Friday, April 27, 2012

Why Spend the Money for Hand Made? I Have an Answer for That.

Ever look at a high quality handmade item and suffer some sticker shock?  You maybe begin wonder why it has to cost more.  And then you wonder why you should spend the extra money for handmade when you can go to a box store and get something similar for half the price, right?  I have faced these questions several times and they have been on my mind a lot lately.  Not that I need to ponder the reasoning behind buying (eco-friendly) handmade items, but that so many people do not realize the many benefits of these purchases and that is what I would like to talk about today: why it is worth paying more and supporting these talented artisans whose work will not be appearing on any shelf at a box store ever.

Let's begin with why it costs more.  Box stores and several ecommerce businesses buy items that are manufactured in places like China, Taiwan, India, and Bangladesh just to name a few.  I spent a little over a year as an accountant for an ecommerce company with literally thousands of vendors and almost all of our vendors received their merchandise from these places.  During the holiday season, we would order containers ourselves.  I constantly heard stories of containers being held up from overseas for various reasons.  So then why do the corporations buy items manufactured overseas and go through the headache of shipping it here?  Because the labor is cheap.  And by cheap I mean slave labor wages in deplorable working conditions.  That is how they are able to sell these goods so cheap.  Because the wages and working conditions are so low the manufacturers overseas are able to sell their products for pennies on the dollar.  Even with factoring in the large shipping costs of moving that merchandise across an ocean, which is a substantial portion of the cost, they still pay very little and are still able to sell them to consumers for very little while still maintaining a sustainable profit margin.  In the process, exploiting a desperate workforce so we can buy cheap plastic crap for just a few bucks.

It truly worries me that we care more about that new trendy electronic device than we do about another person's suffering being caused by us making that purchase.  It only occurs to us in passive ways.  When we see something in the news and we shake our heads and comment on how horrible it is and then we take another sip of our latte and move on with our day.  We are all guilty of it.  We all own a product that was produced in this way.  It is practically impossible to live in the United States right now and not own something that was produced in this way.  I suffer bouts of severe guilt when I consider the conditions my phone and laptop were made under and I am convinced that there is a better way to conduct business.  One that does not involve nets lining the factories to prevent suicides, like the photo below.  The handmade industry does not operate in this way.  It is made up of hard-working people that put in long hours to produce quality goods with their own two hands.  It doesn't resemble the disgusting practice of a few people making a lot of money on the backs of their overworked and underpaid workers, like you find in most of the corporate sphere.  The handmade industry has the best ethics around and feels a deep responsibility to producing products that are made without profiting on human suffering.  This is why I am so deeply committed to this industry and consider it a privilege to be a part of it.

Photo from a fantastic post about Foxconn on Gizmodo that can be found here.

I don't have enough room to talk about every country that mass produces items with slave labor because sadly, there are just too many of them, but I would like to talk about China for a moment.  I found a fantastic article written by a man who spends a substantial amount of time in China and has done a wonderful job of breaking down the wages using his intimate knowledge gained during time spent talking to the actual workers.  His knowledge comes straight from the horse's mouths, so to speak.  Although he talked to several different workers in many different fields, the most heartbreaking story to me was of the factory workers.  They usually work about 60 hours a week and make the equivalent of about $1.00 per hour, but the factory coerces them to live in dorms and eat at cafeterias and deducts the cost of their food and lodging.  After "settling their tabs," they end up with the equivalent about $0.47 per hour.  It reminds me of the way the coal companies used to operate: by paying the miners with currency manufactured by the coal companies called scrip.  It could only be used to pay the coal company for their housing and to purchase goods from the company store.  Always leaving coal workers "owing their soul to the company store."  The companies not only profit off their cheap labor, but directly profit from the employees basic need for food and shelter, much like China does today.  This revolting practice was finally eliminated in the U.S. in the 1950s, but that hasn't stopped many corporations from continuing it.  They have just modernized their methods to keep their hands clean.  I guess all it takes is a little distance, like an ocean, to keep their conscience clear.

As bad as that sounds, Bangladesh is even worse.  The average salary of a garment worker there is the equivalent of $43 a month.  This article by the BBC details the challenges those garment workers face and the deal struck with UNICEF in 1995 to end child labor.  Yep, kids in Bangladesh were manufacturing the clothes you find in your local mall until then.  The article by BBC News details they stores they supply.  I promise you will know all of the companies and have probably at some point owned a garment sold by at least one of them.  I try to picture my son having to work in a factory like that, but I just can't do it.  He was allowed to play with his friends and go to school/swimming lessons/ little league and fry his brain on video games.  He couldn't even imagine needing to punch a time clock in his childhood.  Sadly, I know that a child in Bangladesh cannot imagine that life.  I say that having gone to middle school with a girl from Bangladesh so I feel I have an intimate knowledge of what life was like there for a young girl in the late eighties/early nineties at least.  Our lives seemed like a carnival compared to her childhood.

So that brings me to the question of the hour.  Would you work for $43 a month?  Granted, we should be factoring in the difference in the costs of living, but then we should also look at the standard of living if you want to do that.  Even in a place like Bangladesh, $43 a month really doesn't cut it, and it certainly doesn't afford them anything that we would consider a tolerable standard of living.  Especially when you consider that the garment industry in Bangladesh is a 18 BILLION dollar a year industry!  That much money made and all the labor workers receive is a measly $43 dollars a month.  The inequity this is creating is obvious, even to the most casual observer.

Artisans spend many hours on fine details, putting a little piece of themselves into each one of their creations.  The detail and craftsmanship are superior to anything you will find in any mass produced product.  Not to mention that many of these items are one of a kind.  Artisans love to take custom orders.  They love the idea of making something unique that mirrors your personality.  They take great pride in their product because it is a very direct reflection on them.  The price you see is the cost of those several hours spent making an item without the assistance of heavy machinery that uses a lot of energy to run.  The carbon footprint on a hand made item is almost non existent compared to the energy used to mass produce products.  And if there is a flaw or defect in the item you can go directly to the source to have it fixed.  No customer service centers that will make you traverse a difficult maze of computer menus before you finally reach an underpaid and under appreciated human: who is limited in what they can do to resolve your concerns.  Or even worse if you use email to contact them and they respond with a form email that has absolutely nothing to do with the original question.  When buying handmade or from a small business, you can go directly to the owner or the person that made the item.  The person who truly cares about your satisfaction.  I know of nothing more soul crushing to an artisan than for them to know one of their customers was not happy with their purchase.  Your dissatisfaction is felt immediately and the artisan will do everything within reason (and often even outside of reason) to make you feel satisfied with the transaction.  I feel more secure buying a handmade item than anything else because of this intimate connection to the artisan.

I know this because I have spent many years involved in the handmade industry.  I started at the age of 14 working for artisans at arts festivals and such.  I have never been treated better by an employer.  My welfare was one of their top priorities.  I never paid for a meal or snack.  If I was exhausted and needed an extra break they would insist that I take it.  Taking walks and leaving my work station to visit the other booths was encouraged.  I was completely taken care of.  Not that I didn't work hard.  I worked my little butt off, but I always felt valued and that my well being was important.  There is a very strong community among artisans that is unmatched in how caring and supportive they are, even with their competition.  I am now 35 and have been producing items of my own for the last few years.  It is hard work and involves long hours, but doing what you love in this diverse industry makes it all worth it.

That is why you pay more than you would at a box store.  You pay to support a community of artisans that will happily, even gleefully, take you in and support you as well.  The money you spend goes directly into the pocket of the person who supplied the manual labor to produce that product.  These purchases don't make a rich person richer like a box store purchase does.  Supporting artisans also supports small business.  Artisans tend to buy from local businesses, thrift stores, and other artisans (who are small businesses of their own).  Buying hand made is a guaranteed way of keeping your hard earned money out of corporate bank accounts.  They get enough of your tax dollars already in bailouts and tax breaks.  Don't give them any more of your paycheck. 

Become a small business shareholder and support your local artisans and small businesses.  I know that it can cost a little more, but the benefits it reaps makes it worth the few extra dollars. 

Love and Peace