Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dusting Off: Cheap by Ellen Ruppel Shell

With all the stories in the news about the tragic collapse of a Bangladesh clothing factory that cost upwards of 1100 people their lives, not to mention the fire in another clothing factory in Bangladesh that killed almost 120 people just last November, and two fires in Pakistani clothing factories in September that also killed hundreds, my mind has been turning to a book I read almost four years ago, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.  So I decided to unearth this old review I wrote initially on Goodreads in July 2009 and start a new intermittent series called "Dusting Off" where I feature books I read a while ago, but that have renewed relevance today.

We here in the United States are, for the most part, blissfully ignorant of how the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the disposable goods we purchase, are produced.  To put it bluntly, we are spoiled.  We consider it an inalienable right to go to the store and buy whatever we want, whenever we want it.  And our ignorance, coupled with our incessant demand for ever lower prices, is hurting people on the other side of the world.


After reading this book, I seriously may never buy anything again.

Ok, so that's not realistic, but I'm certainly more aware, almost paranoid, about the statement I'm making with each purchase. I'm a confirmed bargain shopper, but I don't want my search for a great deal to mean that workers in Mexico don't make a living wage or that Chinese migrant workers are standing in vats of toxic substances for 14 hours a day.

Shell captures the dilemma for many of us perfectly when she says, "Consumers are left to choose between discount retailers whose practices they find questionable and high-end stores whose prices they cannot afford ...'Voting with your feet' doesn't apply when your values are so completely out of line with your budget.”

According to the author, there is plenty of blame to go around for the lack of product quality, workers' protections, environmental concerns, and other marketplace woes. Manufacturers, retailers, governments, CEOs, suppliers, you name it — all shoulder part of the responsibility. And this wide-ranging book does not let consumers off the hook, either. We are complicit by our all-too-frequent lack of interest in questioning the origins of the items we buy due to our single-minded focus on low, low price.

The one criticism I have is that this book makes the problem seem too big to do anything about.  When I closed the book, I initially felt completely hopeless. It took the author, with her many contacts and considerably greater resources than I have, months (years?) to gather the information and interviews and data for this book.

Beyond the standard, almost trite suggestions, like avoiding big box stores, buying food locally, and looking for quality and craftsmanship at a good value rather than the lowest price possible, what do thoughtful consumers do? I wish Shell had taken the book one step further and offered more solutions for the average consumer who has already taken some of the basic steps she suggests.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture
by Ellen Ruppel Shell
ISBN: 9781594202155
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackaudiobook, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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