May 11, 2015
On Affordable Luxuries and the High Cost of Very Cheap Things
Of the many bizarre paradoxes that define life in New York, one of the most troubling is that despite the astronomical costs of basic living expenses—things like housing, food, transportation—it’s also possible to get what could fairly be considered luxuries far less expensively than would be expected. One notable example of this is the low price of manicures and pedicures that can be found in the countless cheap salons that dot the five boroughs. Some streets in Brooklyn, like the stretch of Church Avenue that passes through Kensington, are crowded with cheap nail salon after cheap nail salon, each trying to undercut the prices of the next: Mani-Pedi Combo $25! Mani-Pedi Combo Only $20 on Mon-Wed! Solo Manicure Just $8! The prices cast a harsh light on capitalism in action—it’s as clear a demonstration as any that competition drives down price, no matter the ultimate cost to those who provide the service.
Last week, the New York Times published “The Price of Nice Nails,” a groundbreaking look into the conditions of the workers in the nail care industry, which writer Sarah Maslin Nir spent over a year working on, exploring everything from the industry’s inherent racism (there is an established hierarchy at nail salons, with Koreans getting paid the most, followed by Chinese workers and then Hispanics, Nir said in an interview that she found “the racism” to be the most surprising part of the investigation), to the extremely low wages paid to workers (“a vast majority of workers are paid below minimum wage; sometimes they are not even paid”), to the frightening health-related consequences—severe lung damage and miscarriages, to name a couple—that manicurists face. The industry-wide problems that Nir exposes are not necessarily specific to New York nail salons, but the problem is more profound here for the simple reason that “no American metropolitan area rivals New York for nail salons. Los Angeles and San Francisco, the closest, have about half as many salons per capita.”
The conditions in New York that would seem to have given rise to such a preponderance of nail salons are as manifold as they are obvious, though, perhaps most notably, there’s New York City’s surplus of cheap, immigrant labor which guarantees a seemingly endless supply of would-be manicurists. But also, the reality is that here in New York, luxury has become something that people of all income brackets now expect to experience, even though, as Nir so succinctly puts it, “there is no such thing as a cheap luxury. It’s an oxymoron.” In other words, someone is always paying the price for your pampering—even if it’s not you.
Of course, this isn’t just a problem with the manicure industry. There’s an abundance of goods and services that used to carry the connotation of extreme wealth but that are now available to the masses. Couture-style clothes are now available for the low, low price of whatever the going rate on H&M’s sales rack is that day; John Oliver recently resurrected the specter of sweatshop labor in an insightful take on how the fact that ultra-trendy clothes are cheaper than ever is really only good for the people who buy them, not for the people who are making them. And even though there has been a huge push in recent years toward ethical fashion, with companies like Zady and Everlane addressing the need for transparency in clothing manufacturing, there still exists a certain badge of honor amongst New Yorkers who can say with no small amount of pride to a questioning admirer that the gorgeous top they’re wearing that looks just like a Rick Owens? Well, it’s actually from Zara, they crow. It’s the same, unabashedly gleeful tone that New Yorkers get when they trade information about where to get the cheapest mani-pedi, or the least expensive blow-out. This is, after all, a city where money is talked about constantly and bargains—whether on real estate or bikini waxes—are shared/gloated over with an enthusiasm that is perhaps geographically unmatched.
And yet: New Yorkers have clearly shown the desire to change their habits when it comes to ethical consumption. The most notable example of this is the food industry which has been revolutionized in recent years with the rise of organic and local eating, proving that people are clearly willing to pay more when—and this is the important part—they feel like it will have a beneficial result for themselves. The thing with paying more for food that’s ethically raised is that consumers aren’t doing it solely out of consideration for farm laborers or food manufacturers, rather we have been inundated for years now with information about how much healthier it is to eat organically, and how much clearer our skin will be if we consume only green juice, and on and on. The incentive to paying more for ethical food is that it will benefit us directly, one that relies on our vanity. There is no such incentive to paying more for a manicure or buying the real designer bag rather than the Chinatown knockoff, because it is actually our vanity that drives us toward those very bargains.
And so change, it seems, might need to start from without, as it already has started to do: Following the publication of Nir’s article (which—essentially, awesomely—has online translation options in Korean, Chinese, and Spanish at the top of the story) has already made an impact to the extent that Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered emergency measures “to combat the wage theft and health hazards faced by the thousands of people who work in New York State’s nail salon industry.” The importance of this type of governmental action cannot be underestimated and, along with the ongoing fight for a higher minimum wage, is a necessary component to any substantive change being made. But just as important is how we as individual consumers decide to spend our money. We need to take responsibility for the purchases we make, for the lifestyle we want to live, not least of all when our personal indulgences come at the expense of the living standards—and even the health—of those who provide them. This doesn’t necessarily mean discontinuing a monthly pedicure, but it does mean responsibly choosing where you go, and generously tipping the woman who is providing the service. Your wallet might feel lighter, but your conscience will too.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen
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