The High Price of A Discount Culture

Wal-Mart has been in the news a lot recently. No, I don’t mean all those grand sales and bargains. Over Thanksgiving weekend, workers at one thousand stores were on strike, protesting deplorable conditions and wages so low, the company trains its personnel how to apply for Public Assistance. Despite all the action and calls for solidarity, shoppers could not keep themselves away but came in like tsunamis to rake in all those lovely discounts.

Then on Saturday, a gruesome tragedy occurred in Bangladesh, with a fire killing 124 workers at a factory that produced garments for, guess who, Wal-Mart, among others. The mostly young women worked in deplorable conditions for 21 cents an hour. Meanwhile, Stateside, our annual yuletide shop-til-you-drop bacchanal is just getting into gear. “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Does a house have to fall on us? I suppose that’s coming next. Are you getting the impression that people just don’t listen? Is it all part of the same systemic illness: people with middle and low incomes, continuing to lose economic ground because of corporate greed, and being forced to shop at discount chains where greed is enshrined and workers are paid a non-living wage? Sounds cannibalistic. Or is it just our consuming culture—as Shakespeare would say, “Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme”—that we would step over the bodies of our fellow human beings, or if necessary trample them, to snatch that bargain?

Whichever the case, it’s important that we see that no matter at whom we point the finger—Wal-Mart CEOs or their suppliers—we the consumer are the ones who drive this economy. Management may set the policy, but we give it legitimacy with our dollars. We may not create the beast, but we feed it, else it would starve.

If you listen to corporate media, you would think those women who burned to death beyond recognition were grateful to have a low-paying job. (I have to laugh with disbelief. It reminds me of the disgusting arguments 18th and 19th-century slavery proponents gave for the economic benefits of the slave trade.) Perhaps the workers were grateful to have any income at all, but I doubt they were grateful for the dangerous work conditions, for being treated with so little respect. I’m sorry, I don’t buy the line that my buying these products grows the economy in the world’s poorest nations. Not when Wal-Mart’s CEO makes more in one hour than the average worker in a whole year.

My household is committed to a Buy Nothing Christmas this year. (No, it’s not a Bolshevik plot. The idea comes from some cool Canadian Mennonites.) Not only will we not shop at places like Wal-Mart. We intend not to buy anything at all, if we can help it. Of course, we will give gifts, but they will be things we make, bake, giving of ourselves. The point is not just to save money or ruin Christmas, but to reorient our lives around the true meaning of the holiday and to stop feeding a consumer-driven economy that exalts greed, increases economic disparity, and trashes the planet. So if you are concerned about issues like injustice, globalization and climate change, check it out:


1 Comment

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One response to “The High Price of A Discount Culture

  1. On point as always, Steve. BTW, we’ll never give up our toys. They OWN us! Sadly the Walmarts of the world know it.

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