July 16, 2009

The triumph of cheap junk

Whether it's food or clothing or electronics, most Americans are being conditioned by advertising to value, well, value. Quality? Not so much.

Unless you''re part of the upper-income "luxury goods" demographic (I'm not), as an American you are bombarded with messages that low price is the ideal. Wal-Mart, one of the nation's most successful retailers, boasts in its slogan: "Save money. Live better." Fast food outlets tout their "value meals."

It was this way even before the recession: Retailers targeting the middle class talked less about quality than quantity. The message has long been "get more stuff for less," not "spend a little more to get something a lot better."

Finally, some are starting to question this meme. The documentary Food Inc spotlights the crappy junk being passed off as food in this country;  the book In Defense of Food laments corporate-created food-like substances that have replaced wholesome, tasty, healthy food in our supermarkets.

And it's the message of  Cheap: The High Cost of discount Culture, which Yvonne Abraham highlighted in the Globe yesterday. In a visit to Target with the book's author, Ellen Ruppel Shell, Abraham notices that some of the best "bargains" are actually shoddy merchandise. It dawns on her that all the signs promoting products brag about low prices. None of the signs mentioned the quality of products; "they barely mentioned the products, period."

Now let's be clear here: I'm not advocating spending ridiculous sums for the latest hot fad, or spending extra money for something that doesn't offer anything extra but a "name." My complaint is that too many of our cultural cues no longer value well-crafted, well-made products that also actually do offer value, if you consider the enjoyment they bring and how long they'll last.

I'm not going to give up all low-cost bargain merchandise. But I think the balance between cheap and quality has gotten a bit out of whack in our pop culture.

If you want to add a few trendy things to your wardrobe that are likely to go out of style soon, low-cost won't-last-forever make sense. Ditto for clothing for kids who grow quickly. Few of us can afford high prices for everything.

But I want to stop following the siren song of manufacturers and retailers enticing us to make impulse purchases of cheap goods that we may or may not actually need. We're much less likely to impulse buy a high quality item with a heftier pricetag.

Visit a place like Italy or France, where citizens still care deeply about quality of food and clothing, and you begin to understand what we've sacrificed in the pursuit of more for less. Simple meals in Italy are often fabulous, not only due to skills of the chef, but also the quality of ingredients -- locally grown and harvested to maximize flavor, not engineered and mass-produced for maximum longevity and minimum cost. I've heard some people complain about prices at local farmers markets, not understanding that it costs more to grow a tomato for flavor than for shelf life.

"Compared to the 9.9 percent of their income Americans spend on food, the Italians spend 14.9 percent, the French 14.9 percent, and the Spanish 17.1 percent," notes In Defense of Food author Michael Pollan. As a result, Pollan argues, people in those societies not only eat better than we do; they're healthier. Pollan readily admits that not everyone has the luxury to spend more on quality food, but argues that some who could spend more for nutritious food do not. He thinks that's a mistake, and here's why. Which does it make sense to spend more on: enjoyable, high-quality, high-flavor food or medical expenses to treat the diseases that come from a fast-food, sugar/corn syrup/salt-laden, nutrient-poor Western diet?

1 comment:

  1. Hallelujah Sharon!

    I've been preaching this sermon for years. The high cost of low prices is hurting us as a nation in so many ways. People point to Wal-Mart, rightly so, as a classic example, but Ikea is another culprit. A lot of their stuff is disposable junk, but hey, it's cheap, use it for a year or two and throw it out! Our grandparents bought furniture to last a lifetime, and in many cases to be passed down to the NEXT generation. I doubt you'll see any Ikea family heirlooms 50 years from now.

    I'm a big believer in buying old stuff at yard sales and flea markets - for pennies, often better than the new stuff in stores, especially furniture. Keep as much out of the landfills as possible. Also, when you don't want something, give it away on freecycle.org rather than dumping it in the trash, if it's something someone can use.

    Anyone interested in quality food and dining experiences should check out the Slow Food movement - it started in Europe but is also now in the US. Quality over quantity, relaxation and sharing over rush and isolation. Many Europeans are astounded by the portion sizes in the US. Having traveled to Italy many times (and shopped and cooked there) I know the difference in both restaurant and home cooking. And that's not necessarily haute cuisine that you pay a fortune for, but how everyday people eat.

    I could go on and on...