The invisible costs – Choosing responsibly

Floating around the shopping centre, I feel different. It’s not that I’m particularly upset or excited about anything. It’s just that I feel more enlightened. I pass store after store of brightly displayed merchandise that scream to be bought. I pass coffee shops, supermarkets and also electrical goods retailers. They all have sale signs out the front. They all promise the best price. They are all banking on causing potential customers that tingly feeling when they read the sale price written in red underneath the normal recommended retail price. I look around and see these consumers and think to myself, “Are they really aware of how much these items are costing us?” I refer not only to our immediate hip pockets but to the social and energy costs. The swanky swing tag does not communicate much at all besides the pivotal number that could cause a potential consumer to sway either way. They do not contain the amount of energy output in delivering the item to the store. They do not contain the information on how well the worker who made the item is treated in their place of employment. They certainly do not contain the cost of recycling or disposing of the item once its primary life has been concluded. These are the type of numbers and facts that do influence people yet they are omitted. They are types of issues that do end up costing society and the environment yet are often unaccounted for by the corporations and firms that order their production. It is for this reason that I feel a little high and mighty today. I look at these items for sale and I see the cost. I appreciate quality where I see it and I deplore cheaply made products and systems designed to exploit and make a quick dollar. If we as designers can involve the average consumer in this type of thinking and understanding, then we will go a long way in contributing to the social heath and wealth of the world we live in.

The first step – recognizing what is important. This has to be the welfare and the psychological stability of the workers and employees who produce the products. In this day and age, we are still well and truly at a stage where the majority of the manufacturing workforce around the world is unskilled. Whilst it is shifting towards tertiary educated workers it still has a long way to go. In fact, by 2030 it is predicted that employers around the world will be faced with a shortage of 38 million college-educated workers and a surplus of 90 million unskilled workers as reported by A. Censky (2012). In a past time, it was not uncommon for a worker to be grateful that he/she had a steady job to support their family. Even if it meant they had to endure unacceptable work conditions and sub-standard pay. Whilst these environments are still prevalent it is now not acceptable socially and in most cases legally. This is where the consumer can have an influence and bring about change.

What You Can Do:

  • Procure information on the company that produces the product and any third party manufacturers via telephone, internet or any other means.
  • Ascertain to what level the employees are looked after and what their wages are like. Research their standard of living.
  • Only buy from and support businesses that have transparency and have proven track records of providing employees with necessary entitlements and working conditions.
  • Spread the word to fellow consumers. If every consumer tells another seven of their experience as is the common knowledge, then this goes a long way to contributing to the global welfare of workers in general.


It isn’t as if it is a completely radical and new idea to push towards this sort of change. Companies and corporations have long since begun to recognize the importance of employee satisfaction. Daniel Bell (1973) points out that – ‘Such goods contribute greatly to our total welfare. But in our present accounting schemes, priced at zero, they add nothing to the economist’s measure of wealth. Nor, when they disappear, do they show up as subtractions from wealth.’ Whilst there may be no value to the economists, we know today that the monetary assets of a company are not what consumers value and ultimately they are ones that have the power to decide if a company thrives or fails. In many cases, it is best to adopt a new approach in acquiring products. This brings us to the next step.

Do it yourself! As consumers in the 21st century, our first instinct if we need something is to go the store and buy it. This socially and corporately indoctrinated mindset is very difficult to break out of. Over education and specialisation has rendered us all incapable of fixing or creating anything without the help of a paid third party. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the invisible costs that come with goods and services such as energy output from transportation, production of parts and packaging and exploitation of unskilled workers. To break consumers out of this multiplying way of living, it is best to change one thing at a time. Pick one thing and begin there. This can be, for example, growing your own vegetables. This is a sustainable action that will ensure you eliminate depleting resources and adding to the woes of the planet and its inhabitants. By growing them in your back yard, you:

  • Eliminate the need to travel to the store, therefore no private transport is needed, reducing carbon output.
  • Reduce the amount of transport needed by the company producing the vegetables that you would have bought had you gone to the store.
  • Contribute to there being fewer vegetables to protect with pesticides and chemicals. (Because you haven’t bought them from the store that sells produce protected by this means during production)

This is only one action with a few flow on effects, but this is where the change starts. If people start being mindful of these costs that are not largely associated with purchasing products, then we are heading to a brighter and more sustainable society. Below is a basic flow chart of a socially responsible consumer’s thought process when confronted with the prospect of making a purchase.  


As you can see, there are quite a few options available to most people before committing to getting in their car and going to make a purchase. There are many instances where the cycle can be broken. We have existed for a long time without the use of the motor car. If anything, it has single handedly increased our acceleration towards oblivion.

‘The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles an hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate 3 to 8 per cent of their society’s budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent.‘ I. Illich (1978)

If this was evident in the 1970’s it is mostly certainly pertinent today, if not even more so. We have to do all we can do consume less. Whilst the shiny price new item with its cheap sale price may appear to be too good to refuse, we must stop and consider everything. Think about how it was made. Think about who made it and what conditions they work in. Can you still buy it? If yes, then think about the cost of manufacturing the materials that the product is composed of. Were they sourced and made responsibly with a plan to recycle used parts? Do they reuse water and limit their consumption in the first place? Still, yes? Then consider how you got to the shop that this product is being sold in. Did you walk? Did you catch public transport or at the very least car pool with some friends? If after all this, the answer is still yes then you are a more responsible consumer than most people. You are obviously aware of the hidden and invisible costs involved in manufacturing products. You might even be a designer! If like the rest of us you still have some areas to improve in, then get cracking. There is no time like the present.


1. Censky, A. (2012). China: World’s largest supplier of educated workers.  Retrieved from

2. Bell, D. (1973). The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting. New   York: Basic Books.

3. Illich, I. (1978). Toward a History of Needs. New York: Pantheon.



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