Reading The Price of a Bargain took me back to when I was a kid gathering up my 10-cents-a-week allowance to buy Christmas presents for my family. What I didn't score from the church white elephant sale I could usually find on the bargain counter at Woolworth's. I can remember that counter, with its rhinestone broaches, tie pins, ladies' scarves and garish made-in-China cream jugs, because shopping in a store like that was such a rarity.
Bestselling author Gordon Laird has chosen well to focus on the bargain end of retailing, because so much has changed in 50 years, even in the past decade. Bargain shopping has become an industrial category in its own right, posting productivity gains (in product movement) that have outstripped those in high technology. That's why Wal-Mart could boast (in 2006) that it was saving U.S. families $2,500 a year each, through cheap food, clothing, footwear, gadgets and toys. They're sourced from around the world, principally from China, and channelled into stores through a shipping and logistics system so tight that many suppliers get paid only when consumers have purchased the product, and store temperatures are all controlled from one head office.
In a masterful blend of facts and metaphors, Laird tells a story of bargain retailing that is interesting in its own right: its history from the first mall, "a pleasure palace with parking," to no-frills box stores and the 200,000-plus dollar stores popping up everywhere in recent years; the massive scale of shipping today, with one container ship likened, in Laird's evocative prose, to "a motorized island," and total investment in global transport and logistics approaching 14 per cent of the world economy.
There's also the story of accelerating product turnover (and obsolescence) suggested in the fact that of 650,000 products studied in 2003, 80 per cent had not existed in 1994 and, of these, the majority were, by then, selling at the deepest discount possible.
More compelling still is the story of how deep-discount retailing has mitigated the burden of de-industrialization as manufacturing shifted offshore and 3.1 million Americans adjusted to "involuntary" part-time employment. A revolution of falling expectations was forestalled in what appeared to be a continuing rise in consumer buying power as people flocked to Wal-Mart and, more recently, dollar stores, in search of bargains.
Laird lays bare the cost of those bargains in compelling detail, including 17 million lead-contaminated retail products recalled in 2007 alone, and the dangerous, feudal conditions under which Chinese "migrant" workers (who have left rural homes for jobs in the cities, but without permits to do so) work. Lacking health care and often even housing, they make up 68 per cent of factory workers, 70 per cent of construction workers and 80 per cent of coal miners. Despite pitiful wages and corrupt bosses, they regularly send money home to nearly starving families in the countryside to thus help float China's post-Tiananmen Square policy of economic growth and rising expectations for all.
There's also the environmental cost, everywhere from China, where toxic air rains "vinegar" onto Chinese rice fields and pollution-triggered "public disturbances" and riots break out weekly; across the open seas where 47,000 container ships leave dirty bunker-fuel trails in their wakes (in the Great Lakes as well); to cities like Los Angeles, where 8.4 million container units flow outward from the port through residential communities like Wilmington at a rate of 590 container trucks an hour, incubating what one local doctor described as "a diesel death zone."
Read an excerpt from the book
Meanwhile, farther north, the Alberta oil sands produces 1.8 billion litres of toxic waste per day as 87 major extraction operations, representing all the world's major energy companies (and 59 uranium companies), work to secure new energy for the production-consumption complex.
Shocking though these are, the price that has come most dramatically home to roost has been the price of over-extended credit, the collapse of which in 2008 not only eliminated $11.1-trillion in U.S. household wealth but also closed 63,000 factories in China, putting 20 million Chinese out of work.
The end of globalization, you ask? On top of evidence linking an over-extended global economy to possibly catastrophic climate change, in addition to the rising costs of globalization's most critical inputs - energy for the machines and food for the workers - some see the credit crisis as a final blow bringing globalization to a righteous end.
If you think so, think again. Laird has sifted the evidence well, and the scenario he depicts is this: Wal-Mart will enlarge on the 100 stores it already has in China as the government, noting that domestic consumption (at 37 per cent of gross national product) outpaced exports (at 21 per cent) in 2007, moves to raise minimum wages and ameliorate environmental and working conditions in a bid to sustain its growth through local market demand.
It doesn't herald the death of globalization as much as a repositioning, focused increasingly on the developing world. It leaves the challenges of resource depletion and climate change unmet, and adds the urgent challenge of deepening inequalities in the developed world being felt that much more acutely as bargains, and the distraction of bargain shopping, disappear.
A few images linger from this important and timely book, beginning on page one: stampeding shoppers at the opening of a Long Island Wal-Mart in 2008 who trampled a security guard trying to protect a young woman who had fallen, and who continued shopping even after an announcement that he had died.
There's also the image of that 1,000-foot-long ("motorized island") container ship "eclipsing the horizon" as it slips into dock, and the aerial image of Fort McMurray with all that development (Laird calls energy "the arms race of the 21st century") leaking its poisons across "the Amazon of the north," where the Dogrib and other aboriginal peoples think they have a right to live and raise healthy kids.
Yet the image that most haunts me is Laird spotting the severed hand from a Golden Buddha statue lying on a cheap roadside tourist-souvenir stand, "frozen in the flat-palmed gesture of generosity." An ancient sign and symbol of loving kindness cut off from the body of an engaged global citizen that would apply such virtues in today's world.
The ship of fools, with all our compulsive habits and entrenched vested interests, has left port once again.
Heather Menzies is a Value Village junkie. Her latest book is Enter Mourning: A Memoir on Death, Dementia and Coming Home.