Interesting piece on the Guardian today about the “true costs” (e.g. spread of carcinogens, human rights abuses) of must-have Christmas toys, a somewhat sheepish follow-up to its previous “dream toys list”.

caravan

The Sylvanian Families caravan (£45.99).  I’m not saying that the manufacture of this has hidden environmental costs. I just think it looks awesome. Although… is that top bunk bed entirely safe? I’m not sure that young rabbits should be sleeping 12 feet off the ground.  (Image from http://www.sylvanianfamilies.com)

I have been wondering for a while if prices could be adjusted to include social and environmental costs – basically, whether externalities could be internalised.  For example, when everything is taken into consideration, should organic food be cheaper, not more expensive, than mass-produced alternatives? Another example is the arrival of a new Tesco.  It may offer local shoppers cheaper prices, but how do these weigh up against the overall socio-economic costs that may filter down to the community from, say, the loss of small businesses?

I’m sure this has been discussed to death and maybe – probably – it is a ridiculous idea.  How would the data be gathered?  How would ephemeral costs like environmental losses be valued anyway (another big debate)?  But then, prices do already include subjective factors such as utility and scarcity.  Is it so different?

Yikes, I am probably embarrassingly myself hugely. But I’ll carry on. Let’s say that in this new pricing regimen, exciting fair-trade hemp jeans produced by village cooperatives in Romania cost $5.99, and the cheapest jeans stitched by the mercury-stained fingers of glue-sniffing orphans in China to be offered in WalMart cost $52.99.  What would be the effect on demand for said hempalicious trousers?  Would manufacturers flock to the sector and introduce more competitive practices that raise the economic and environmental cost?  Or would people pay extra for the WalMart jeans anyway because they can buy their terribly cheap organic food at the same time, or they hate shopping in earnest fair-trade shops, or perhaps because the higher price has given the WalMart jeans a certain must-have quality?

And how would you define social cost anyway? For example, I went to a talk where a man attempted to argue that forest resources in West Papua, Indonesia, were being “appropriated” from their rightful (traditional tribal) owners by harmful mining companies. And who wouldn’t have sympathy with locals who find their fishing waters polluted and traditional harvest lands taken over? But you could argue that the costs to that sector of society have benefited another sector – the Indonesians whose living standards have improved due to the rise in GDP achieved through timber exports.

So is this an idiotic idea, or what? And was it worth writing about just for the pleasure of visiting the Sylvanian Families website? And why can’t I stop asking questions?

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