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5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful and Well Researched, July 13, 2009
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This review is from: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (Hardcover)
I like to read in bed and because the Wife is sensitive to light, I have bought numerous battery operated reading lights - all made in China. No matter what brands I purchase or how much I spend, within a couple of months the lights break and I'm left using a flashlight to read in bed until I go out and buy another. A reading light is quite a simple device consisting of a battery, LED, and wires all linked together in a circuit. This circuit is then encased in plastic, metal or a combination of the two. Although simple, these lights break within a few months. Sometimes the cases break, other times the soldering fails somewhere in the circuit. I try to repair them but the repairs inevitably fail after a few weeks. Over the past 5 years alone I have probably spent $150 on reading lights.

After reading Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppell Shell I now understand that my frustration is the result of the replacement of quality goods by shoddy ones made in China in order to maximize profit and minimize expense. This exchange of shoddy for quality has happened as Americans have pursued low price at the expense of all else. We save money in the short term by pursuing low prices but lose much in the process including long lasting quality goods and decent paying jobs.

Shell writes for the Atlantic and is a professor of journalism at Boston University. Throughout the book I searched for Shell's anti-capitalist bias, but didn't find it anywhere. Instead she writes "Trade is and must be free," and believes that regulation and unionization is not the answer to our obsession with low prices. She quotes Adam Smith liberally and suggests that Smith himself would not be pleased with the junk on the shelves of America's superstores. She writes that Smith advocated a system whereby workers earned a decent wage to purchase a decent life, and supporting that system were Smith's heroes - consumers buying the goods and services made by the workers at fair prices. These prices weren't inflated: the consumer received a quality product that performed the job it was intended to do.

Shell discusses the usual suspects - Wal-mart, dollar stores and discount chain stores - but she zeroes in on Ikea as a firm that has built a mythos around itself to shield it from the fact that it uses illegally harvested hardwoods from the Russian Far East and Asia (Ikea is the third largest consumer of wood in the world), and sources production to some of the lowest paying companies on the planet. Shell cites a table that sells for $69. A master craftsman admitted that he couldn't buy the wood for that price, let alone build the table. Ikea headquarters exudes an aura of cultishness that is more reminiscent of Scientology than of a business. There workers design products that are meant to be made and ship cheaply - not to be comfortable. The products are given cutesy names that slaps a "happy face" onto what in essence is a soulless product.

While every move by American giant like Wal-mart is subjected to scrutiny by environmentally minded intelligentsia, she notes that Ikea is given a pass:

"Wal-mart's relentless march toward world retail domination provokes scathing exposes in books, articles, and documentaries. But most media responses to Ikea verge on the hagiographic, swallowing whole the well-polished rags-to-riches story the company wrote for itself."

Everything Ikea does is geared towards lowering its costs. Ikea's store placement outside of cities and away from public transit, as well as its refusal to deliver makes its customers drive to it is a conscious decision by the firm to minimize the cost per square foot of its stores by buying cheap land. It ships disassembled products to save on shipping and on manufacturing. It regularly squeezes its suppliers, thereby preventing workers in some of the poorest places on the planet from getting better wages while encouraging environmental abuses.

Shell's criticism of Ikea hits home because I've bought from there. In fact the table that I'm writing on is from Ikea. Its wood grain is quite dense, unlike that from plantation farmed trees. Of course only its legs are wood; it's top is wood veneer and already shows signs of wear after just three years. Did the legs come from illegally logged old-growth forest in Siberia or Indonesia? How environmentally friendly can this table be if it is already falling apart after 3 years and will need replacement in another year or two? It's not friendly to the environment - but it is to Ikea's profits if I'm stupid enough to go there and buy another table. No, it's replacement will be a nice, well-worn American table from a second-hand shop.

Shell makes a convincing case that America's love affair with shoddy goods is bad for the environment and living standards abroad. Unfortunately she could have made a better case that shopping at Wal-mart and Ikea leads to lower living standards at home. Shell mentions a worker in furniture manufacturing who was laid off by an American furniture maker and picked up by Ikea - at much lower wages and benefits. However families who shop at Wal-mart save roughly $2700 a year on their purchases, and since Wal-mart caters to the lower demographics the savings is a significant part of the demographic's income. Shell argues that this savings is less than the family would have made had Wal-mart and the discount chains not driven jobs abroad, and because the jobs are gone forever Wal-mart consumers are locked into a decreasing standard of living that no amount of savings can justify.

Shell's work is heavily footnoted but because the footnotes aren't referenced in the text, I ended up reading them on their own after finishing the book. This is a small quibble with an otherwise fine and thought provoking book, but it would have made her arguments even stronger had the footnotes been referenced.

Shell's writing style is easy to read and her ideas are well supported and researched. Her conclusion that it is up to Americans to recognize that things that fall apart quickly - like reading lamps - don't provide good value in the long run leaves the decision whether or not to improve the situation up to us.

She believes that we need to educate ourselves on the products we consume - where they come from, how they are made, and what we consume is in line with our values. If we are comfortable buying cheap crap that falls apart, sending our dollars to the Chinese government that funds oppressive regimes in the Sudan, Burma and North Korea, then we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Overall this book is must reading for anyone interested in modern American consumerism.
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Tracked by 7 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 23, 2009 2:00:04 PM PDT
Well, I am no fan of IKEA, I consider their stores Hell on Earth, but here in Europe IKEA does indeed deliver om your door, they even assemble the stuff they sell (at a fee), and they provide free transportation to their stores from downtown areas.
In Oslo (pop. 560 000, agglom. pop.900 000) have two stores located 8 miles south, and 5 miles north of the downtown area and have provided free bus service since 1963! All the time they have had mail-order service.

Posted on Aug 8, 2009 7:59:08 PM PDT
I suppose you could also carry your reading light example further. Let's say a really well-made, quality reading light sells for $40. Say it breaks down only after 5 years, conservatively speaking, at which point you spend $50 (taking into account price inflation) for a new one of the same model. That means in 5 years, by buying based only on quality, you've spent just $90 as opposed to $150 by buying based only on quantity!

Posted on Aug 23, 2009 6:57:07 PM PDT
This review is fantastic! I was going to write my own review of this book, but you've really said it all, and so much better than I could have.

Posted on Sep 15, 2009 2:45:49 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 15, 2009 2:46:31 PM PDT
M. Salmon says:
This is a very right-on review. It is harder and harder to buy USA. I have saved money by putting down items not made in USA so I guess that is a good thing. Just walk away. We can do without a lot more than we realize. It is freeing...try it.

Posted on Sep 20, 2009 10:05:46 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Sep 20, 2009 10:06:27 AM PDT]

Posted on Sep 22, 2009 7:43:04 AM PDT
The problem with not buying cheap is the total lack of quality guarantees. It would be great if there were non cheap quality reading lights in the market, but there aren't. It's impossible to find a product like this that comes with a 10 years warranty. It is also impossible to find retailers that specialize in quality goods.

I'd be the first to support government-mandated higher standards of quality for anything as I know higher quality means lower cost on the long ran. If not mandated quality standards at least mandatory disclosures on flimsiness or longer mandatory dull warranty periods.

More often than not buying not cheap results in a fancy packaging which contains the same made in china cheap product inside.

Furniture might be an exception tough. Still, Ikea is still the best option for many young people who frequently move when changing university, jobs, etc...

One of the worst cheap things I'm forced to buy over and over are clothes: there are no clothing stores anywhere, just "fashion" stores. I don't care about fashion still I'm forced to pay high prices for "fashionable" clothes and shoes that quickly wear out. When I occasionally find a durable and comfortable item that lasts a few years I can't go back to the store and buy several more because they only make those things for one season. It's disgusting.

Ikea at least runs the same designs for many years. Some of their stuff it's actually relatively durable, so if you have seen a piece of furniture working properly at your friend's, you can actually go and buy the same one. And later discard it, move across the Atlantic, and buy it again, as I've actually done. BTW, Ikea is the best of the cheap furniture stores. Avoid Conforama and furniture from supermarket chains like the plague. They are cumbersome to assemble and much flimsier.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2010 9:49:58 PM PST
[[I'd be the first to support government-mandated higher standards of quality for anything as I know higher quality means lower cost on the long ran.]]

The problem with what you suggest is that politicians and bureaucrats can be bought off both easily and cheaply.

I've watched that very thing happen with organic food. A couple of decades ago, when a food item was labeled "organic," you knew what you were getting (i.e. no pesticides and man-made additives). However, now that the USDA has gotten into certification, large-scale agribusinesses are able to put products on the shelf and declare them to be "organic" when they are nothing of the kind. The USDA standards for what makes an organic product have been watered down more and more over the years as the result of outside influence from agribusinesses, (who all want a lucrative piece of the "organic foods" pie) and continue to be so because it has now become purely a matter of politics (i.e. money allows firms to influence the regulations).

The kicker with government-run regulatory agencies is that they invariably end up becoming "captured" by the very industries they are supposed to be regulating. :/ We saw that happen with the Swine Flu vaccines, where the FDA promised not to hold the pharmaceutical firms liable if the vaccines they offered to the public had adverse side effects. Well, the FDA is supposed to be in place to protect consumers from -exactly- that sort of thing, yet they often enable the very behavior they're supposed to be protecting us from.

I like what you're proposing, but the idea would probably be better implemented by a third-party entity (something like the Underwriters Laboratories, but for quality rather than safety). If the standards used for judging quality are made publicly available, (and there's no reason they shouldn't be) a UL-type certification for product quality would probably be consumers' best best for obtaining items they know they can count on for long-term use.

In short, I like your idea, but it's worth considering that by keeping the certification process in the private sector, you can (should it become necessary) take money away from the firm(s) doing the certifying if they mess up, or if their standards become lax (i.e. they can go out of business).

If, on the other hand, the FDA screws up, and approves a drug that ends up killing people, they're not about to be shut down for doing a bad job. D'you see the difference? :)

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 12, 2011 5:55:55 AM PST
LNT says:
I agree that it is hard to buy good quality items anymore, which is why I buy stuff second hand. Furniture, household goods, tools, clothes - all are so much better quality.

I'm fifty now and I still have most of the furniture and kitchenware that I bought in my early twenties as I bought good solid wooden furniture from the 20's to 40's that was sold cheap in the 70's and 80's as unfashionable. The best kitchenware also came from secondhand and, more recently, collectors marts. Weekend swap meets or car boot sales are a great source for older, well made tools that outlast modern cheapies.

I get the feeling that future generations will look at us with disgust at how we strip-mined the planet for flimsy crap.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 19, 2011 4:58:12 PM PDT
Agent99 says:
But...but...but...as I always ask when this discussion comes up: What are the poor supposed to do? I know it's really a complex issue; I fully appreciate that. But it's all very well to say, "Buy quality-crafted furniture, buy free-range chicken, buy well made clothes -- all at a premium, but worth it." The poor do not have that option. It's like saying, "Let them eat cake." Should poor American children have to go back to wearing rags to school, because we object to the availability of cheap (but decent) clothing at mass market?

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 19, 2011 11:36:47 PM PDT
[quote]
"Buy quality-crafted furniture, buy free-range chicken, buy well made clothes -- all at a premium, but worth it." The poor do not have that option.
[/quote]

You're absolutely right: they don't.

However, books like Cheap are not written for the poor to read, nor are they written out of a concern for the poor. They are, instead, written out of a concern for the author's bank balance. :)

The assumption frequently made among upper-class consumers is that the poor are free to do just as they do: pay more for higher-quality goods. At no time do the folks making such assumptions stop to consider that the few dollars poor people save buying goods at discount stores like Wal-Mart might make the difference between them being able to both eat and pay the rent and having to choose between one or the other due to lack of funds.

"Let them eat cake." Exactly.

[quote]
Should poor American children have to go back to wearing rags to school, because we object to the availability of cheap (but decent) clothing at mass market?
[/quote]

The problem with giving the poor access to cheap (but decent) clothing is that they start getting all uppity and, in no time at all, come to believe they are their own lords and masters or something.

I mean, just -what- are you trying to do here, start a revolution? ;)

Sure, poor kids used to have to wear rags, but they were *union-made* rags. And if a rich person wanted to throw some poor kid a couple of extra rags, well, no one objected.

Honestly, I think that's what the author of Cheap has in mind when she (apparently) wants to return us to the days when only high-quality goods were available (with prices to match). There is, after all, a certain satisfaction to be had in being able to afford things that others cannot and that, I suspect, is the *real* appeal of doing away with firms like Wal-Mart and Ikea.
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