Buy Less and Spend More: Are You Willing to Give Up Cheap Stuff for a Better World?

Do you really need another pair of jeans?. (Photo: Robie Online/Shutterstock)

I grew differently from many of my peers, but one thing my grandmother, who raised me, agreed on with the rest of America was the importance of finding a bargain. Whether looking for clothing, bath towels, a new refrigerator, or shoes for my grandpa, my grandma was a tough negotiator on price, and she often got the deal she wanted. Travel was high on her list of priorities, so she would relish the chance to save on groceries (thankfully we also had a huge garden, local meat and eggs, so food quality was still high), socks and school supplies so we could visit the Panama Canal or see family in Australia.

And for many Americans, especially these days, finding a bargain is still a priority. Cheaper is better and anyone paying full price is a fool. But after cleaning out my own basement recently, not long after catching a couple episodes of the TV show "Hoarders," followed by the latest story documenting how poorly the people who make our cheap holiday stuff, and I had to ask myself, “At what price cheap?”

There's no denying that retailers mark things up 100 percent or more (while they need to pay their rents and pay employees, it does seem that some markups are over the top). But to keep prices low for consumers, and be able to cover their own expenses, stores look to cut costs in other ways. Too often that is by paying the people who are involved in production less and less, or making them work more hours for the same pay. There are continual, and often egregious issues with production of clothing, electronics, shoes, and plenty of other consumer products.

So what if we chose to pay what things would cost if the people who make our stuff were compensated fairly, given healthcare and treated with a basic level of fairness that we have long-ago legislated here in the United States? Some estimates show that this would add about a dollar to a pair of jeans, less to items that are less labor-intensive and more for those things (like electronics assembly) that require more labor time to create or assemble.

Currently, Americans are saving money via what would be considered labor abuse here, which amounts to taking advantage of the poverty of people who have much less than we do. Model and activist Lily Cole has been exploring this issue, and says,

" of my biggest concerns is just how cheap we expect everything to be," Lily tells The Guardian. "How can it be possible, she asks, for a Tshirt to sell for £1 or £2 ($1.35-$2.70), when you consider all the people involved in its production, from the cotton growers all the way through to the shipping workers? And why should we buy 20, and pay them next to nothing, when we could buy one or two and pay everyone along the line fairly?"

Can we solve the problem of worker abuse in other countries by paying a bit more here? Would you be willing to? If not, why? Is there another solution?