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Goings on at the Because We Cannery

An essay on "Cheap" stuff

NPR recently interviewed the author ELLEN RUPPEL SHELL of the new book "Cheap".An essay on how and why certain items are priced the way they are.

The most interesting part of the book, to us, is how Shell talks about furniture and other items that are made abroad in China and in Sweden at IKEA. An excerpt from the book:

"...IKEA, the global furniture retailer made famous and fabulously successful by a scheme of designing not just for low price but to low price. The consequences of this are both obvious and subtle. IKEA makes furniture available to all at a low price, which means college students, young couples, and others on a budget can furnish their homes in style. But IKEA does not overly concern itself with what Homer Simpson calls "fall-apart." The company designs for easy construction, uniformity, cheap production, and transportability around the globe. Ultimately, what it markets is disposable, with everything that implies. ... The environmental and social implications of this are insidious and alarming."

We couldn't agree more.

Selling a chair for $15 has always simultaneously alarmed us and made us laugh. In America you simply cannot buy even the materials it would take to make that chair for $15. So how do they do it? Yes, there is some economy when making items in mass quantities, but when taking everything (materials, design, labor, shipping, packaging) into account the numbers just don't work out. Something is amiss. Someone is getting the bad end of the stick here. And unfortunately, the way we see it, there is no good end of the stick. The worker making the chair on one end is possibly suffering with low pay and toxic to work with materials, the consumer on the other end is possibly suffering by purchasing something that will break within a year or two, and our culture (not to mention our environment) is suffering as well via consumption and disposable ideals.

Of course we understand the need for purchasing items on a budget. But over the long run, you are actually spending more money by buying a new dining set every two years, than if you bought that one well made set that you can one day pass onto your children. And it's much more likely the well-made one isn't going to give you or the person who made it cancer due to off-gassing or highly toxic materials.

The average American has slowly learned that food from fast food chains is not really food, but a quick and easy substitute. Hopefully the knowledge about where our stuff comes from will become more common knowledge as well. I mean, if someone offered to sell you a shirt for $2, you'd want to know what was wrong with it. Why then is a $15 chair seen as a 'value'?

Which reminds me of the great video "The Story of Stuff" that was so popular a year ago. Let's watch it again...

Jillian Northrup