Everyone loves a bargain, but a new book illuminates the dangers of cheap stuff
By Stephanie Zacharek
AP Photo/Ric Francis, file
My mother still owns, and uses, the same vacuum cleaner she bought early in her marriage, just after World War II. She still lives in the house my father -- not a carpenter by trade, but an electrician -- built in the early 1950s with the help of his brothers, a small but sturdy Cape Cod-style dwelling with hardwood floors and solid wood doors that close with a hearty, satisfying clunk (as opposed to the echoey click of hollow-core doors). Today the idea of anything -- a household appliance, a piece of furniture, a house -- being built to last is almost laughable. When your vacuum cleaner stops sucking, you most likely haul it out to the curb and trek to Target or a big-box home-goods store to replace it. Even if you could readily find someone to repair it, the trouble and the cost would be prohibitive. If you need a bookcase, there's always IKEA: Sure, you'd prefer to buy a sturdily built hardwood version that doesn't buckle under the weight of actual books, but who has extra dough to spend on stuff like that? The IKEA bookcase is good enough, for now if not forever.
That cycle of consumption seems harmless enough, particularly since we live in a country where there are plenty of cheap goods to go around. But in her lively and terrifying book "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture," Ellen Ruppel Shell pulls back the shimmery, seductive curtain of low-priced goods to reveal their insidious hidden costs. Those all-you-can-eat Red Lobster shrimps may very well have come from massive shrimp-farming spreads in Thailand, where they've been plumped up with antibiotics and possibly tended by maltreated migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. The made-in-China toy train you bought your kid a few Christmases ago may have been sprayed with lead paint -- and the spraying itself may have been done by a child laborer, without the benefit of a protective mask.
"Cheap" is hardly a finger-waggling book. This isn't a screed designed to make us feel guilty for unknowingly benefiting from the hardships of workers in other parts of the world. And Shell -- who writes regularly for the Atlantic -- isn't talking about the shallowness of consumerism here; she makes it clear that she, like most of us, enjoys the hunt for a good deal. "Cheap" really is about us, meaning not just Americans, but citizens of the world, and about what we stand to lose in a global economic environment that threatens the very nature of meaningful work, work we can take pride in and build a career on -- or even at which we can just make a living.
Discount chains pretend to be the most democratic of enterprises, willing and able to fill our every need at a price we can afford: Ingenious slogans like "Design for All" (Target) and "Save money. Live Better" (Wal-Mart) make that point pretty well. Shell asserts that an excess of cheap goods -- and the drive to make and sell them ever more cheaply -- is putting a deadly squeeze on workers worldwide. Most liberal-leaning citizens are aware of the profit-making schemes of Wal-Mart and, even if we actually shop there, find them distasteful (although Shell notes that among economists, the chain has its defenders).
But Shell asserts that even outlet malls and seemingly benign, friendly, progressive stores like IKEA are part of the problem; along with more obvious bad guys like Wal-Mart, they perpetuate a cycle that, far from nurturing creativity and innovation in the marketplace, ultimately benefits a relative few at the very top of the economic chain. Shell notes that before retiring in February 2009, "Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott Jr. took home in his biweekly paycheck what his average employee earned in a lifetime." You might say that, for Scott, the good news is that everybody can afford to shop at Wal-Mart; the better news is that he himself doesn't have to.
It's impossible to grapple with the global economy without addressing the tricky subject of China, and Shell does so with the right amount of clear-eyed empathy. She notes that China as a nation has grown wealthier while its poor have become poorer. According to figures released by the World Bank, between 2001 and 2003 the income of the poorest 10 percent of China's 1.3 billion people had fallen by 2.4 percent, to less than $83 per year. In that same period, the country's economy grew by 10 percent, and its richest people became 16 percent richer. Many of China's poor work in factories, earning ever-shrinking pay under inhospitable or dangerous conditions, as the American conglomerates who do business there press the Chinese government to revise or reverse regulations that might make these laborers' work lives more tolerable. The government, understandably eager for China to take its place at the global-commerce table, is all too eager to comply. A Shanghai journalist makes a piercing comment to Shell: "We do not yet have the luxury to concern ourselves too much with things like human rights."
But Shell is careful to point out that China isn't the source of the "cheap goods" problem. She quotes Mark Barenberg, a professor of law at Columbia University and an expert on international labor law: "The severe exploitation of China's factory workers and the contraction of the American middle class are two sides of the same coin." The idea is that when global corporations squeeze labor in China and other developing nations, they're able to use the threat of low-wage competition to, as Shell puts it, "roll back decades of hard-won gains in wages, benefits, and dignified treatment for workers in the United States." In other words, employers in the United States can easily use the threat of downsizing and outsourcing to gain more power over, and squeeze more juice out of, their employees -- who, in turn, enjoy increasingly less protection from unions.
While the Chinese are hardly the villains of Shell's story, certain Swedes have plenty to answer for: Shell's chapter on IKEA is the most gently damning in the book. Shell is quick to admit that IKEA products -- from bookshelves to tables to lamps -- are very nicely designed. And the ingenuity of designing furniture so that it can be shipped efficiently, compactly and cheaply, with an eye toward environmental concerns, is admirable. But Shell also points out the hypocrisy inherent in IKEA's philosophy. As a clever IKEA commercial, directed by Spike Jonze, points out, an old lamp (or bookcase or table) doesn't have feelings; any piece of furniture can and should be replaced at any time. The ad, and the whole IKEA approach, suggests that objects have no lasting meaning or value. They're disposable; when we tire of them, we should just throw them out. Then why, Shell asks, does IKEA personify its products by naming them, à la the Lack coffee table or the Kura loft bed? "If IKEA thinks it's crazy to care deeply about objects, why," she asks, "does it sell a wok named after a girl?"
IKEA makes money, and lots of it, by passing on to the consumer the cost of assembling its products, thus turning the consumer into part of its workforce: Depending on how you look at it, we either save money by putting IKEA furniture together ourselves, or we pay for the privilege of putting IKEA furniture together ourselves. Regardless, these tables and bookcases aren't, and aren't intended to be, heirloom pieces. But Shell wonders if our expectations are too low. We no longer expect craftsmanship in everyday objects; maybe we don't feel we even deserve it. "Objects can be designed to low price," she writes, "but they cannot be crafted to low price." But if we stop valuing -- and buying -- craftsmanship, the very idea of making something with care and expertise is destined to die, and something of us as human beings will die along with it: "A bricklayer or carpenter or teacher, a musician or salesperson, a writer of computer code -- any and all can be craftsmen. Craftsmanship cements a relationship between buyer and seller, worker and employer, and expects something of both. It is about caring about the work and its application. It is what distinguishes the work of humans from the work of machines, and it is everything that IKEA and other discounters are not."
What's more, IKEA is the third-largest consumer of wood in the world and uses timber that comes mostly from Eastern Europe and the Russian Far East, where, Shell points out, "wages are low, large wooded regions remote, and according to the World Bank, half of all logging is illegal." IKEA president and CEO Anders Dahlvig asserts that the timber his company uses is harvested legally, and the company does employ forestry experts to monitor the company's suppliers. But Shell points out that IKEA has only 11 forestry monitors, not nearly enough to keep a watchful eye on all those suppliers worldwide, and five of those specialists are devoted to China and Russia, a vast spread of territory by itself. Dahlvig says that hiring more inspectors would cost too much; he'd have to pass the cost on to the consumer.
Would enlightened consumers pay a little more, maybe, to buy products made from wood that had been, unquestionably, legally harvested? Maybe -- but it's not the consumer's choice to make, at least not right now. And if there's one thing that makes reading this eye-opening book an ultimately frustrating experience, it's that Shell can't offer many helpful solutions to this tangle of economic and moral problems, aside from urging us to be more aware as consumers.
Still, she does cite one example of an organization that at least tries to get it right: Wegmans, a chain of supermarkets with stores located mostly in the suburbs of New York state, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland, offers its employees job-training programs, health insurance and retirement benefits. The company operates on the supposition that if it treats its employees respectfully, they'll be better prepared (and more willing) to serve the needs of customers. The approach seems to work: Wegmans profits financially by fostering and retaining customer loyalty, and its employee turnover rate is low -- roughly 6 percent, measured against an industry-wide rate of more than 30 percent. The company also buys a large percentage of its produce from small, local farmers, and has been doing so for 20 years.
If "Cheap" is a harrowing document of the pursuit of profit at the expense of our basic humanity, the example set by Wegmans -- Shell saves it for the end of the book -- sounds almost too good to be true, the kind of crazy business idea that, according to the logic of outfits like Wal-Mart, shouldn't work. In reality, it's one of the foundations of good business: Treat your employees well, and they'll serve you well in return. The cost may be higher, but the price is right.