It was a story in The Big Issue that turned on the light. The writer was visiting China and was out for the day with local friends when they passed a huge industrial estate. She asked what it was and was told it was where clothes were made for Western markets. Thinking she’d get herself a bargain, she suggested they see if there was a retail outlet on the estate but her friends said (paraphrased) “oh, no. There is nothing of quality there, the West just wants cheap. We’ll show you where we shop, you’ll find something there”. So they went to where the locals shop and she did indeed find something she loved among the good quality clothing on offer.
“The West just wants cheap.” Coupled with “(a cynic is a man who knows) the price of everything and the value of nothing” (Oscar Wilde via Lady Windemere’s Fan) and, from 'Steer your way' on Leonard Cohen’s final album You want it darker, “as he died to make men holy, let us die to make things cheap”, truer words were never spake. Through the probably rose-tinted shading of retrospection, I’m not sure that cheapness per se was the end-all and be-all of generations past. I seem to remember quality being an important factor when purchasing goods or services. Does it fit properly? Will it last? Will it need repair? Can it be repaired? Is it beautiful? Is it value for money (when ‘value’ didn’t’ mean ‘cheap’)?
According to the World Trade Organisation, from the latter part of the C20th “global integration in product, capital and labour markets has resulted in a more efficient allocation of economic resources over time… Consumers have a wider choice of products and services at lower prices”. That is, the West is getting cheap.
The West has valorised cheap. Euphemisms such as “affordable” and “competitive” give the nod to accepting sub-standard quality whether it’s housing, services, goods, or any other product where near-enough is good-enough. A bloke on the telly asked, rhetorically, "why wouldn't you go for the most competitive price?". I can tell you why. I went for the most competitive price for house extensions and spent the next 10 years fixing the mistakes and finishing the job myself at the weekends. Cheap is one side of the neoliberal coin. Greedy profit is the other.
The West looks cheap
I live in Perth, Western Australia. Our urban sprawl is one of the most uncontrolled in the world, stretching 150 kilometres along the Indian Ocean coast and 50 kilometres inland with a comparatively low population density. Suburbs spring up at such a rate that I don’t know where they are when they hit the news for any reason. The “new suburbs (are) a wasteland of concrete, tiles and brick”. No argument there. Where once was bush is now thousands of square kilometres of little boxes made of ticky tacky, unrelieved by trees: in fact, some of these developments have rules forbidding shade trees. While Western Australia has a commendable uptake of solar panels for household energy in some areas, there is little sign of this technology on the roofs of these new suburbs.
Construction is increasingly using pre-cast concrete panels that are hoisted into place rather using bricks or other traditional building materials. The costs of casting the panels are offset by reduced building times, less demand for on-site tradies, and using standard (rather than custom-ordered) panel sizes. Unhappily, on multi-storied buildings, the use of panels leaves a join line between storeys, a sort of tear-on-the-dotted-line effect, that emphasises cheap. Concrete grey is now a common building colour but, whatever colour they are, within a year the panels have streaks running down the walls that make these buildings look even cheaper.
People, too, look cheap. Well, not people per se but our appearance. The Chinese women at the beginning of this piece want nothing to do with the product of the factories on their doorsteps because it fails their quality test but it is this product that the West puts on every morning. Mass produced to fit average sizes that means it fits nobody, lacking finishing care because the workers don’t have time between garments for careful checking, in fabrics that are far removed from the natural because natural costs too much, the clothing walking around our streets screams cheap.
At what cost
We are slowly waking up to the reality of “integrating” product, capital and labour markets and internationally allocating “efficiencies”. Western politics is being shaken by disgruntled electorates that are wearing the cost of shipping whole industries offshore to countries where manufacturing and service provision are much cheaper than at home. In theory, a profusion of cheap goods and services should be good for an economy. In reality, if jobs are scarce and the ensuing competition for them reduces a willingness or capacity to pay for them (aka consumer confidence), the goods and services will battle for a market.
It isn’t as though the workers in the countries Western industries have been out-sourced to are enjoying the benefits of their labour. The textile industry is renowned for the slave conditions endured by its workers. Commonly, pay rates struggle to support minimum living standards. Many work environments are a health hazard, bringing international condemnation when factories burn down or collapse killing the workers locked in them.
Slave labour isn’t restricted to the textile industry. Wherever there are profits to be made and impoverished people ripe for exploitation, humans will treat each other abominably. From the technology industry, there are regular reports of the conditions suffered by employees of companies that produce Apple’s must-have products. Insane productivity demands, ill-health caused by exposure to the materials used in the manufacture of iGadgets, death chosen by some despairing workers for whom suicide is preferable to their working conditions all underpin the West’s demand for cheap.
Added to this is the speed with which technology is being substituted for human employment, maybe up to 58% of current jobs over the next couple of decades, in the name of efficiency. Low paid workers in the West, who currently face competition from immigrant workers at home or cheap labour overseas, may soon wake up to discover their rivals are machines who don’t need to sleep or take holidays, and will never demand better pay.
Some governments are recognising the social problems resulting from a shrinking employment economy by working on universal income policies that provide all citizens with an income that supports dignified participation in society. The Australian government, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. Instead, it points its hysterical, hypocritical, compromised finger at those disadvantaged by workplace transition, accusing them of laziness and reluctance to work for a wage. Never mind that jobs aren’t available, never mind in the industries where the unemployed are experienced, or where the unemployed live, or pay enough to make overcoming the difficulties in getting to them financially rational.
Aside from aesthetics, workforce exploitation, inbuilt obsolescence, and all the other by-products of the West’s obsession with cheap, governments’ obsession with growth, and the 1%’s obsession with profit, another major loser is the environment. Whether it’s the pillaging of natural resources to power the economy or the truly self-defeating dumping of all our waste back into our nest, our appetite for excess is on track to bring about self-extinction. Sapient homo? I don’t think so.
One, if not THE, thing we could do to reduce environmental catastrophe is to pay the true costs of our consumption. The $5 we currently pay for a cheap t-shirt would not cover any of the costs of its manufacture in Australia. If proper wages were paid to workers along the manufacturing chain, the cost of iThings and other electronic goods would cause us to think twice about updating to the next model when our current device was still perfectly functional (it might also make updates worth investing in if the gain was more than a thinner screen). If we had to cover the true cost of food production, the obscene amounts dumped each day would decrease and we might all become a bit smarter about our menus; suppliers would be paid a sensible return instead of operating at a loss, sales resistance might return power to the consumer rather than to the profiteers. In short, we would buy less, throw less away, and put less demand on our long-suffering planet.
The cost of cheap
The thing with cheap is that what can be purchased at less than its proper cost loses any value, so is not valued, resulting in rampant consumerism. When something stops working, because it actually stops working or we just lose interest in it or a brighter bauble is dangled in front of us, we dump it and replace it with something just as cheap. For example, the West does a brisk turnover in electrical goods, such as jugs and toasters, that are bought for as little money as possible and don’t last for very long. Their price makes repair uneconomic, compared to just replacing it. Even if it could be repaired, it is hard to find somebody who will because demand for that service is so low as to make it not worthwhile, in economic terms, to carry replacement parts even if these were available. So it gets dumped, shuttled off to landfill.
The focus on cost rather than worth and value is now fundamental to social organisation. Provision of the services we expect in a developed economy is dwindling as expenditure is weighted over well-being. Rather than using our resources to build social capital, we prefer shutting the physically, mentally and financially disadvantaged out of participation in civil society. Creating a cheap labour pool seems to be the end goal for our political class rather than caring for community.
Take single parents, that most maligned of demographics. If ever there was a category of citizen that needed generous financial and social support to enable its children to grow into contributing adults, it is single parents. Instead, they are punished for their status, arguably because the vast majority are women. The financial support provided by the state is acknowledged to be far below the poverty line and is constantly under review to be reduced further. This, apparently, is to encourage the only adult in the household to find a job but what paid work is available is likely to be part-time and low wage. The family is likely to be worse off because it has lost the concessions that come with the pension. The real job of raising a family has no policy value despite the costs of social and educational alienation suffered by the children that can be life-long, both for the children themselves and for government coffers.
The West’s obsession with price cheapens the way we see and interact with our world. It blinds us to seeing real value and keeps us forever dissatisfied with what we have. Just as those who profit from our dissatisfaction want it.