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Don’t be cheap, be smart

November 16, 2009

Being cheap hurts. It hurts the earth, it hurts people, it hurts the economy, and it hurts you too. Ever think of the things you  buy just because they are cheap, some of them you don’t even need?

Cheap products are usually a bad decision. To keep their products cheap, companies break environment guidelines, bribe officials to pass cheap unsafe materials, hire non-qualified people, exploit workers, use child labour or use hazardous materials in the product or in the packaging.  These products not only harm consumers, they harm the image of one’s country as well, and this impacts its economy.

Those who cannot afford to buy a good quality product can ask themselves: Do I really need that cheap product? And if I consume it will it harm me? Will it harm the earth?

When it comes to abnoxious plastic, sure, it’s a valuable material of great use to mankind (duh) but the truth is that humans have got carried away with their love for plastic. Everything is plasticky nowadays. Even things that needn’t be. Take the bucket. I didn’t see anything  wrong with say that steel bucket or mug we used not so very long ago. It lasted forever, so it was value for money. Plastic bags have flourished because consumers are too lazy to take along cloth bags and in any case why should they make the effort when the manufacturer provides a cheap alternative?

I was angry with myself for buying a cheap bottle of phynyl. There was something wrong with it, because it was difficult to open. Once I managed to get the lid open, I found I couldn’t hold it without spilling it. Bad buy.

This Diwali, I was shocked to see the plastic kandeels (lanterns) and decorations in the market. Everywhere I went I saw shiny plastic paper used indiscriminately. All very cheap ofcourse. Wonder what happened to good old paper and cloth. Sure, paper depletes the environment, but at least it’s biodegradable.

And why have people started to use plastic visiting cards? How much money are they saving?

It’s irritating to see companies giving away plastic items for free with their slow moving consumer goods. Do they expect us make a garland out of the plastic items and hang them as decorations? I mean, how much plastic can we take?

Video piracy and book piracy hurts the authors. It flourishes because we want to buy cheap, even if it is illegal and unethical. We don’t want to think that it deprives the owners of income, although if the shoe was ever on the other foot we would make a fuss. The argument often put forward is that well, if it wasn’t for pirated books and CDs people wouldn’t be able to buy them. We know that this is false logic, because  people can always borrow. Ever wondered why (in India) we don’t have too many good libraries for books? Not even private ones? Well, who is going to go there when the majority of well-to-people buy pirated stuff off the streets? Yes, I have been guilty too, but I don’t do it now.

There’s cheap food, and I don’t mean just the food on the streets. Cheap food might even be fresh if you are lucky, especially if it is cooked in front of your eyes, but remember that the cheapest ingredients go into it. Bad oil, often re-used, use of unpermitted colours, or too much of permitted colour and flavour, too much sugar and cancer causing packaging. You get what you pay for. Cheap for cheap. Cancer treatment is expensive though.

You can always make  a healthy sandwich at home if you feel too lazy to cook.

Other food products, whether grains, masalas or packaged foods, can be harmful if you buy them cheap. Don’t think that that the tea powder which you can buy for half the price, or the aam ras (mango pulp) which is being sold for Rs 35/- a kg is actually what it says it is. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the affordable juice in cartons is actually fresh juice. Manufacturers add plenty of sugar and water to dilute and they make it from concentrate too. Real packaged juice costs much more. I prefer an orange.

Countries and economies suffer too for all of the above reasons, and more. At a broader level, you know what happened when companies started to offer cheap and easy loans. It didn’t just hurt people who took the loans, but also those who gave them. In India we didn’t get the brunt of it but we do have companies who send out goons to recover the loans they gave away so easily and so cheaply.

There’s cheap education. But good education does not come cheap. Ofcourse, the issue is a complex one and there is no one reason why our education policies need a re-think, and I have written about it here, here and here, but I do believe that the emphasis should be on quality, not quantity. True, it is not only money that influences quality, but being cheap can be harmful. Hiring teachers because they come cheap even if they are not qualified or capable, is just one example. Each teacher influences thousands of young impressionable minds, so just think of the harm that can be caused.

Ever had a bad experience yourself? Ever regretted buying cheap?

Any solutions?
While each one of us can do our bit and try and not be cheap, it’s worth checking out this one organisation which I stumbled across. It’s mobilising consumers in a novel way, although not in India. It’s a great movement called carrot mob:

Carrotmob is a method of consumer activism that leverages consumer power to make the most socially-responsible business practices also the most profitable choices. Businesses compete with one another to see who can do the most good, and then a big mob of consumers buys products in order to reward whichever business made the strongest commitment to improve the world. It’s the opposite of a boycott.

This is an idea that should catch on in India, considering that we are fans of  Gandhigiri. We can certainly do it because there are at least about 200 million of us who have sufficient money power to make a difference. If we come together we can make a difference to help the earth. And ourselves.

(Photos are by me an copywrited)

(Although I wrote this post, the idea came from Minal. She is a long time blog friend, who does not blog nowadays. Minal did the majority of the research for this article.)

Related Reading: Metals and Toxins in food packaging
One man’s necessity is another’s luxury
Those who dump construction debris should be jailed
What’s your society’s badge of honour?

32 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2009 11:44 am

    Exellent post, Nita, your awareness-builing posts are the best!

    In Austria and Germany people are very concern about all that but why? – because there is so much good propaganda done on these topics, and also many common people like bloggers and forum-readers/writes post lots of such information and ideas. And it works!

    But for India, I thik you will need much more effords, also because of the numbers of population…

    I wonder if you have seen my film review on PLASTIC PLANET

    Thanks Axinia. I agree that in India it will take a long time for this awareness to develop and I think it has something to do with Maslow’s need hierarchy. – Nita

    • Bombay wadapav eater permalink
      December 4, 2009 5:05 am

      True Axinia but still a lot more plastic is used here where it can be avoided. I buy most of my grocery from organic supermarkets here in Frankfurt. Milk and yogurt in glasses is becoming a rarity and is more expensive than the ones in tetrapacks. What about rice and cereals and grains? They are all packed in plastic, tea too. Altho’ Davert, Lebensbaum, Rapunzel etc. do so much of work with fair trade and projects all around teh world but still the stuff is sold in plastic instead of cloth. At least such things can be bought in cloth bags in India. Most people who come to the shop pack even bananas in a plastic bag which is unnecessary. I transport even salad just like that. Some bacteria is not bad and I wash all the stuff in any case so I use as little plastic and recycle as much as possible and never take any plastic unless the stuff is already prepacked in plastic. What about frozen foods? They are all packed in plastic even in the organic shops. Pizzas too first in a plastic foil and then in the paper packet. There are hardly any things here that you can buy loose which you can in India apart from fresh fruit and vegetables so on the whole if consumers in India are taught what the ill effects of plastic on their health and environment, it will be possible to stop but what about us here in Germany or Austria. Buying water is also typical here and many of them have moved to plastic instead of glass and previously only the French brands were sold in plastic. In any case, I drink from the tap. So because plastic bags costs people transport the end shopping in cars directly, very few are environmental-friendly to carry cloth bags or probably do it to save the cost. In places like Kaufhof where you get for free, people liberally use plastic as tho’ it were a big status symbol to buy from Kaufhof or some buy every time the paper bag in organic shops just to show off.

  2. November 16, 2009 1:28 pm

    I don’t go near cheap food, I haven’t even eaten in my college canteen(one look at the place was enough for me), I am extremely particular about food and water-I carry a water bottle where ever I go(people make fun of me, only to ask me for water minutes later 😛 )..

    Shops have the tendency to give a cover for everything. I avoid it as much as possible. When you visit saree shop, they give you one of those jute bags, why can’t other shops also do the same thing? They can make it as a fashion statement as well.

    As for education, it’s pathetic.

    Downloading music and movies- I am guilty as charged, but not games and books. We were a part of a DVD rental, but the shop closed down. As for music, I am not able to find the stuff which I like in the market. And also, if you buy a CD, it is over by the time, you reach home…Again we can buy online, but then not everyone feels comfortable with it.

    Vishesh. Exactly, it’s all about comfort level. Which changes with information. – Nita

  3. November 16, 2009 1:29 pm

    Nita: Why cheap thrives would be an interesting study in the big chasm between what consumers pretend to like/ support and what they actually buy. Talk, as you know, is cheap. No need to be smart 😉

    Shefaly, why not believe? It’s all we have don’t we? – Nita

  4. November 16, 2009 1:33 pm

    People are greedy and everything ultimately boils down to Money after all ..

    So once the goods are selling at lesser price / discounted price, no one worries about health, environment or economy nor they will be concerned how they are made, cooked or produced ..

    Huge awareness is required for the same .. Just like a revolution .. But I’m skeptical whether it can do any good ..

    I allways prefer to buy groceries and other things from reputed stores like D-Mart, Hypercity or Reliance fresh .. So that at least I can be sure that I dont get fake/ duplicate items ..

    And whenever something is sold at a ‘too-good-to-be-true’ price, i usually avoid buying it as there must be something fishy about the same ..

    Soham, I think a revolution will not happen so here I agree with you. But little by little, person by person, we can slowly change our attitude and think of the environment. One way to do this is to be convinced that it harms us too, and doesn’t really save us money. – Nita

    • November 16, 2009 1:49 pm

      @ soham

      gujarati maa kehvat chhe ne “jaroor thi vadhare monghu and jaroor thi vadhare sastu kai hoy to samajhvu ke kaik gadbad chhe!” 🙂

  5. November 16, 2009 1:47 pm

    nice post nita…

    liked “corrotmob” concept. didnt know anything about it! 🙂

    Thanks for such a good post. 🙂

    I loved carrotmob too! How about starting on? – Nita

  6. November 16, 2009 2:53 pm

    In India the big companies/MNC’s can offer all their premium products at rock prices to all classes in india and making profit due to volumes their y knocking out all the small manufacturers who dosn’t follow clean environmental practices in producing products.

    But unfortunately in India the class divide can’t be ignored.The elite,upper middle class and the creamy society are not comfortable in using the same product which a lower class or a middle class person uses.
    So, companies never target whole indian population into one and manufacture the product.The Big companies and MNC’s just target the creamy and upper class society and only these big companies follow some guidelines for clean environment.This also reduces the burden of volumes where MNC’s and big companies are more comfortable with reduced volumes.

    The poor and middle class has to depend on small companies for most of their products.These small companies never follow the clean environment or “green environment”
    guidelines in order to deliver the product with cheap costing.

    So, its the Indian rich and upper middle class who are responsible.

    Kumar, I personally do not believe that MNCs in India necessarily follow the green guidelines. Also a lot of MNCs are targetting the rural market, Unilever for example and Colgate. – Nita

    • November 16, 2009 3:00 pm

      rock* ..its rock bottom

      In India the big companies/MNC’s can offer all their premium products at rock bottom prices to all classes in india and making profit due to volumes their by knocking out all the small manufacturers who dosn’t follow clean environmental practices in producing products.

  7. November 16, 2009 3:47 pm

    So true, and I am so glad you decided to blog about this topic…today consumerism is running amok.

    I always make the effort to carry a big handbag with me. I never use plastic bags.

    I also make the effort to buy less – clothes for example, I used to be such a clothes junkie buying cheap stuff in quantity. Now, I shop more sensibly, buy only things that are good quality, will last long, and that I really, really want/need.

    We should all think a little bit more before we blindly consume things…

    Nishita, kudos to you for carrying a bag! And your awareness about other things too! – Nita

  8. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    November 16, 2009 4:02 pm

    I agree that by and large anything that seems too cheap to be good is just that. However, it does not follow that paying more gets you better quality. I am thinking particularly about education (though it could apply equally to a wide range of other services and products). I am sure most of you know more than I about the kind of value for money that you get for the assorted MBAs, MCAs etc. available at premium markups at outlets ranging from holes in the wall to campuses that would be the envy of the world’s leading golf courses.

    Vivek, ofcourse it is not a general rule and depends from country to country. In India certainly I think it applies to some educational institutions which may not charge high fees but have values. Today in India education is being sold as if it were a plastic bucket. Colourful, but cheap and worthless. – Nita

  9. November 16, 2009 4:57 pm

    My grandmother used to say- mahenga roye ek bar, sasta roy bar-bar.

    🙂 – Nita

  10. November 16, 2009 5:09 pm

    Carrotmob is interesting and innovative.. Loved this post,as i can relate it to my thoughts and activities 😉

    Thanks. 🙂 – Nita

  11. Joss permalink
    November 16, 2009 5:46 pm

    Excellent post, Nita. I agree completely. But strange how suddenly things have changed. Not long ago, ten years or so, I would have been looking at high prices with disapproval, suspecting a ‘rip-off’, and then going out and buying a bargain that made me feel smug. Nowadays, however, when I pay a low price I often think, ‘It’s criminal.’ I now worry about the provenance of the goods, who made them, where they came from, and how long they will last. As a result I go shopping less. I do buy things that last. And so shopping becomes much more of a treat if you do it less often and think more carefully about it. Of course, I like to mend and re-use too. But I’ve always done that. It’s part of my mother’s war-time upbringing!

    Joss, thanks for that perspective from someone in a first world country. The truth is that people in developed countries are changing their attitudes and as I mentioned to Axinia I think it has to do with Maslow Need Hierarchy. Recently one of my older readers, Amit, sent me a link, about how Americans are changing their consumer preferences and switching to energy saving appliances. And I agree that there are exceptions to the rule. – Nita

  12. November 16, 2009 8:46 pm

    Nita, we have a saying here: “He who more spends, less spends”, meaning that when one buys good stuff that lasts longer, one spares good money in the end.

    This topic though is complicated and can vary according to the country.

    This recession has affected the life of many people here in Italy. A larger number of families cannot get to the end of the month. And I see them visiting more and more open air markets where stuff is much less expensive. I know a lot of this stuff has faults, and can even be even dangerous in many respects, but I wonder what choice people have sometimes. And there are exceptions to the rule: cheaper = worst, dangerous etc. We have here unbranded-products supermarkets, for example, selling goods with no brand nor billing expenses so the quality is somewhat kept with less cost. Of course it’s up to government and consumers associations to watch out that quality is good enough.

    Man of Roma, yes ofcourse you are right, it depends from country to country. In India buying unbranded stuff may not be safe as they may not be following any government guidelines. If the country has the rules and regulations in place then it’s safe I guess. – Nita.

  13. November 16, 2009 9:17 pm

    I agree with everything you said except video and book piracy. Frankly I don’t mind causing loss to the copyright owners, if something is pirated its their (and the law enforcing agency’s) headache to prevent it and protect it from being pirated, I’m not going to help some big media house rake in the profits if I can help it. These guys already make a lot of money so what’s the big deal…

    rags, it’s not just the media companies, it’s the artistes too. They get a cut from the royalties. – Nita

    • Sabalil permalink
      November 17, 2009 10:10 pm

      Piracy = Stealing
      What a lame excuse to justify stealing! “Big Media House” is a company funded by shareholders who are human and deserve the profit. The artist who produced it deserve the royalty.

  14. November 17, 2009 3:54 am

    You are right Nita. World seems to be going more towards cheap less durable goods. I recently started noticing this in the quality of children’s toys. With tendency to keep prices lower quality and safety and down the drains. Same with packaged food. I do not trust many of the processed foods anymore, for the sugar content and the high fructose corn and what not. An eyeopening post.

    Lakshmi, the worst thing are childrens’ products because kids can get hurt. I have read about the cheap chinese toys that have flooded international markets. Unfortunately in India people do buy them because they cannot afford the high quality stuff. There was a time when my kids were small when we couldn’t afford the majority of the toys in the market. Cheap ones were available, with sharp edges and from dubious brands. I never bought them. It’s important to have the mentality that I buy only what I can afford. I never even envied those who bought fancy lego sets for example or expensive barbie dolls, because I knew my kids would grow up find without them. – Nita

  15. locutus83 permalink
    November 17, 2009 4:19 am

    I think buying cheap(minimum possible cost) or buying expensive is strongly dependent on one’s purchasing power and attitude.
    Some people buy expensive goods because they have the money to do so, and because they want to show off their brands. Not because they believe in the quality, durability and integrity of the product.
    Some people just cannot afford the high quality, high price stuff because it consumes a disproportionately large fraction of their household income.

    I think what’s more important is for consumers to know the specifics / ingredients of the products they are purchasing, so that they can make an informed decision. One must know the basic metrics of their product so that they can optimize when it comes to quality vs. price. If I am buying a product, I will look for certain core features and quality assurances. Within those parameters, I will go for the cheapest item. But, if what I need exceeds my budget, I will not buy it, or will defer until I have enough income so that I can exceed my budget, and the act of buying that does not “pinch” my pocket badly.

    Sometimes you pay more just for the brand name. The incremental improvement in quality is grossly disproportionate to the increase in cost price. I have observed this phenomenon with clothes and shoes, especially, and am also getting reports with regards to cell phones and laptop computers.

    I have actually experienced a reverse situation viz a viz quality vs. price! The very low grade shoes that I used to get when I was a kid (for Rs. 200-300) used to wear out in a few months to a year. So far so good. But, a pair of shoes I bought for Rs. 800 a few years back from an obscure shop in Sarojini Nagar Market, Delhi, actually lasted longer and was more comfortable compared to a “branded” pair I bought for Rs. 1600 a year later in an upmarket showroom in Bangalore, even though I wore the former more frequently and roughed it out more!

    I also feel that in the education sector, the theory that expensive is good does not hold for numerous private engineering, medical and MBA colleges mushrooming all over India which charge a hefty fee. There are still high quality degree colleges and universities e.g. St. Stephens Delhi , Xavier’s Mumbai, Presidency Kolkata, Delhi University, Calcutta University, Jadavpur University, and Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore which charge a pittance as fees but still churn out quality students every year. Even the I.I.Ts don’t charge that much when you compare their fees with other engineering institutes in India and around the world.

    But I do agree that overall, consumer focus should be on QUALITY. I would modify my qualifier as the “minimum acceptable quality at the lowest possible price, which suits the pocket”

    Thanks locutus83, for that comment. I do agree with you about the education sector, in India, as I mentioned to vivek. There is nothing in your comment that I disagree with. However I think consumers need to eschew the consumerist attitude of wanting to have everything. There is always something that someone cannot afford after all, and if the attitude is that it’s the thing that is important, not the quality then well, you get what you pay for. – Nita

  16. November 17, 2009 8:14 am

    Nita, I cannot BELIEVE you wrote this article this week! Only two days ago I was thinking about buckets and mugs in India and was wondering if this is a good thing or a bad thing and what are our choices 🙂

    Speaking of buckets, I am at a loss though 😦 I am not sure how far the stainless steel industry has advanced in this field and what is available in India right now, but we used to have those coated iron buckets as kids which were not a good idea. They used to rust in water. I once got a ghastly gash from it and almost got tetanus.
    Besides metal/stainless steel, are there any other sustainable options?
    Metal too, after all, is not biodegradable. I wondered, if good quality plastic is used, will it not last just as long?

    What does your (and Minal’s) research say about this?

  17. Vinod permalink
    November 17, 2009 8:19 am

    Nita, I don’t think piracy is a moral issue. I have come across enough arguments against patents and copyrights to know the exloitation that can happen in the name of IP rights. Until I see the duration of these rights thoroughly argued, I do not subscribe to the morality behind these “rights”.

  18. November 17, 2009 11:18 am

    Very analytical.

    I know,a lot of plastic articles including certain toys in the market have some stabilisers which are very harmful to the body.But how many people really know the difference between good and bad bucket?None.Embossing a popular brand is so easy with the connivance with the corrupt babu.Has the state even tried to set standards and implementation procedures?No.
    Film piracy has been and written about for ages,but there is no respite.Earlier,the price of an Original VCD used to be over Rs 250 where as the pirated was only Rs 4o/.Since the time,the originals have dropped the rates,piracy has reduced but it is not possible to eliminate it because the copy rite act is a non congnisable offence.It was only during Jayalalita’s rule that she had put piracy under the Goonda Act in Chennai and was very successful but subsequent Govts have not shown any inclination towards implementation.
    There are laws in India to restrict all these bad products,but the corrupt RAVAN rules those babus who have no clue as to what harm are they doing to the society.

  19. November 17, 2009 6:05 pm

    Thought provoking post Nita.
    Plastic flags, plastic covers on magazines, every little pair of scissors, knife, pen, gel pen refils, cartons these days come wrapped in a layer of plastic. We never needed this much plastic.
    I remember when this had just started, some magazines received letters to editors against the need for plastic wrappers but the magazine (it was Femina I remember) asked how would the reader like the magazine to reach them torn or scratched. Well we had been doing fine until then.

    And Carrotmob sounds like a brilliant concept!

  20. November 17, 2009 10:39 pm

    I agree… cheap stuff really cannot be that cheap. It is eventually just some measures not taken, or else for sure some kids are employed which is what you become responsible for on buying such things.

    Carrotmob is a wonderful idea… if that will make a difference in the retailers of today.

  21. November 17, 2009 11:11 pm

    Cheap = offers that are run at some grocery stores. They bundle noodles with ketchup and sell it at a 50% discount. But whenwe check the expiry, it would be in 2 weeks. There is no way you can finish a ketchup (1lit)in 2 weeks unless you use it for all your meals.
    So if we run to get cheap, we would be losing out on quality

  22. November 18, 2009 12:28 am

    A very thoughtful post Nita…

    these days I am hardly using plastic covers and I am really particular about reusing it… I won’t throw it away until it becomes unusable and also will avoid taking plastic bags from shops..

    and for books… I am guilty of it.. but still if we borrow we can’t read it at our leisure.. and also I feel the cost of books were too high to buy.. I don’t want to support the piracy.. but it becomes a part…

    for food… I don’t think all the cheap priced hotels are providing bad food.. ther are few which are giving great food at affordable costs.. all we have to do is, search a lil more for them…

  23. November 20, 2009 8:08 am

    it’s great to read this. here’s an interview from China i made to a native.

    China is also the place where lots of cheap stuff are produced everyday. The lantern festival here was a full show of plastics but luckily there were some fabric lanterns too to pick up. So everybody makes his choice in shopping cheap or from the heart = earth. cheers, r

  24. November 25, 2009 12:23 am

    There is a saying in Bengali – Shoshta Khali Boshta …roughly translated into cheap things are empty. I try to avoid cheap things as much as possible. But then money is a very big factor.

  25. November 25, 2009 1:47 pm

    I agree to many of the things written in this post, but expensive always doesn’t mean better – The fast expensive fast foods like burgers and pizza’s are also bad for health – especially the cheese in huge quantities. There is nothing good about the education like engineering which comes with an expensive price tag! At best, it can produce back office professionals who are required in bulk for the software and ITES industries in India.

    Destination Infinity

  26. Bombay wadapav eater permalink
    December 4, 2009 4:51 am

    A little too late but I am anti-plastic and avoid it as much as possible. Check bisphenol A, a substance used in the manufacture of plastic bottles and melamine and many other plastic items. I used only glass for my toddler and asked my brother to send stainless steel glasses and bowls from B’bay so that he can eat on his own when I am busy with less time to watch him constantly to avoid any breakage of porcellain but I must say: believe in your child. My child throws his toys but not crockery and I repeat that glass when breaks is as sharp as jazzy D’s teeth which can do lots of ouchies. I also use cloth nappies or organic ones but I recently heard from my aunt that people in India also use nappies. Note that nappies have absorbing gel and plastic if not an organic brand and causes heat which can lead to infertility in male children. It is a shame just like the formula milk industry that mothers are made uncertain. Check: or
    The west is going east and books have come out based on our traditions about potty training but the products are sold now to the east China and india being targets for nappies and formula milk. The same about many plastic toys which are banned in the EU are still sold in the US and worse still many that are banned in the west but sold in India – all made in China and will have damages on children. It is better to be old-fashioned, safe and secure.

  27. Parvez permalink
    June 27, 2010 8:42 pm

    Nice Article Nita. Unfortunately, In todays world no one cares about Global Warming. People like Al Gore who has brought facts has been rediculed by scientists worldwide. But the day isnt too far where we have to pay for it. Any I say we SHOULD. Humans have taken Mother nature for granted by destroying it to the maximum. Trees are being slaughtered, open land grabbed to fill pockets of builders and politicians. I am not being a sadist but I do not hesitate in saying that 2012 could be a reality…. if not… one thing is for sure… its high time we Pay back for all the damages done to nature.

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