Contrasting views on cheapness

August 16, 2009

We’ve maintained from the start that there is more to frugality than merely being cheap. Frugality is about deploying your resources wisely, to maximise your long-term happiness.

One thing that makes me happy is being satisfied about the ethical or moral consequences of my spending, so it’s worrying to read accounts of what happens behind the scenes to bring us truly cheap goods:

… in her lively and terrifying book “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture,” Ellen Ruppel Shell pulls back the shimmery, seductive curtain of low-priced goods to reveal their insidious hidden costs. Those all-you-can-eat Red Lobster shrimps may very well have come from massive shrimp-farming spreads in Thailand, where they’ve been plumped up with antibiotics and possibly tended by maltreated migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. The made-in-China toy train you bought your kid a few Christmases ago may have been sprayed with lead paint — and the spraying itself may have been done by a child laborer, without the benefit of a protective mask.

from a review at Salon.

The book is also reviewed at Boingboing, with some really interesting debate in the comments.

Then there’s this view of so-called ethical consumption, in a review in spiked online of Neal Lawson’s All Consuming:

Ironically, even the most fashion-conscious teenager is less obsessed with consumption than today’s anti-consumerists. The learned professors, journalists and political lobbyists who study in detail the choices available to the public are a sorry sight.

Of course such self-appointed experts are not opposed to all forms of consumption. Although they despise the purchase of luxury items by the masses they are happy to indulge what they see as their own refined tastes. Indeed, the notion of ethical consumption is essentially a way of validating the shopping of the elite while deriding the masses at the same time.

From the elite’s perspective, consumption becomes what author James Heartfield calls ‘status affirmation’. The purchase of what are deemed to be ethically acceptable products is seen as marking individuals out from the rabble. So anyone who likes, say, ordinary chocolate biscuits is sneered at as a gullible consumer while those who eat overpriced organic Duchy Originals are viewed as cultured individuals.

from here. And there is something in that. It isn’t much of an advance to replace one sort of snobbery with another. But still, if one kind of snobbery is helpful to others while another isn’t, I’ll opt for the first over the second.

But what if we don’t buy new things at all? What if we only buy old things and reuse them, or recycle goods?

… salvage itself is a mechanism, both in practice and in thought, procedure and ideology, deeply ingrained in the circuits of late capitalism. And much further back than that.

From the total inanity of green “upcycled” goods (“ie. recycled/reclaimed into something special”, because “Ethical is Beautiful” and they insist on “only using laptops“) to wrenching fillings from your teeth to sell to Cash For Gold U.S.A. (for the oral hoarding days must come to an end in these lean times). From the total staggering obscenity of price mark-ups at trendy vintage clothing shops to desperate children rummaging through the stinking mountains of trash. These are apocalyptic times generally, but in particular, the figure and action of salvage looms perhaps largest.

from Putting the Punk back in Salvage, pointed out by Giovanni Tiso. Particular venom is reserved for vintage clothing, which hurts me.

Dear reader, you must decide what to do for yourself. If you have a coherent plan, please share.



  1. I think Evan finds the mark up on vintage clothing and the attendant hipster snobbery obscene, not so much the practice of shopping for second hand-clothing. Likewise in the plumethical material what’s objectionable is not the idea per se, it’s how it’s packaged as a planet-saving act (we use laptops and we turn them off when we don’t use them! we sit on only one buttcheek at a time!). By the same token and for the sake of coherence, they should refuse to seel their stuff to people who live too far away, no?

    The cost of buying cheap is high, often we’re not informed enough just how high. Buying second-hand furniture and clothing locally has a lot of merit in it, unless it is wielded as the sign of cultured distinction you describe.

    Also: danger of being sucked into the boingboing vortex at an all time high. Curse you, Judd!

  2. I always defer to Diesel Sweeties’ Indie Rock Pete on this matter: Ethics are a luxury for people who can afford new pants. So much of Ethical Consumption is being seen to do the right thing. It shows that you’re educated, enlightened, and can afford to choose the ‘right’ product.

    The best way to be Ethically Frugal — to reduce the impact on battery animals and the sweatshop kids and the environment and the wallet — is to Buy Less Stuff. I gave my furniture to friends and op-shops before I moved to Wellington last month, and I’ve been picking up the things I need and don’t have from friends’ discards, op-shops and the dump shop. So far it’s working really well. People with money throw away the most amazing things! Why does anyone buy a new potato masher from Briscoes when every op-shop has a shelf of them for a dollar?

    Having worked in an op-shop for a couple of years, I understand the vitriol against the Vintage market. The professional buyer/dealers would buy up all the quality clothes and furniture before our real customers had the chance, and then they would have the gall to try and haggle us down because they reckoned they were doing us a favour by taking all these bags and bags of clothes off our hands. One miserable old shrew used to bring her elderly dad in and pretend she was buying furniture for his retirement unit. Then she’d harass the poor volunteeres until they halved the $30 asking price, and then ask for it to be delivered…to her Claudelands antiques store. Grr.

    On a more practical note, I’m collecting jam jars (glass with metal lids) and unwanted Agee jars in advance of stonefruit/berry season.

  3. I hate how the op shops get picked over. Its ok if the charities are getting a good price though I guess. You are right about what get chucked out. In the weekend I found Zeiss binoculars at the dump shop for $5. And three Agee jam jars for $1

    • That reminds me, I have to go buy a belt for the swanky hi-fi-geek record player the BF found for $5. Then I can listen to my deliciously thrifty, $2 Hamilton County Bluegrass Band LPs.

      • yup. repair of old things is the best way, not just buying boutique because it’s trend-a.

  4. If it’s good and I can’t find it for $3, I won’t balk at paying $50 for it in a ‘vintage shop’. If it was quality it was quality, even if the scavengers got to it first.

  5. Ow.

    I run Plum Ethical, which got a roasting above. My first reaction is “@$@£ you”, but that’s not very helpful.

    Really, we are trying to do stuff right. If we’re getting it wrong, we’re interested why. We might not change, because we’re not coming from a the mind-set of just wanting to be frugal. Then again, we might.

    We think spending money, not avoiding spending money, or hoarding money, is good. In the West (where I am) we (relatively) have a lot of money. Plum Ethical wants to spread it around the world a bit, and our prices reflect that. We are not some trendy-for-its-own-frigging-sake boutique. That’s the exactly opposite of what we’re trying to do.

    At the same time, we try to give people beautiful things that make them smile (our tagline means ‘ethical is allowed to be beautiful’), not ugly crap that makes them feel like they’re merely existing. And at the same time it stops some discarded stuff from going to landfill. Perhaps we have a clash of ideals at exactly this point here. Maybe you’re focussing on living simply and cheaply. Beauty and style may be in conflict with that? I can see that simplicity is a valid ideal too, I just don’t see it as the overriding ideal, just a part of the whole mix.

    You’re right about the “turning off laptop” stuff though. It’s far too ‘precious’, I think we’re a bit up ourselves when we talk about it. I mean, we do care, but not for frugal reasons, for carbon reasons. We don’t need to bang on about it in what looks like a “look at me” kind of way.

    Finally, we don’t ship abroad when the customer can buy from that country. We turned someone down last week.


    • Simon (and others),

      as it was I who was venom spitting…

      there are some things on which we fundamentally disagree (namely, spending money being good), but your response is thoughtful, and there is much that I agree with.

      First, I also am a fierce believer in quality objects, in good design, in caring for the things you use. I would endlessly support people buying fewer objects of good quality made by decently paid workers and craftsmen/women who give a damn about what they do. (For example, I’m ride bikes a lot, don’t have a car anymore, and I own a frame made by a framebuilder in the area. I love it to death, for it is a thing of beauty and rides perfectly.)

      As such, I have nothing against the production of objects per se. On a different note, I also have no problem with vintage clothing: in fact I prefer it.

      What I do hate and loathe is an ideological content and rhetoric that exceeds any one person or company. (Plum Ethical included here. My sister herself makes bags from hand, often out of recycled material.) My venom is for a certain logic of our time that none of us, myself included, can escape very well, in which it is thought that certain modes of purchase are manifestations of a superior moral grasp on the moment. In addition, this takes the form of a massified virtuosity, in which you get to appear like the one who knows better, the one who can find precious tattered concert t-shirts (which becomes a pseudo-virtuosity available to anyone who can pay) or the one who carries a bag that is “green” (although, as mentioned above, ain’t nothing greener than that which already exists and does not need labor and energy to transform it).


      All hail beautiful objects and those with the talent to make them, especially out of that which otherwise rots in the dump. But equally, denounce all pretensions to the moral content of commodities.

  6. You make a good point, Evan.

    It’s very easy for companies, who are trading with a mindset that they consider to be different to mainstream companies’, to say things like, “Our products are morally better!”, “Look, we’re superior!”, because, as a business, we’re hard-wired to highlight those aspects of our goods and services that will appeal to people.

    So we shout about our genuine belief that our goods maintain the quality and attractiveness of good produced by “those terrible companies over there” (I’m being flippant), but buying our goods will also lead to fair-trade and lower-waste benefits too. Things that benefit real people in real places in the world, and will financially reward creativity. However, perhaps we go too far, and make it part of a larger moral context that we evoke to purport our “superiority”? Is that what you’re saying, Evan?

    Certainly, the goods in themselves are not morally better or worse than any other goods. They are just bags.

    I would firmly argue that there are moral issues with the *production* of many (though not all) cheap goods (as was also mentioned in the main post above), but I don’t think that’s what we’re focussing on here. Evan’s holding up my larger-scale pretensions, and waggling them about. And he’s probably got a point. Pah.

    Looking at some of the stuff we’ve written on our site, we’ve definitely fallen into the pretensions trap sometimes. And I thought we’d been so careful, not to… We’ll review it and see what needs changing.

    On the other hand, I’ve blogged here about not being a “trendy greeny”:


    on the issue of waste. In the latter part of the post it implicitly connects it to being frugal and living a simple life. My Grandma was perhaps the most frugal, simple person I’ve ever met, and she certainly wasn’t doing it to be trendy. Still, she did sometimes take the moral high-ground about it. When you’re living differently to the people around you, it is perhaps a natural thing to do?

    In summary, I think we’re both trying to find a way to live thoughtfully, and I guess I should say ‘thank you’ for any gear-grinding that makes me think a little bit more. I don’t have to like it though!


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