cheap_book_cover (by dmuren)
Salon has a great review of Ellen Ruppel Shell's new book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. The Salon piece, by Stephanie Zacharek, looks particularly at design giant IKEA, and the real costs of using low cost as the metric by which we judge all value in products. IKEA is a good case for exploration, because on the one hand it is so well loved (compared, say, to Walmart), while on the other, it is the largest consumer of timber for furniture in the world, much of it from China. And China has some timber sourcing practices that are dubious, to say the least.

I'm very excited to read the book, because it seems to finally acknowledge that problems like environmental degradation are only symptoms. What is really sick is some more fundamental aspect of our relationship to material goods. As Shell points out in the short promo video for the book, it wasn't so long ago that "cheap" meant something entirely different, both when describing a product, and its purchaser. Many of the goals of Humblefacture will require that products become more expensive than they are now. I don't believe (And I hope the book will help to bear me out) that this higher monetary price will mean that the value of the object won't be worth it. My hope is that for a small increase in monetary cost, we can significantly impact social, environmental, community, and many other costs which don't get figured into IKEA's big blue pricetags.

3 comments

Andrew Davidson said... @ July 15, 2009 at 7:13 AM

There is also a review in the NY Times of her book by Janet Maslin:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/06/books/06maslin.html

She is not so enamored of it, and the review pairs it with Chris (WIRED) Anderson's "Free."

Dominic Muren said... @ July 15, 2009 at 10:12 PM

It's interesting that so many people are making the connection between "Cheap" and "Free" -- In reality, the similarity of the titles is very superficial. One of the books (Cheap) is discussing the cultural and social consequences of the economic metric by which we measure products. She may also suggest an alternative decision framework which could have different consequences. The other book (Free) looks at the next logical step for our current economy, particularly our economy of ideas. Anderson is hardly arguing that IKEA will ever be free, or use free as a large part of it's business.

The two concepts can even co-exist. Indeed, Humblefacture advocates the freeing of the technical descriptions of products so that they can be built more locally, more carefully, and therefore, LESS cheaply, from an overall quality standpoint.

Andrew Davidson said... @ July 20, 2009 at 1:43 PM

In the Janet Maslin piece, I think she makes only a passing connection between the two books (neither of which, I must confess, I have actually read yet).

She mentions the fact that both authors cite an experiment by the behavioral economist Dan Ariely and offer different versions of it.

I did read Ariely's book ("Predictably Irrational") and I thought he did an excellent job of illuminating some very recognizable irrational behaviors that I know I have succumbed to more than once.

in any event, as I recall, Ariely did many variations on the "free" chocolate experiment. Maslin seemed to have more issues with the scholarship and presentation in both "Cheap" and "Free" than with their basic theses.

It seems to me that both topics are worthy of exposition and reflection.

Curiously, yesterday's NY Times Book Review has a much more glowing review of "Cheap" by Laura Shapiro:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/books/review/Shapiro-t.html

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