions in order to produce the huge quantity of cheap clothes that the market demanded.  Others are pointing particularly at Wal-Mart, but also companies like J C Penney.  These are the companies that buy the cheap clothes at cheap prices.  They are the ones that demand that every possible “savings” be wrung from the manufacturing of the clothes … even at the expense of the safety of the workers.

But there is a much larger group that no one seems to be talking about.  And yet, it is this larger group that is the root cause of it all.  And this larger group is us.

Yes, the workers are kept under horrific conditions so that the manufacturer can make the cheap clothes so in demand by so many stores.  But WE are the consumers who continue to demand our clothes and everything else on the cheap.

Thus the soul-searching needs to begin with our own souls.  As Shakespeare has Cassius  put it, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”  We are the ones who insist on cheap.  We not only shop sales, we now have “apps” to compare prices for us so that we can get our goods at the cheapest possible price.  What we continue to overlook, what we willfully and carefully continue to overlook, is just how high a price cheap comes at.

Cheap doesn’t magically appear out of the air.  Cheap has to be prepared with careful intention.

I will grant you that sometimes an item is high priced simply because the manufacturers feel they can get away with it.  Maybe it’s a patent-protected item like a drug.  Or maybe it’s a status item, where you are paying for the bragging rights.  Here, a generic or a “knock-off” that simply reflects the cost of decent production can bring the price down.  But better than nine times out of ten, that’s not how we get cheap.

Most of the time, we get cheap by paying the workers less.  One of the high costs of cheap in the U.S. is watching wages stagnate or even decline.  When that happens we are getting our items cheap off the wages and standard of living of the people who make what we buy.  I would submit to you that a major cause of the decline of the middle class in the United States can be found in our demand for cheap.

Another way to get an item cheap is to make it without regard for such “mundane” items as safety or the environment.  One of the reasons items from China have been so cheap can be seen in the massive amount of pollution that has gone into China’s water and air.  Now we are getting cheap not only at the cost of a worker’s wages but a people’s health.

So yes, when hundreds of underpaid workers are burned to death in Bangladesh, we should be angry.  But we should be mostly angry at ourselves.  Would Wal-Mart even exist if we didn’t shop there?

I submit that the cost of cheap is too high.  If we care about anyone other than ourselves (or is that anti-American?), the cost of cheap is too high.  It is much too high.  And we, the consumers, are the only ones who can truly make a difference.  We need to become ethical consumers, who think beyond our own pocket-book, and not self-centered seekers of cheap.  Our choice.  Not only will we have to live with it, but if we choose wrongly, more and more will continue to suffer and even die from it.

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One Response to The Continuing High Cost of Cheap

  1. monianne monianne says:

    Oh! How refreshing to read this crucial diagnosis of how we got ourselves into the abysmal “consumer consumed” state we are in.

    As a fashion photographer who saw the cheap fashion tsunami heading straight for us, several years ago. I tried at every opportunity to divert consumers away from the on-coming disaster. I understood it to be the demise of the middle-class; the flooding of the market with cheap, shoddy and even dangerous goods and alas, the death of good taste.

    Didn’t anybody see it coming? Chinese made t-shirts, 5 for $10.00- shoddy shoes $9.99. tc etc……..and have you seen the prices now? $175.00 for made in china shoes, clothes at up to $250.00per garment…….plus all the other dollar store and Walmart ‘el cheapos’ the gullible millions buy?

    Who benefits? Certainly not the consumers, nor the workers, nor the many levels of the fashion business, the industry here in Canada and the U.S.A. has been wiped out. No more entrepreneurial garment manufacturers, skilled cutters, sewers, tailors,fabric manufacturers, independent designers, small or medium sized importers who choose their collections with an eye for quality, design, colour and texture.

    Did you realize that there are no longer two fashion seasons per year? It’s ‘churn out whatever rubbish the sweatshops can make’ and flood the market. I know several low-income people who have more cheap outfits than there are days in the year!

    When the news comes about the next terrible disaster in the cheap garment industry, and it will……because there are untold abuses going on every day……….

    “Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls………………………
    …………………………………………………………………………………it tolls for thee!” John Donne

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