The Hidden Cost of Cheap

Our culture puts a premium on the disposable—and it's got to stop.

I was excited when Ikea opened its 309,000 square foot store in Orlando in 2007. “Now I can get good-looking furniture that doesn’t cost a ton,” I though to myself. So, after the grand opening crowds subsided, I showed up, bought some stuff, took it home and assembled it. It wasn’t long before the threads started to fray and the materials began to fall apart.

“I guess this could actually be a good thing. By the time this stuff falls apart, I’ll be ready for a new style anyway.”

But this epidemic of disposability isn’t simply tied to our buying practices. It’s a new way of detached living.

Disposability has become an increasing theme in our buying habits. H&M, Forever 21 and Zara have led the way in the disposable fashion industry. Their model is to have continual cycles of new clothing options at low costs to keep the consumer buying. We no longer make purchasing decisions based on craftsmanship and longevity, but on affordability and the disposability of style.

But disposability and low prices always have a hidden price. We saw a glimpse into this cost when a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed last month, killing more than 1,000 people.

But this epidemic of disposability isn’t simply tied to our buying practices. It’s a new way of detached living. We have a reluctance to invest in any facet of our lives. We’ve settled into the comfort of being able to throw things out when they no longer interest us or make us feel good. We’ve grown accustomed to the high of new. And like the factory in Bangladesh, there are dire consequences to our lack of longevity.

What are the consequences of a disposable life?

  • Short term relationships: From high divorce rates to the lack of intimacy and depth in friendships.
  • Transience: An unwillingness to invest in place leads to neighborhoods where neighbors don’t know one another and crime increases. We hop from place to place, people group to people group, club to club, church to church – without a sense of meaning and investment.
  • Emotional detachment: We enter into relationships with people and things without an expectation of deep investment.
  • Dissatisfaction: We grow accustomed to dissatisfaction and embrace the idea that happiness comes from a search for something to make us happy instead of investing in longevity.

For millennia, people have lived with a sense of longevity and investment with the people, places and things of their lives—defending a village, cultivating a farm or valuing a possession.

So why do we value a disposable life, anyway?

We need to rediscover the true value of things and people.

Because it’s safe. We’d rather spend $10 on a poorly crafted item of clothing because it’s less of an investment. If we don’t like it in a week, we can throw it away guilt-free. But spending $100 on a well-crafted shirt is a long-term investment. It’s a risk. The same is true in our relationship with anything or anyone. A high investment means a higher sense of risk. But risk and reward are integrally tied to one another. It’s safer to remain relationally detached from another human because it keeps us from being hurt if either of us moves away or makes a decision that offends. But we also miss the depth and beauty of intimacy and trust—the things that bring true value to life.

So what do we do?

We need to rediscover the true value of things and people. When we step into valuing craftsmanship over style, investment over the appeal of a low price, and connectedness over transience, we’ll begin living a more deeply satisfying life. We put more of ourselves on the line and find a true value in decades long relationships of meaning and fulfillment.

10 Comments

Esther Aspling

635

Esther Aspling commented…

I really like the idea you are getting at. I'm not sure that there is always a connection between our shopping mindset and our relational one, but there might be for many people.
One thing I've had to think about is quantity. Do I really need 50 cheap shirts? Yes it's cheap, but do I need it? Could I wait, and buy something nicer? Not to mention the human cost, is any shirt worth the loss of human life?
Our consumer culture extends into many areas, and it's worth taking a look at.

http://forthisisthetime.com/

Marenn Mosley

2

Marenn Mosley commented…

I see a lot of people talking about people who can't afford the more expensive well made so they have to shop at Wal- Mart or other similar stores. What ever happened to thrift stores, Goodwill and the like to buy things a a discounted price to re-purpose and reuses what is already been sold on the market. There are always cost effective alternatives, we only need to educate people about them.

All my furniture is bought at an auction, thrift store, or yardsale (excepting one piece, which is poor quality, particle board) All the used pieces are quality and have lasted me years and will hopefully last more to come. The same with my clothes, having started purchasing from thrift/second hand stores that sell good quality donations that are priced well for those on a tight budget.

I have also noticed a trend of people loosing knowledge on how to treat or take care of belongings so that that do last. And many people, like the article points out, don't care if they do or not. I was lucky my mother found value in how to take care of the things you buy so that they last and also a desire to fix instead of throwing things away and buying something new. We are loosing this knowledge as a society because of this disposable mindset, because it's so much 'easier'.

Also being a crafts-person, a jeweler by trade, I've come to appreciate what goes into the creation of something well made or unique. It is indeed something we have lost as a culture, the knowledge about and appreciation for one of a kind or quality items. Like I was taught, do what's responsible not what's convenient.

Sam Blair

21

Sam Blair commented…

The same lack of knowledge about what we're buying also goes into the food chain as well (Food Inc. anyone?)

Agreed with the general principle, but simply buying better crafted materials and goods is not solving the problem of sweatshops and poorly treated labor overseas. Many high-end manufacturers use the same labor systems as the cheap/disposable ones. Just consider Foxconn and the labor issues it has had with Apple.

We need to change our attitudes toward what we buy, but we also need to encourage manufacturers to either be more responsible to and for their laborers or to move more production back to the US. Yes that means higher labor costs which can translate to higher cost of goods, but it also means less unemployment and greater tax income for states and municipalities when those jobs are brought back stateside.

Carlene Byron

20

Carlene Byron commented…

European friends have fewer clothes, better made, that last longer. We furnished our home mostly with used goods that are better made than what we could afford of comparable contemporary furniture. (Plus a mix of pass-downs that span a century of our two families' lives.) We're choosing to learn from those who preceded us: Good stewardship is buying and caring for things that will last.
http://christianpurposeblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/02/reusable-stuff…er-stewardship

Talya Willson

1

Talya Willson commented…

Yeah, some of the brands mentioned that would be labelled as "disposible" fashion actually have reasonable work conditions compared to many expensive brands.

If you'd like to know more about the brands that you're buying and how they address with/deal with modern slavery and forced labour here's a really good website/app:

http://www.free2work.org/

Each brand is given a rating ditermined by five evaluated catergories. Really handy.

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