The Price of Cheap

The Environmental Costs of Our Disposable, Discount Ways

In light of the recession, many Americans are cutting back on luxury items and stocking up on cheap goods. Sounds like a good idea, right? Not necessarily. Those cheap items come with steep environmental costs, according to Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (Penguin Press). She argues in her book that our constant quest for the best deals on food, clothes and other consumer goods is contributing to a number of social and environmental ills that are inherently unsustainable.

© Elizabeth Prager

For example, consumers often end up trading quality for cost when looking for the lowest priced item, which means that many so-called great deals have very short life spans. Some retailers have even begun marketing flimsy items as a cool way for people to avoid getting tied down to all their stuff.

"Retailers like IKEA try to appeal to the younger consumer and make the notion of durability a joke," says Shell. "They’re definitely playing into a youthful kind of mindset that wants to be unencumbered. Young people want to be free, but they’re not free because when they move to another place they have to stand in line at IKEA and buy more things."

And the environmental costs of fragile consumer products are enormous, resulting in everything from overflowing landfills to deforestation. Shell writes that the timber used in wood products sold by big-name retail chains often comes from Eastern Europe and the Russian Far East, where "wages are low, large wooded regions remote, and according to the World Bank, half of all logging is illegal."

Though much attention has been given to vehicles and industry for their global warming emissions, deforestation is another big culprit, accounting for approximately one-quarter of all carbon emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The Uncounted Costs

This mindset of disposability is not only detrimental to the environment, it also ends up costing the consumer more in the end when they have to continue replacing their not-so-durable items. In addition, cheap goods are often only cheaply priced because so many of the costs that go into making the product, like labor and transportation, are externalized.

"Our economic system is set up to bury the real impact of our disposable-oriented society, such as the economic and environmental costs of pesticides as well as the cost of transporting goods over vast distances," says Shel Horowitz, author of the electronic book, Painless Green: 111 Tips to Help the Environment, Lower Your Carbon Footprint, Cut Your Budget, and Improve Your Quality of Life—With No Negative Impact on Your Lifestyle.

"The cost, for instance, of road maintenance for those heavy trucks [that haul our cheap goods] is born by gasoline taxes on our use of the road," adds Horowitz.

America’s obsession with cheap also contributes to lax food safety and environmental controls. A recent New York Times article profiled a 22-year-old woman who was paralyzed after eating ground beef laced with E. coli, highlighting the meat industry’s tendency to forgo food safety measures in order to keep costs down.

"It’s actually the lowest common denominator that we are being sold," Shell says.

Buyer Beware

Shell and others believe that consumers need to educate themselves on the products they buy. And, eco-minded consumers need to be especially wary of greenwashing—where companies disingenuously make their products look like they are environmentally friendly.

Shoppers can consult websites like GoodGuide, an independent group of researchers who rate products like baby food, beef, shampoo and toys, based on their environmental, social and health performance. Users can even access GoodGuide’s ratings remotely by sending a text message to the company. Consumers can also form co-ops that support organic and local growers. Some have even started "cowpooling"—buying meat from a whole cow as a group to lower the cost of grass-fed beef and ensure quality. The early environmental movement emphasized frugality, which is truly the most environmental action of all.

JESSICA A. KNOBLAUCH is a freelance journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area.