If a Product is Too Cheap, You Are the Product. Or Worse, Someone Else is Paying the Price.

Today, I’m sharing some thoughts about a burning topic for which answers need to be found. The article’s title already says everything: If a product is too cheap, you are the product! Or even worse, someone else is paying the price for you…

In June 2020, the news of a new COVID outbreak originating in a meat factory in Western Germany hit the news. This created intense political and societal debates and a call for measures to improve the conditions in which meat is processed nowadays in Germany.  The public outrage generated by this event created conflicting feelings in me. On the one hand, I was glad about the measures being suggested to regularize this sector;  on the other hand, I was left with a bitter feeling that I haven’t been able to shake off until today.  My feelings respond to the following question:

Why does it take a global pandemic to take action against the things that aren’t working in our society?  Why do we wait around for an outbreak in a meat factory in Germany to debate the conditions surrounding meat production when the evidence that this production is done under poor conditions has been under our noses for years?

Many of you have probably heard the famous citation « If you are not paying for a product, you are the product ! ». The prices of certain food products, including but not exclusive to meat, are profoundly disconnected from the infrastructure, time, and energy needed to produce these products. Yet when we see a package of pork ribs for just a few swiss francs (or euros), we consider it a good deal and buy it anyway. Rarely do we take a step back and ask ourselves :

1) If this product is almost free or at least very cheap, am I myself the product?

Unless you show your loyalty card, you are not really the product yourself (except for the fact that you’re «cheated» with very cheap quality of meat, which goes against your health).

And :

2) «Who else pays the price for me?» or in the words of the famous citation, «who else is THE product?».

In the case of cheap pork chops, we don’t have to search long to find some potential answers to these questions:

1) probably the employees at the store you just bought the meat from (working hours, salary, social securities, a.s.o.)

2) probably the meat producer who has almost no margin left to produce the meat, and therefore again the employees at the meat factory (working hours, salary, social securities, a.s.o.)

3) probably the farmer,  who makes almost no money with the animals he has raised & fed

4) probably the animals themselves (raised under poor conditions, fed low-quality food, being given antibiotics to reduce risks, a.s.o.)

And don’t get me wrong: I am neither building a case for veganism nor expecting everyone to ditch their butcher and instead buy meat directly at an organic farm within 3 km from where they live (even though those two are valid options if that’s what you want). All I’m doing is calling for a more mindful way of consuming that challenges the sometimes selfish motivations that lead us to choose one product or form of living over another. Every time we buy some at a really low price, we need to be aware that someone is paying the price for it, even if that makes us feel uncomfortable and guilty.

This truth not only applies to our food products but every single interaction and transaction in our lives. For example:  

1) who’s paying for me when I fly with a low-cost airline to a holiday destination?

2) who’s paying for me when I book a cheap air b’n’b offer ?

3) who’s paying for me when I buy myself a T-Shirt for some CHF/EUR/USD ?

For most of us, the sad truth is that the only question that crosses our mind when we come across a too-good-to-be-true deal is: Is this a serious offering, or am I getting cheated?

In order words, more often than not, we are primarily thinking of ourselves and our own interests. But what about the farmer who is harvesting cotton in Turkey?, What about the workers at a t-shirt factory who are getting paid below-average salaries? Is the 10 euro t-shirt we are buying in a shop in Western Europe really worth the suffering of these people?  

It’s time that we all start asking ourselves this question systematically: when I’m getting a really great deal, who is paying the price for me? And (how) can I live with this awareness?