The high cost of cheap

16 Dec

Cheapness, argues Ellen Shell, the author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, has ruined just about everything. Main streets, with knowledgeable clerks and friendly service, have been decimated by discount stores like Wal-Mart staffed with employees who neither know their store’s stock, nor particularly care. Customer service has all but disappeared (ever noticed that sign at the entrance of IKEA that reads, “No One Will Bother You”?). Local restaurants that want to serve up fine, fresh food struggle to compete with the all-you-can-eat shrimpfest at Red Lobster (where the shrimp is decidedly NOT fresh, since it was hauled in from a chemical-laden Taiwanese shrimp farm).

Sadly, in too many of our nation’s neighborhoods, you no longer have the option of being able to walk down the street to a locally owned, locally operated store whose proprietor has tailored his or her selection to the needs of the community; those stores have closed, leaving us no choice but to hop into our cars, waste untold time in traffic jams, and join the herds at BJ’s.

But in Jacksonville’s historic urban communities, we’re incredibly lucky. We still have the luxury of choice. We’re surrounded by cool stores and independent boutiques and funky galleries. We’ve got some of the city’s best restaurants and our pick of eclectic bars and breweries. We’ve got corner bakeries and terrific butchers and neighborhood bike shops and bookstores where the owners actually know a thing or two about books. And yet most of us still jump into our cars and head to the big box stores. Why?

Because we think they’re cheaper? Because we’ll have more stock to choose from? Because it’s more convenient to buy everything in one place?

That’s what we tell ourselves, but it’s a false dichotomy. If you can see past the bright, inviting graphics and clean aisles that sets a Target apart from, say, a K-Mart, you’ll realize that every big box store in every city carries the same exact stuff, the vast majority of it made  in factories overseas where cheap labor working in sweatshop conditions is used to produce mountains of disposable junk. And while you may indeed be able to get everything on your shopping list in one stop, you’re certainly not getting the best price. “WalMart actually has higher-than-average prices on about one third of the stock it carries,” Shell notes in her book. At the big discount stores, most discounts are applied to everyday necessities, like toothpaste and lettuce; brand-name clothing and appliances may be no bargain at all.

In our quest for cheap, we’re paying a very high price. We’ve traded homemade for foreign-made, individuality for homogeneity, and diversity for uniformity. (As Roger Price, author of The Great Roob Revolution said “If everybody doesn’t want it, nobody gets it.”) We’re also slowly strangling our local economies, creating vacant storefronts, and paving over our precious green space for another asphalt road to the outlet malls.

So, how do we get wean ourselves off the cheapness drug? Shell insists we have to kick the habit ourselves: “We can set our own standard for quality and stick to it. We can demand to know the true costs of what we buy . . .. 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 hearts or not, unencumbered by the anxiety that someone somewhere is getting a ‘better deal.”

Here in Jacksonville, it’s never been easier to kick the cheapness habit. Just choose to GoLO.

(Hat tip to Mark Frauenfelder at BoingBoing, from which this post was adapted.)


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