Cheap Plastic Crap …

 … and the Trouble with Hating It

Rows of small appliances in a discount store

credit: All Smiles on the Western Front – JWN Enterprise

I grew up thinking that the problem was “cheap plastic crap.” Cheap Plastic Crap (CPC) is an expansive category that covers anything from fast food hamburgers to disposable diapers to poorly constructed toasters. If something broke, or gave me a stomachache, or didn’t fulfill expectations, it was a symbol of the erosion of U.S. society.

I was taught at an early age to prefer the durable, the sleek, the time-softened leather, the authentic and the heirloom over nearly any product you could find at Walmart. And as a person with class privilege, I expected to have those things.

I couldn’t investigate the quality of Walmart goods for myself, because the community where I grew up, (routinely crowned the most educated and fittest city in the country, and one of the “Top Ten Best Places to Live,”) prided itself on sustained, multigenerational opposition to the construction of big box stores.

Stop CPC Consumers, Right?

Not only was cheap plastic crap aesthetically displeasing, CPC and the people who bought it were the drivers of global climate change and the harbingers of consumer culture. They also probably lived in the suburbs, drove gas guzzling cars, and watched “too much” TV, which completed their portfolio of destructive, anti-intellectual and lazy activities. Their avarice was actively contributing to the Garbage Patch in the Pacific! Cheap Plastic Crap and its consumers had to be stopped.

This sounds like textbook elitism, but I didn’t see it that way. I thought it was part of being a good environmentalist, and a good progressive. It was with the help of some dear friends that I realized I was missing the point.

Hating Cheap Plastic Crap means hating the way people excluded from this economy get access to things they need and want.”

Cheap Plastic Crap (a better name is probably “inexpensive consumer goods”) is often what is available to the marginally middle class, working class, and poor folks in this country. So hating CPC means hating the way people who are excluded from this economy get access to things they need and want. And that is an enormous problem, because it is one small, shallow step away from hating poor people.

Focus on the Real Change Drivers

There is certainly a fierce critique to be made of globalized capitalism and the evolving identity of the U.S. consumer, but deriding individuals for their choices regarding leisure and survival is not it. As we (those with class privilege) allow the conversation to get more complex, here are some ideas I’ve found helpful.

  1. Voting with your dollar cannot be the only answer. If I can afford to buy the expensive, eco-laundry detergent, awesome! It is classist to fault people who can’t. Buying the “right” thing cannot be the doorway into social change work, because it excludes the very folks a movement for climate/social justice purports to benefit.
  2. Honor the ways people care for their families and themselves. When it comes down to it, most people are probably buying that Happy Meal/ Xbox/toaster because it is going to help them take care of themselves (or maybe just get through the day). Maybe they are buying it as an act of love for someone important.
  3. If we want to change consumer culture, we should address our own habits first. Upper middle class and wealthy people tend to set the standard for consumption. It’s contradictory to critique folks for wanting to get electronics on sale when we also have electronics in our pockets and in our homes. It doesn’t make us morally superior if we paid full price.

Where can we redirect this displeasure at inexpensive consumer goods (formerly known to me as CPC)? Focus the critique on systemic issues. Instead of urging people to buy eco-chic toys for their kids, address the corporate and state powers that set minimum wages low and maintain an atmosphere of scarcity:

Let’s build cross-class relationships that focus on our shared humanity. Let’s build movements that address root causes of economic injustice.

2 Responses

  1. Lita Kurth
    L.A. Kurth

    So much that is available–and not even the cheapest–is plastic crap from China. Even those who have to buy it can feel frustrated and ripped off. The worst part is that these awful goods wear out and break very fast so that in the long run, you buy even more of it. Only the ultra-expensive appliance, for example, still has metal parts!

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