ON THE ULTRA-CHEAP
The material environment of the suburbs around the Mangere Inlet is saturated with ultra-cheap imported goods: Stainless steel kitchen equipment from Delhi, fabric from Malaysia, toys, mp3 players, plastic mats from China—all arrive by the container-load. This class of artefact is beyond the merely cheap—it is easily manufactured, using the cheapest possible materials, in factories that spend no extra money on controlling pollution or accessing cleaner energy sources, by workers pais as little as the global labour market will allow, shipped at minimum cost on huge ships, piggybacking on solid existing shipping routes. A child’s vinyl schoolbag, branded with copyright-infringing logos and images from a Nickelodeon cartoon, hangs outside a shop for ten dollars; a similar bag, slightly more durable perhaps, with official branding, might sell for three times as much, even at the Warehouse (a well-known cut-price retailer in the mass-market. There’s no way local manufacture can equal these prices—the additional costs of labour, regulation of environmental effects, taxes, and the need to import materials far outweighing the cheaper costs of transport.
What is the role and effect of this material on human environments? The economy having been deliberately balanced to serve consumers by keeping the exchange-rate high, import has been privileged over export. This has the effect of driving consumption, not simply serving it (demand can be induced; it isn’t simply an abstract force that needs to be served). It would be accurate to talk about an addiction to cheap imports. But they’re not an unmitigated evil: they’re also valuable and worthwhile business, particularly for immigrants who may already have connections to overseas manufacturers and insight into the needs of local immigrant communities. In addition, they serve the needs of the poorest end of the market.
This material deserves attention as one of the substances of contemporary urban life. How does it circulate, condense and disperse? What linkages does it cement? What is it’s agency in the urban, human, and environment assemblages that constitute the city?