July 12, 2015

Why you should pay more for most things

5 minute read, in Social Issues

There’s an old TWILIGHT ZONE episode called “Button Button” about a couple faced with temptation they can’t resist.

Wikipedia summarizes the plot:

Arthur and Norma Lewis are slowly descending into abject poverty. One day, they receive a mysterious locked box with a button on it and a note that says Mr. Steward will come visit. Then, just as the note says, a smartly dressed stranger who introduces himself as Steward comes to their door when Arthur is out. He gives Norma the key to the box and explains that, if they press the button, two things will happen: they will receive $200,000 and someone “whom [they] don’t know” will die.

After the stranger leaves, the Lewises wonder whether Steward’s proposal is genuine, and they agonize over whether to press the button. Norma rationalizes that they could make good use of the money and that the one who dies might be some Chinese peasant or cancer sufferer who is living a miserable life. Arthur takes the side that, since they do not know who will die, pressing the button may cause the death of an innocent baby. They open the box and discover no mechanism inside it—it is simply an empty box with a button on it. The next day, Arthur leaves for work and sees Norma sitting at the kitchen table, her gaze transfixed on the button. At the end of the day, he returns from work and it appears that nothing has changed; Norma is still sitting and concentrating only on the button. The day goes by. Norma and Arthur keep talking about the box, when suddenly Norma decides to push the button.

The next day Mr. Steward returns, takes back the box, and gives them a briefcase with the $200,000. The Lewises are in shock and ask what will happen next. Steward ominously replies that the button will be “reprogrammed” and offered to someone else with the same terms and conditions, adding as he focuses on Norma:

“I can assure you it will be offered to someone whom you don’t know.”

A horrified, knowing expression crosses Norma’s face as she realizes the true nature of those chosen to die…the previous owner who pushed the button.


We all love a good deal. Value is important. But what looks like a great deal in the short term often has long-term and or/unconsidered implications.

  • Externalized costs; paid for with cheap labour or dumping waste illegally.
  • Whole cost accounting; cheap in the short term, but if you’re objective about all the ways your choices impact you, you net out at a loss.
  • Deferred payments; eat cheap processed food now, pay for it with your quality of health later.

We all rationalize our choices on some level. No one’s perfect. But I get a sickening feeling when I talk to people who have thought about it and decided that human suffering is part of the system. One day I’ll be enlightened enough to be unaffected by this attitude, but at the moment, talking to people who are unwilling to consider that there might be an approach to personal fulfillment that doesn’t include exploiting someone or something else is still a big challenge.

It gives me that same sick feeling I get when I walk into a Walmart. Like something is out of balance. Like there’s something bad happening to my brain undetectable by my sense of sight or smell but clearly sensed by my body, which sends a signal to get away as quickly as possible.

As a communicator, I long ago figured out how to clue people in to challenges in the food sector regarding our consumption habits:

A local organic tomato from the farmer’s market is more expensive for a lot of reasons, including a lack of chemicals you might not want your food grown in and the extra labour required to grow it and harvest it at a fair wage. But if I told you you could have it for half the price, as long as you’re willing to punch the farmer at the stall in the nose, you probably wouldn’t do it. Even if I offered to do it for you, or do it out of your sight, you’d rather pay full fare for the tomato. Once you know that someone is suffering to make your food cheaper, what does suppressing that knowledge do to you?

Food’s an easy one for me at this point. I think of all the positive returns I create by making it as inconvenient to shop for it as possible. I buy less food in smaller batches from more people and places. The result is that I know many of the people who grow/produce and process the food I eat personally. I feel like I’m playing a role in stimulating my local economy. I eat the best quality of everything, though I eat a lot less of it. And I eat less popular cuts.  I’ve had to learn how to get protein from a range places, like beans.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a movie that fast-tracked the development of the same value set for fashion. As I’ve become more socially conscious over the last ten years, I’ve generally leaned towards better made, or locally-designed or thrift-sourced clothing.

I’m here to state publicly that I will never buy so much as a sock whose provenance I can’t verify again after seeing The True Cost, a documentary that examines the emergence, effect, causes and implications of today’s fifty two week fashion season cycle.

I see plenty of documentaries. I consume a ton of media. Half of Hypenotic’s clients are non-profits representing realities more people need to be aware of. But the untold, irreversible and systemic misery caused by the fashion industry could so easily be undone by regular people, through the simplest actions.

The movie is well-made and uplifting, featuring several examples of people working against the grain. So along with the outrage and a degree of self-reflection, you’ll be left with some new ideas. It’ll cost you $4 to see it, about the price of a tank top at H&M/Zara/The Gap/Etc–you get the idea.

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