By Donella Meadows
–November 18, 1993–
The good citizens of Greenfield, Massachusetts, recently voted down a zoning change that would have brought a Wal-Mart to their town. For that act of commercial backwardness they were scolded in Newsweek magazine. Two intrepid Newsweek reporters went shopping in downtown Greenfield and reported “high prices, little service, and less charm than one might have expected.” After noting that Greenfield is already surrounded by discount stores, and that the downtown stores lack “shopping excitement,” the reporters came to their main point and Wal-Mart’s main claim to fame — prices.
A tube of toothpaste that costs $2.29 in downtown Greenfield can be bought for $1.23 at Wal-Mart. Two flashlight batteries sell for $2.69 downtown and $1.87 at Wal-Mart. A roll of 24-exposure color film: $6.28 downtown, $3.97 at Wal-Mart. A kid’s video: $24.95 downtown, $19.76 at Wal-Mart.
Those foolish people of Greenfield!
So the article expects us to conclude. So I would conclude, if I bought lots of film or videos. And so we flock to discount stores like Wal-Mart, revelling not only in what we buy, but in that smug feeling of having bought at a bargain price.
The problem is, the bargain price isn’t all we pay.
We pay for getting there, for example. Say it’s a 20-mile round trip (that’s how far I would have drive to get to the nearest Wal-Mart). At 25 cents a mile, the drive would cost me $5 a shopping spree.
Right, I could save that much on two rolls of film. But there’s the cost of the air pollution my car spills out with every mile. There’s the balance-of-payments deficit our country runs because we import half our oil. There’s the defense of the Middle East, which we pay for in taxes. There’s the vast asphalt parking lot, which prevents rain from soaking into groundwater and turns it into sheets of oily, polluted runoff.
Those are real costs. We pay them through taxes and through the degradation of our health and our environment. If they were included in the price of gas, each trip to the mall would go up at least fourfold. Wal-Mart prices would go up too, because of the fuel for the giant supply trucks that roll in there every night.
Then there’s the cost of time. The growth of our local discount-store mall has put five new traffic lights in the path between my home and my work. I figure the snarls there cost me 15 minutes per commuting day, even if I don’t shop there. Billed at $20 per hour, that’s $1250 a year.
The cost I feel most, as the chain stores duke it out with each other on the edge of town, is the loss of the little shops within walking distance of work and home, where the owners are my neighbors, and where the clerks know what they’re selling. Not much “shopping excitement” there, but more sensible shopping.
The other day, for example, I ventured into a discount store and contemplated a wall of toaster ovens, every kind made in the world, I suppose, most of them on sale. I looked around for a clerk, finally found one about three miles away over in the microwave division, and dragged her to the toaster ovens. “Which one is most energy efficient?” I asked. I got a blank look. “Why does that one cost $20 more than this one?” No idea. “Which one is least likely to fall apart after a year?” Big shrug.
I pay less up front for products sold by clerks like that, but I pay more in electricity bills or repairing chintzy switches. So I’ll go to a local appliance store, where the choice is less, the price is higher, but they can give me the dope on toaster ovens and they know how to fix one if something goes wrong.
That local appliance store is not going to survive, if we only shop for the lowest price. Nor will the mom & pop store I can walk to from my house, or the co-op that buys from local farmers and bakers. Maybe it’s worth a dollar more per tube of toothpaste to have a hundred local store owners, taxpayers, advertisers, bank accounts, Rotary members, contributors to public radio and the Little League, rather than one mega-store that’s shaving every penny off the apparent price of things.
There are two ways to cut costs. You can reduce waste and inefficiency. That’s great. It’s what makes the market system go round. But you can also cut costs by putting them off onto someone or something else. You can build cheap, ugly buildings that no one wants to live near or look at. You can muscle down your suppliers’ prices, so they have to move production to poor communities and pay wages that won’t support a decent life. You can hire part-time workers with no benefits and give them no training. Our taxes or insurance fees will pay for their health care, and we can dig out our own information about toaster ovens, or buy bad ones. You can pressure towns for tax breaks and free roads and water lines and sewers. The other taxpayers will pick up the bill. You can pay only a fraction of the real costs of materials and energy. Nature will eat the damage.
This kind of cost-cutting not only imposes injustices on others, it also undermines the market economy. It distorts prices so consumers cannot make rational decisions. It rewards bigness and power, rather than real efficiency. It cuts the purchasing power of workers, who are the very consumers every cost-cutting business counts on to come in the front door and buy things. It consumes nature, the ultimate source of all wealth and health.
An old saying from the Persian bazaars goes: “You buy cheap, you buy junk.” You buy cheap, you destroy your community. You buy cheap, you bid down all wages, including your own. You buy too cheap too often, you turn your whole world into junk.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993