The cost of things

I am a big fan of the ‘slow’ movement. For those not familiar with the concept, ‘slow’ is about doing things mindfully, taking the time to focus on what we are doing and making a conscious effort to do it well. ‘Slow food’, for example, encourages people to choose fresh, high quality ingredients, to cook them with care and to take the time to enjoy eating them, preferably with family or friends.

This approach has spread – slowly – to other disciplines, so that we are now starting to see things such as ‘slow cities’, ‘slow working’ and, indeed, ‘slow living’. Often dismissed as a new-age, lefty indulgence, it is, rather, a welcome rally against the cult of speed that threatens to take over so many aspects of our lives. For adherents of slow, life is something to be savoured and enjoyed. The journey is as important as the destination.

One of my favourite slow concepts is that of ‘eigenzeit’. It comes from the German ‘eigen’, meaning one’s own, and ‘zeit’, meaning time. The idea that everything, if we are to do it well, requires a certain amount of time. Now, the particular amount of time required clearly depends on the specific task in hand, but if you try to do it any quicker than its ‘eigenzeit’, then you will inevitably do it badly or not at all.

Take my garden, for example. I know that it’s going to take me an hour to cut the grass, if I include trimming the edges and tidying up the clippings afterwards. I’ve done it quite a few times now and it has never taken me less than an hour. It sometimes takes me more time, particularly if I’m having an off day or stop to chat with my neighbour, but never less. Now, I could save time by only cutting the more visible parts of the lawn, by leaving the edges to fend for themselves or by not bothering to tidy up afterwards. But that’s not ‘cutting the grass’ as I’ve defined it. My task has an eigenzeit of sixty minutes. It’s a fact.

In a similar vein, I would like to propose the concept of ‘eigenkost’. We already know what ‘eigen’ means, and ‘kost’ is German for – and you may be able to guess this – cost. If we are to produce a good or a service to a certain standard of quality, there is – in my view – a minimum amount that it must cost. We might be able to shave a few pounds off here and there by being more efficient or whatever, but we will eventually reach a point where we can’t cut costs any more. That’s the ‘eigenkost’.

If we try to drive down the cost of something below its eigenkost, bad things happen. Some producers will just stop what they are doing and go off and try something else. We’re seeing this at the moment in the dairy industry, where farmers are selling off their herds due to the unrealistically low price that they are able to get for each pint of milk that they – or, rather, their cows – produce.

Alternatively, producers might simply struggle on, making a loss on what they do, in the hope that something will turn up or that circumstances will change. Or they might change the goods or services that they provide, sticking to the ones that they can afford to deliver or reducing the quality of what they produce. This is the situation, for example, in local government across the UK, where funding cuts are having a direct impact on the nature, scope and quality of public services.

Sometimes, however, producers will opt to respond to cost pressures by trying to hoodwink us. They will cheat. They will reduce the cost of their goods or services below the eigenkost by using sub-standard raw materials, by cutting corners in production or by claiming to have done things that they have not. It is looking increasingly likely that this is what is happening across Europe with the substitution of horse-meat in beef products, for example, but this is hardly the only instance where producers have responded in this way.

The slow movement tells us that we need to think carefully about how much things cost to produce and how much we are willing to pay for them. We need to be prepared to pay a fair price for the things we need and to challenge those who seek to do otherwise. We need to recognise that everything  has a minimum cost – its eigenkost – and that to seek to drive prices below this is to pay disrespect to the goods and services that we consume, as well as to those who work hard to produce them.

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