The Ethics of Shopping Cheap

We've heard a lot of design-minded friends describe their relationship to IKEA as love-hate. We love the prices and, sometimes, the look, but hate the idea of spending our money on mass-produced goods. Today's Talk of the Nation on NPR featured author Ellen Ruppel Shell discussing her book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, which deals with the societal implications of discount shopping. The program raised some interesting questions about the ethics of buying at big-box stores, where good style is increasingly available for cheap, but quality and production standards may be just as low as the prices. Many of you must surely deal with these questions constantly as you furnish your homes, so we thought we'd share some points from the discussion and open it up to you...
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The Discount Culture. A large part of Shell's argument has to do with the buying habits that discount stores engender. So often, she claims, we buy something because we're attracted by the price, not truly by the thing itself, and so we end up, for example, with rooms full of furniture that looks pretty good, but won't last more than a few years. In other words, we've lost sight of what value actually means, confusing it with low price.

Environmental and Social Costs. Of course this is a giant issue, but we're just going to touch on it briefly here, to sum up a few of Shell's points on the show... she suggests that in today's retail culture, global multi-national discount retailers have to move a lot of product, so they have to do whatever it takes to keep prices low, cutting corners wherever they can. Often, of course, this means manufacturing in low-wage countries, where environmental and human rights regulations are less strict.

Fewer Middle-Ground Goods. The policies of large discounters have created a situation where it seems to us that the choice is either low cost or high quality, and we can't have both. Mid-priced, good quality items have become increasingly scarce, because it's so much harder for those who make and sell them to stay in business. In fact, Shell argues, it has even become hard for us to recognize good quality because we're so inundated with mass-produced goods.

Discount vs. Secondhand. More than one caller remarked that secondhand furniture, purchased at thrift stores and flea markets, can often be just as cheap as Ikea or Target but much better quality. Shell pointed out that secondhand goods have demonstrated durability and can often be made good as new with small improvements and repairs. Of course, shopping for flea market and thrift store finds takes time, as does fixing them up, and time carries its own incidental costs.

We'd love to know your responses to some of these points. Please feel free to weigh in below! Has anyone read Cheap? What did you think?

If you'd like to listen to the full program, visit the Talk of the Nation web site. You can buy Shell's book from Powell's here.

(Images: Flickr members Listen Missy! and Thomas Hawk, licensed under Creative Commons)

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