Friday, May 8, 2015

What do you mean, my handmade scarves won't save the world??

I was startled to see this headline in Sunday's New York Times Sunday Review section

 It's Chic.  Not Morally Superior.

The pull quote seemed to shout straight at me:  "That handmade scarf won't save the world."  In this opinion piece, Emily Matchar sets out to puncture what she sees as the illusions of smug boho consumers who believe their purchase of locally grown and handmade goods is striking a blow for a better world.  She writes,

"In progressive circles, buying handmade has come to connote moral virtue, signifying an interest in sustainability and a commitment to social justice.  By making your own cleaning supplies, you're eschewing environment-poisoning chemicals.  By buying a handmade sweater, you're fighting sweatshop labor.  By chatting with the artisan who makes your soap, you're striking a blow against our alienated "Bowling Alone" culture." 

To which I first want to say, Yes, and You gotta problem with that? 

Ms. Matchar goes on to say that, unfortunately, consumer choices have not always been the most effective driver of social change, pointing out that "Buy American" campaigns did not save either the American auto or textile industries.  Most people will buy the goods that represent the best value for money, and for many that means what is available at the "local" Target or WalMart or their equivalent.  Heck, I've been known to buy clothes at Target occasionally myself.

Sustainable cotton handwoven infinity scarf, from cotton grown in colors (no dyes used). $80 on

It's true that my handwoven scarves, priced at $80 and up, cannot compete on price alone with the very inexpensive scarves made abroad and sold at the big box stores.  Matchar points out that it is possible to find garment factories that pay their workers fairly (she cites Alta Gracia, a unionized factory in the Dominican Republic), and that buying their products is arguably doing more social good than buying from someone in one's own social cohort, the "likeable, just-like-me Brooklyn mom selling handmade headbands on Etsy." Okay, maybe she has a point there.  But as a consumer fingering a scarf at Target, I see a label that says only "Made in Dominican Republic."  It doesn't tell me which factory made it or what their labor practices are.  Whereas the Etsy seller, or the artisan in the booth at the farmer's market or craft fair, can easily share her story, her studio, her materials and her process with her customers.

Alpaca-silk and tencel handwoven infinity wrap (sold) on
The fact is, we don't have to make an either-or choice between buying locally handmade goods or cheaply made off-shore merchandise from big box retailers.  Most of us can, and do, buy both.  Folks who buy my handwovens buy them as special gifts for those they love.  They buy them as a treat for themselves.  They buy them because, as Ms. Matchar recognizes, "It's important to support artisans who retain knowledge of traditional art forms.  Many handmade items are also higher quality than their mass-produced counterparts."  (Why, thank you!)  My pieces are individually designed, finished, and marketed, one at a time, by me alone.  It's not an efficient production model, and it's not making me rich (yet), but this work is a meaningful use of my time and makes for meaningful transactions with those I am privileged to call my customers.

Why do you buy handmade, if you do?    

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