Opinion

Thank goodness for cheap stuff, eh?

by | 3 Jun 2024

We are an era which has accepted declining wages in return for the promise of cheap products - but we have lost sight of just how much this is costing us.

First published by Common Weal

Last week there was a comment under my newsletter article which suggested that I hadn’t sufficiently recognised or reflected on the fact that globalised neoliberal capitalism has made products much cheaper for consumers. Let me put that right now.

Compared to my childhood the range and price of things in the shops is virtually unrecognisable. You can easily buy six pairs of black socks for £3. A quick glance at the Poundland website shows that I could get ten packs each with sixty pastel coloured plastic pompoms for £10 or one of a selection of ‘animal water pump action toys’ for £1.50 each.

Food too has come down in price in remarkable ways – Asda will sell you 320g of chicken nuggets for £1.10. That would have been unheard of in my childhood. Outsourcing of labour to parts of the world with either low or even sometimes forced labour, industrialising manufacturing processes and changing the composition of products has slashed prices across the board.

I acknowledge this. Some of it is capitalism, some of it is particularly globalisation, some of it is purely technological advances fuelled by publicly-funded science and engineering research. But it is real. Acknowledged. Now let’s see what it has cost you.

Let’s start with your health. To keep the food inexpensive it needs to be produced where labour is cheap and transported to where wages are (comparatively) high. This means it needs to be very heavily processed to have maximum shelf life. And since this is lightly-regulated capitalism, it also needs to compete with others, so you need to want to buy more of it. It must be habit-forming.

Which means its got a selection of those magic words in the ingredients which tells you it’s going to harm your health – stabiliser, emulsifier, preservative, extract and so on. The best science just now says this is why this generation will die younger than their parents. It is certainly the primary driver behind the obesity-driven pressures on the NHS.

So, when you’re sitting in the emergency room for eight hours or are six months on a waiting list for basic treatment, say ‘thanks, cheap chicken nuggets!”.

Your children will be born with fragments of plastic in their brains, their bloodstream, their stomachs. If they go to the north pole they’ll find plastic pollution. If they go to the deepest part of the ocean they’ll find it. Wildlife is dying all over the planet due to plastic pollution. This is another big shout-out to cheap stuff. Thanks guys! My kids weren’t really using their lungs anyway.

Of course, with goods this cheap they all become disposable

Where’s your house? Is it anywhere near a low-lying coast? Well your house may soon be worthless. And no, of course rising seas aren’t happening because you bought cheap socks. Nope, the seas are rising because everyone bought cheap socks. So OK, there is a fair chance that the cost you’ve lost in property is not made up by your lifetimes savings in socks and chicken nuggets and plastic pompoms, but one thing at a time…

Phew, you’re thinking, my house isn’t by the coast. It’s just the retrofitting for heat pumps and insulation and draft-proofing that you need to worry about. It’s certainly a bit of a bill, but it won’t come to all that much, will it? OK, Common Weal did count it up and depending on what you include it would be between £30,000 and £100,000 per household. 

But that’s not down to the socks, you say, because it can’t be. Look at the numbers – most greenhouse gasses comes from transport, generating electricity, land and agriculture with only a quarter coming from industry. That’s not too bad is it?

Except what do you think they’re transporting exactly? People going on their holidays? Why do you think land and agriculture is causing these problems when they used to absorb greenhouse gasses? Could it be anything to do with the mega-dumps belching out methane in which we store the seven packs of pastel coloured plastic pompoms you didn’t really need? For eternity? Or the stripping of enormous areas of trees and vegitation to grow massive soya monocrops as ballast for cheap nuggets?

The quarter that comes from industry is only industries burning fossil fuels at their plant, for example to make steel. If you’re not burning your own fossil fuels, you’re just using bog standard electricity. In industrial quantities, naturally. Industry is the biggest user of electricity. Someone needs to melt the plastic that goes into those socks. Someone needs to clear land for more cotton too.

Of course, with goods this cheap they all become disposable. Those old expensive socks which lasted you years? Who wants those when you could instead have brand new crap quality socks every six months. After all, they’re only £3. You’d be mad to buy a pack of socks at £15 that last you five years when instead you could buy six packs at £3. And just to prove it let me get my calculator out and show you…

If the impact of Scotland’s oil extraction on the planet would cost £2.5 billion a year to fix before we even consider what we do on-land, it would be pretty shameful wouldn’t it, considering we’re currently contributing £2 million to global loss and damage mitigation

But at least all this cheap produce makes up for the fact that you have seen your wages stagnate for nearly 30 years now. You keep working longer hours and getting paid less for it. Thank goodness for £1.10 chicken nuggets. They definitely have nothing to do with my wage problems.

You’re not a chicken farmer after all. If you were a chicken farmer and everyone was buying industrially-produced nuggets from Poland you’d be losing your business just now. Phew again. Nor are you a chicken feed salesman and nor do you manufacture the lights which keep the chickens warm. Thankfully you’re an accountant specialising in medium-sized businesses which manufacture things in Britain. Actually, come to think of it, business has been quite quiet.

Thankfully someone will do something about all of this. The government is going to mitigate climate change, for example with a seawall to protect the industrial developments at Grangemouth. That is only projected to cost £500m and obviously there is no chance that is an underestimate for an experimental sea wall.

The doctors are all hard at it solving the obesity epidemic, someone will clean up plastic pollution at some point probably, at a future date someone else will deal with all the mega rubbish dumps, someone will install air conditioning as the temperature rises, there are public grants which will help pay for my new heat pump and hopefully they’ll still be there in 15 years when I need to replace it.

So everything is fine and I don’t need to worry because this is all just going to be paid for by tax. At some point. Although as I stop to dwell on it, we’re paying the highest proportion of national wealth in tax since the Second World War and services are actually all getting worse. Could any of this be because of cheap consumption?

Hopefully someone has calculated how much this all costs. Ah, here we go, here’s a report which says the cost of cleaning up the impacts of a single barrel of oil that everyone has been working from is probably wrong. That’s a relief! Except it says it’s actually six times higher, or effectively 450 US dollars, or about £350 per barrel.

If we multiply that by the number of barrels of oil Scotland produces each year it definitely won’t be about £262,094,000, or specifically more than £2.5 billion. Because if the impact of Scotland on the planet would cost £2.5 billion a year before we even consider what we do on-land, and we ignore health and farming and plastic and methane and loads of other things, it would be pretty shameful wouldn’t it, considering we’re currently contributing £2 million to global loss and damage mitigation.

No-siree – I don’t want good socks, edible food, the ability to see a doctor, air to breath, plastic-free lungs, a future for my children, a planet we can survive on, a decent salary or a house I can live in reliably for the rest of my life.

I really, really, really want those pastel coloured plastic pompoms. They look funny. And they’re only £1 for 60. What’s not to like?

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