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Ellen Ruppel Shell

The High Cost of Discount Culture

(7 ratings)
15 mins
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    The economy has completely changed over the last two centuries.

    Two centuries ago, if you wanted to buy a dress you wouldn’t go to an urban superstore, but instead head to the nearest seamstress and have it made. If you wanted some milk, you’d go to the local farm, not the shop on the corner.

    Needless to say, everything about the way we shop has changed since then. Why?

    Well, it began with the invention of mass-production.

    Mass-production was first developed to manufacture weapons. Before the Industrial Revolution, guns were time-consuming to produce: A gunsmith had to manufacture each individual piece, and the finished product was always prone to misfiring.

    Simeon North, an American entrepreneur, was the first to come up with a way to mass-produce high-quality guns. He split up the production process by having several semi-skilled workers make the different interchangeable parts, rather than having one man make the entire gun. This increased the quality of the guns, and made them much faster to produce.

    This new style of manufacturing and the development of factories led to many other changes in society. More and more people left their villages and migrated to cities, where there were more work opportunities in mass-production. This urbanization, in turn, further accelerated the development of that mass-production.

    In traditional villages people knew the members of their communities, so they knew who made or produced what they were buying. In cities, however, residents needed a constant supply of cheap goods, like food or clothes – and there wasn’t a local farm where they could buy their milk.

    The economy had to change as drastically as production and society itself to accommodate these swift developments.

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    What is Cheap about?

    Cheap is an investigation of the prices we truly pay for low cost items. It outlines the history of America’s obsession with finding bargains and cheap goods. Cheap also explains how humans are irrational, and how companies manipulate us into buying things we don’t need or even want. Our thirst for cheap products is hurting the entire globe; we need to educate ourselves, stand up and do something about it.

    Best quote from Cheap

    Price in and of itself has no meaning at all.

    —Ellen Ruppel Shell
    example alt text

    Who should read Cheap?

    • Anyone interested in the psychology behind bargain hunting
    • Anyone interested in consumerism
    • Anyone who wants to be a more mindful shopper

    About the Author

    Ellen Ruppel Shell is a journalist and a professor of science journalism at Boston University. She’s a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, and has written two other successful books: The Hungry Gene: the Science of Fat and the Future of Thin and A Child’s Place: A Year in the Life of a Day Care Center.

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