Cheap: The real cost of the global trend for bargains, discounts and consumer choice

02 November 2006


Kogan Page 14.99 (0-7494-4534-3); Church Times Bookshop 13.5

Cheap and nasty: John Gladwin on the downside of a bargain

WHEN I started to read this book, I thought it was a rather superficial anone-dimensional view of the changing face of retailing. The more I read, thmore I became convinced that David Bosshart has issued a profound moral anspiritual challenge to us - especially those of us in the developed world.

In one sense, the thesis is simple: "The most popular and prominent thing ia mature, fully developed market economy is price." This is consumer democracgoing hand in hand with globalisation, internet communication, and thremorseless trend towards choice and individualism. As Bosshart puts it, in thage of the cheap, even the poor can afford salmon and champagne.

Price is all. For us, the classic contemporary example is in the world otravel. Fly from Stansted for 5. That leads into the rest of his theme - thconsequences of this pressure for the cheap way. In the case of air travel, iconcerns the damage to the environment. We recognise the damage, but we stilclimb on the plane.

The book examines a number of companies that illustrate the trend: AldiSouth West Airlines, McDonald's, and, above all, Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart dominatethis book, since the author believes its growth and power are reshaping ouculture. He is concerned about its size and power, its strategy, and thconsequences of what it is doing.

Wal-Mart is not a retailer, but a distributor. It seeks to move goods in matter of hours from the producer to the boot of the purchaser's car. It doeso on a massive scale, and is prepared to move anything that it can convincpeople they need.

Outcomes of this include low wages (it pays $8.50 per hour for its labour)dominance over its suppliers, who have to produce at the price demanded; ancontrol over what sort of books and music will succeed in the market.

So Wal-Mart is reshaping the consumer economy, influencing culture, ancontrolling other large companies in the corporate sector. When you think thaTesco is small in comparison, you know that the issues raised are serious fous all.

The moral and spiritual agenda implied in this involves deciding what thingand people we value. Is all to be sacrificed on the altar of what is cheapThose struggling for fair and just trade in a world dominated not by Wal-Marbut by poverty must be aware that companies such as this will seek to take oveeven the Fairtrade label if it proves popular and profitable.

David Bosshart has written a starkly challenging book. It deserves to bheeded, and its challenge met.

The Rt Revd John Gladwin is Bishop of Chelmsford.

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