Who gets screwed?

£2 t-shirts. Who gets screwed?

£1 chicken breasts. Who gets screwed?

When I see a cheap deal I can’t help but wonder “who’s getting screwed?” With the t-shirts, it’s often the workers (though things are improving). With the chicken, it’s usually both the suppliers and the chickens (but things aren’t improving).

I like “who gets screwed” because it’s blunt; it reminds me to think. Notwithstanding the value technology can add—cheaper transport costs and supply-chain management being two big ones—if something is cheaper, the cost is elsewhere. “Who gets screwed” cuts to the chase.

Is it me? Cheaper items often wear out or become tiresome more quickly, will I end up paying more long-term or hardly wear this item of clothing? Cheaper food is often full of salt, fat or additives to make it taste okay—not great for my health.

Is it someone else? These are often bigger issues, like the aforementioned workers’ rights in manufacturing countries or the squeezing of suppliers by larger supermarkets.

Is it something else? Animal welfare, pesticides draining into rivers, deforestation—protecting the environment is often more expensive than exploiting it. Organic chicken doesn’t taste so different, but it’s sure better for the chicken.

It’s easy to forget about who gets screwed, especially when that person or thing is comfortably far away—out of sight, out of mind.

There was a particularly memorable TV show in which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was trying to show the hidden costs of cheap chicken. One particularly resolute buyer of cheap meat refused to watch the slaughter of a chicken and it took all Hugh’s cajoling skill to bring her to watch. Once she had seen the killing at close hand, her attitude reversed completely. Back in sight, back in mind.

So I try to keep it in mind, “who gets screwed?”

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