Contemplations on "expensive"

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Mass production has had some great benefits for society but combine it with cheap labour markets, a thirst for ever bigger profits and a constant desire to consume and we’ve ended up with ridiculously cheap products and a throw-away society. To keep costs low, cheap materials are used, the product breaks quicker and so needs replacing sooner so we purchase a replacement. It’s a vicious circle.

On a quick google search I can find a grey jumper from a high street brand costing £6. Let’s look at that and really think about it. The material the jumper is made of costs money, the person(s) who made it need to be paid, there will be factory costs that need paying, shipping costs if it’s made outside of the country where you live and the company will be making a profit on it, however small. At that point, are you asking yourself how it can still only cost £6? We could be very generous and assume that with a “pack them high and sell them cheap” approach to business all individuals involved from point of source (i.e. those involved in growing/making the raw material) to point of sale (the person on the checkout) are paid a fair wage and the company can still make it’s profit. This does mean though that companies would need to be selling vast quantities of something which begs the question: do we really need all of this stuff? Are these products adding a real benefit to our lives or are we just getting a dopamine hit from the shopping trip followed by a fairly swift donation to the landfill?

It was this thinking that made a real shift in my life: I didn’t want to participate in the throw-away, consumerist, fast retail culture. I like a shopping trip, I’m happy to purchase things but I want quality products that are made to last and I don’t want my every ounce of free time to be spent on purchasing stuff. Making this shift for wasn’t too big a leap for me (whilst I would use shopping at lunchtime as a way of cheering me up it would be small things here and there - I wasn’t the type to go and buy bags and bags of clothes every single weekend) and saying you’re going to make a change is easy, it’s putting it into practice that’s harder.

The real challenge for me was this: I came to the point where I needed to buy some new clothes and I looked at those brands that produce better quality products that should last a lot longer and I saw the price tag on these clothes and thought “ouch that’s expensive”. Let’s take a grey jumper: the one I saw was approximately £90. I found myself comparing prices: a jumper for £6 or one for £90: that’s a huge difference. Even if I steered clear of the £6 jumper, maybe I could go for one around the £30 mark from another big high street brand instead. Obviously the £6 or even the £30 jumper in terms of my bank balance was far more appealing. The £90 jumper just seemed so pricey - could I really justify spending £90 on one piece of clothing? If I stuck to my usual high street brands I could buy a couple of pieces of clothes for that. That’s when I really got it: my perspective on cost had been fundamentally shifted by constant exposure to cheap products. It’s not that the £90 jumper is expensive, it’s that the £6 jumper or even the £30 jumper is too cheap.

So I took a hard look at what I meant by “expensive”. If £90 reflects the costs of manufacture and supply, with fair wages paid to all employees involved and a reasonable profit margin for the company (yes I still think companies should be able to make a profit on their products and I think ethical capitalism can exist) (and let’s make that assumption and put some faith in good people that run ethical and responsible companies) then it’s not expensive. The £90 simply reflects the cost of the product.

So perhaps “expensive” means something else:

1) the cost is more than I can afford right now. I don’t advocate debt (apart from things like mortgages where you can afford the repayments) or living outside of one’s budget. Debt just seems to cause problems and it’s not worth it. If I want something that I can’t afford immediately then I save up for it. If it’s worth waiting and saving for then you also know the product is going to add something positive to your life.

2) I’m not willing to pay that much for the product. Here’s the rub: what are you willing to pay? We all have our thresholds and they’re for us to decide. For me, I decided that if the only way that I could have better quality products and buy from responsible companies was to pay more then that’s what I was willing to do. I might not be able to buy as much as before and I might need to save up for things but for me that’s ok: I don’t actually want to buy more than I really need anyway. This doesn’t just apply to clothes, it applies to everything that I look to buy.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this: had you decided to shop differently? What does “expensive” mean to you?

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