The Real Cost of Cheap Stuff

I find it easy to be disappointed in myself and in the world that I am part of. We appear to worship cheapness and look for cheap stuff without considering much else. If something is cheap, “I’ll have it” and “well heck – I might just have two!”.

Do we ever stop and consider the real cost of cheap stuff?

Is cheapness that desirable? Can we put a price on everything? How did we get this way?

The real cost of cheap stuff

It seems to me that price is often the only factor in the buying decision that we consider (and packaging a close second). Factors that I believe require equal or as significant consideration include:

  • What are the ingredients or raw materials used in its manufacture?
  • Where did the ingredients come from?
  • Were the ingredients sourced in a sustainable manner?
  • Where was it made and how far did it have to be shipped?
  • Who worked on it and how well were these people treated?
  • Is the parent company a reliable member of the global community? Does it pay its taxes? Is it involved in illegal or exploitative practices?
  • Does their factory create a lot of pollution?
  • How much did it cost to produce this article?

If there are poor answers to any of these questions, the cheapness of the article becomes less desirable.

How much did that cheap stuff cost to produce?

Yes, that’s right, I asked ‘how much did it cost to produce?’ We’re never told this because it’s some sort of ‘competitive advantage’. Baloney! It’s just a lack of transparency that can be used to increase profits.

As an example, let’s say there are two products on a shelf. Both seem to have the same ingredients and both appear to be packaged very nicely. For all intents and purposes they appear to be equivalent. Product A is $1.00 and Product B is $0.85, so I’d guess every one of us would pick Product B, the cheaper one.

Now, let’s assume that there was a law in place that said the manufacturing cost of all products had to be displayed as well as the sale price. Sounds radical but just play along for a minute. Product A is on sale for $1.00 and the manufacturing cost was $0.65. Product B is on sale for $0.85 and the manufacturing cost was $0.02.

Now that’s a shock. The cheaper product cost almost nothing to manufacture. What’s going on? How could they manufacture something so cheaply? Now we start to get worried about whether the product is really any good, or what illegal stuff they had to do to make it. My bet is that the majority of us would pick Product A (the more expensive one) in this case.

The increased transparency has helped us make a better choice. It’s now clear that the company that made Product B was ripping us off big-time while playing the game of being a low cost provider. They were using the lack of transparency to swindle us.

the real cost of cheap stuff - big tree in rainforest

Wiping out old growth forests

We cut down old growth forests for wood and paper. Why? We don’t need to, we can grow new trees in sustainable ways to source the wood and paper we want. We do it because it’s cheap, because we seem to want cheap stuff!

It’s cheaper to just go and cut down an old forest than to manage a renewable forest. The argument is made that the world needs cheaper products, but the reality is that the corporations doing this are making more profits (just like the example above) otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it.

Places like the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest are disappearing surprisingly quickly. Some companies are making large short term profits while destroying our world. Are we that shortsighted, greedy and uncaring? Looks like we are.

Could it be that our simple global choices to get “cheap stuff” are contributing to the disappearance of our rainforests and hence, the disappearance of everything. Could it be that just because I like to buy something cheaply that I don’t want to know all the information? That I’m happy with a lack of transparency?

I’m ashamed to admit that there is a feeling of some truth in this. On the one hand, I don’t want to destroy the world but, on the other, I might be secretly happy that I don’t have all the information so I can choose the cheap option with conscience intact. This has to stop.

Corporations squeezing farmers to breaking point

If you watch the documentary Fresh, you’ll get a first hand account of how big companies put the squeeze on farmers. Of course they would because, the more money the farmer makes, the less profit the corporations make. So the aim is to push them to breaking point.

The documentary Open Sesame also shows how farmers are being pushed to breaking point by big corporations. Vandana Shiva discusses these problems in this interview. Dr. Shiva says;

“What we have is an interconnectedness of the world through greed, which is not how Nature works, which is not how humanity works.”

This is all too bad. The world won’t work if we don’t have farmers.

Follow Nature’s Cycle

Nature shows us that everything is a cycle. Everything relies on everything else. For the world to keep functioning, everything in the circle of life must be playing its part well. Humans can’t live without Nature. We are part of Nature. If we disturb Nature’s cycle, we could destroy everything. Seems like we’re doing that now.

This is the fundamental problem with global warming. We’re creating a lot of CO2. Where does that go in the cycle? Well trees consume CO2, but we’re creating far too much of it and, at the same time, cutting down trees. We’re putting so much CO2 into Nature’s system that it has no were to go. We’re breaking the Natural cycle.

Cree Indian Proverb

Who really wants cheap stuff?

We might think that we want cheap stuff, but there’s a good case that we’ve been brainwashed by advertising to look for bargains. Think back about the most recent advertisements you’ve seen and you’ll most probably recall that they are predominantly talking about how cheap their products or services are. But why would companies want to sell cheap?

An increasing number of corporations are beginning to focus on making a positive difference in society while making profits, which is very good. However, the corporations focussing only on profits are dangerous. They want to manufacture as cheaply as possible and sell for as much as possible to make the most profit. Like the example earlier in this post, they would like to get manufacturing cost down to almost nothing and still sell close to the market rate for the article, hence maximizing profit without regard for us, for anyone else or the Natural world.

This is where the advertising tricks come in. The predominant message in advertising is that bargains are good. If you can successfully find cheap stuff, you’re a winner. They are brainwashing us to search out cheap stuff and feel good about it and to forget everything except price. Then we won’t look very closely into other factors and just buy the cheapest, like the product (see earlier in this post) that cost $0.02 to manufacture but was on sale for a price of $0.85. We think we’ve won because we think we’ve got a bargain, but it’s the company that actually wins because they made a huge profit while most probably inflicted pain on other people and Nature at the same time.

This is a system based on greed.

Where to with our desire for cheap stuff (greed)?

The average person is actually very powerful. The large corporations rely on us to make their money. Without us, they are helpless.

All it takes is for the average person to make different choices. We can be conscious consumers. We don’t have to listen to the incessant advertising and propaganda. We can find out our own information, make our own choices and change the planet.

What we choose to do next shapes the future of the planet, just as it always has.

What do we choose to do? I choose to break out of looking simply for cheap stuff and look more deeply into the products and companies I purchase from. This is the path of conscious consumerism and ethical consumerism. It will take more effort, but it could be an important step towards saving our world.

Don’t buy cheap stuff, reuse the old stuff

Even better than consuming is re-using wherever possible. Again, the incessant advertising brainwashes us to always want new stuff. They constantly tell us “new is best”, “it’s time to upgrade”, “why would you want that old, unfashionable stuff now”. The disposable mentality is dangerous for the world but great to help greedy companies make more profits.

When you start to look at it, it’s surprising how often a second-hand item will be perfectly good for the need you have. Going to second-hand stores or charity stores can be fun and very rewarding. If you find what you need at a charity store, you’ve probably just bought something even more cheaply than the new “cheap stuff” and you’ve also helped the planet and helped a charity at the same time. That’s a real win.

The Real Cost of Cheap Stuff – Related Links

  • The Fairtrade organizations around the world (for example http://www.fairtrade.org.uk) are helping fight back against exploitation leading to farmers being pushed to breaking point so that unethical, greedy corporations can make more profits. These Fairtrade groups are worth supporting.
  • A post by Matt Darvas – Top Fashion Labels Ranked on Use of Slavery
  • An interesting organization in Australia – Behind The Bar Code – Ending Worker Exploitation
  • The Minimalists – an interesting website from a couple of guys explaining how to live life with “less stuff”. This is a good thing overall, but it’s most certainly not what the greedy corporations want us to think. You won’t a “less stuff” message in any TV advertisements.
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