Monday, August 10, 2009

Book Review: Cheap by Ellen Ruppel Shell


Ellen Ruppel Shell's book Cheap: the High Cost of Discount Culture is an expose on the inner workings of the world of consumerism: the designs, the psychology, the travels, the boardroom ideas that make us buy what we buy and expect to buy it for dirt cheap. Cheap is, I would say, the Fast Food Nation-equivalent for Walmart and the rest of our bargain-based economy.

The prices that we pay are kept low by an unsustainable system of cheap labor and environmental exploitation, of cutting corners around regulation every chance available. They are a prime example of our failure to contextualize our actions (and especially our purchases) in an increasingly globalized world.

When you buy a snack or a T-shirt, how much do you really know about it? How far did it travel to get there? Where, in fact, was it really made? Who made it? How much were the laborers paid--if they were even paid? These types of questions will foment in your mind while reading this book, and you will get a better understanding of the system of subsidies (which make our food dirt cheap and destroy agrarian economies abroad) and marketing (why prices are what they are--both economically and psychologically).

The one shortcoming of this book, in my opinion, is its failure to provide a semblance of a solution at the end. For those of you that saw Food, Inc., even though you probably felt powerless at the end, the producers attempted to give you a glimmer of hope. Ruppel Shell discusses Wegman's as an example of good quality goods, ethical practices, and low prices---for real. (Just ask anyone who shops at Wegman's about this: you will listen to them extol the praises of Wegman's for hours on end. Just make sure you have enough time.) However, one does not feel as though one really has the power to effect change in the system. Sadly, it comes down to the idea that, as you have heard since elementary school, knowledge is power. You can't solve a problem unless you know what the problem is.

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