by Larry Bowen
I've been reading the book Cheap, the High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell. It's a fascinating look at the psychology involved in why we buy the things we buy. As consumers, we've shown that we prefer low price over quality, to a point, most of the time. The discount chains have spent millions of dollars trying to understand and market to this phenomenon. I'd like to share two paragraphs from the chapter "Death of a Craftsman" that I thought were incredibly poignant especially now that "Green" is such a buzz word. Again, they're marketing to what we're passionate about whether it's low price, good value or saving the struggling environment, but...
"IKEA is the third largest consumer of wood in the world, just a step or two behind discounters Home Depot and Lowe's, and just a step or two ahead of Wal-Mart. The timber used in the wood products sold by these chains comes mostly 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. Forests in this region are on the decline, especially forests of high-demand varieties such as oak, ash, birch, and Korean pine. In pursuit of these and other valuable species, illegal loggers cut in restricted riverbanks, fish-spawning sites, and other conservation areas, and they bribe officials in exchange for documentation that the timber they poached was acquired legally. In 2007, the Washington Post published a penetrating and exhaustive investigation of illicit forestry practices that focused on Vostok, Russia, where villagers earned roughly a hundred dollars a month felling trees and hauling logs. The Russian logs were milled into planks by low-wage Chinese workers and shipped to border towns in low-wage China. More wood, much of it illegally harvested, poured into China every day from timber depots in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Mekong Delta, central Africa, and the Amazon. Most of this wood goes to make cheap tables, chairs, bookcases, and other wood products sold by discounters, especially in the United States.
Wood is in theory a renewable resource, but environmentalists warn that the demand for cheap Chinese-made furniture-half of all timber in the world is traded there-has stoked a "cut and consume" cycle that is destroying the world's forests at a rate unprecedented in human history. This harvest is not sustainable, and what is being taken-and what is being lost in the largest sense-is not renewable. Illegal logging operations generally locate in remote areas that are difficult to oversee, including wildlife habitats and conservation land. Over the long haul, deforestation contributes mightily to climate change, accounting for over 18 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions-more than the entire global transport system or the whole of the industrial manufacturing sectors. Despite knowing this, few players on the global scene, be they factory owners, wholesalers, retailers, or customers, are motivated to question seriously the provenance of their wood products. Questions would only raise the price."
In my opinion, it's no wonder we've lost most of our manufacturing jobs in the United States. With the disregard for the environment and regulation and their only motivator being money, our competitors overseas will beat us every time. We have OSHA, the EPA, the DNR, Federal and State regulations and a host of other overseers making sure our products are safely made and friendly to the environment. Don't get me wrong, I think that's a good thing. But you'd have to be a fool not to see that we will never be able to compete as a nation without a level playing field. The only way we will ever get some of our jobs back in this country is to make our wishes known with our pocket books and I don't think as consumers we're willing to do that. We will usually choose price over other considerations every time. This book points that out and backs it up with page after page of statistics and studies. If I can get past the gloomy prospects of our future as a country and world, I'm enjoying the information presented by the author.