Monday, May 4, 2015

Buy Local?

Much is made of buy local and then much is made buy handmade and by women. In other words the idea behind it is buying stuff that your mother or grandmother used to make or you used to as a craft. The secondary notion is that from this an industry is built by helping those indigenous people in war torn countries have work.

Tom's Shoes prides itself on donating shoes for children. Great philanthropy and do they have documentation to support this as they are a for profit company and I would like to know is this the best resource or need?

Then we have WalMart who fails to pay their employees sufficient wage or enough hours requiring them to go on public assistance, were devising a marketing strategy to add to labels a small, circular symbol indicating that the company behind the product is owned by women.

The idea is that by expressing values through buying decisions has become a regular practice for a certain breed of shopper (albeit one more likely to be found at Whole Foods than Walmart) to encourage positive messaging and positive consumerism. So they have customers go an modified treasure hunt to look for logos proclaiming a product is certified kosher or free from genetically modified organisms or made locally by fill in the whatever oppressed group of the month is.

Be it Free Trade, Organic or my favorite blood diamonds as that matters when coughing up cash for a rock, are all part of the need to both appeal and in turn make the customer feel better about buying the product.

But lets be honest we like our fashions like our foods cheap. The secondary bonus of this supposed but yet largely unverifiable charity is like a nice bath in warm water as it washes away guilt. Tom's shoes are utter garbage, poorly made and disposable. I think that may be more the point as you need to be the one who will need more shoes.

Then we have the continued exploitation of children and women who are working in factories that are largely unregulated and unsafe with repeated accidents and fires proving that the pledges and demands of larger retailers and manufacturers are unheeded.

John Oliver once again hits a home run with the fashion industry and the cheapness of both words and quality. Remember we are poors and we are all disposable too.

And then I read this editorial in the New York Times. Etsy went public and is holding its own on the big marketplace of Wall Street.

I love Etsy but nothing I buy there is about saving anyone or the world. I buy what I like and what I can afford. I can peruse numerous vendors and in turn negotiate and exchange what I like. I love that many of the vendors can alter their product and customize for you bringing new meaning to haute couture and are in turn most quick to meet the order. I assume this is what Ebay was like in the early days as well.

But many Etsy vendors outsource too. They have to to enhance volume and turn profit. I don't mind nor care. I don't buy from any Chinese vendor that is what Target is for. I do look at where the seller lives and that can also determine if I can be sure the transaction will go as planned. (At times prices are altered due to changes in financial transactions/dollar exchanges and in turn shipping costs all which have to factored in) Hell I have had Canadian people never communicate with me and they are 3 hours to the North, but had none with a woman in Estonia. But Etsy is quick to resolve and I have (yet) felt frustrated or pissed about the products I buy.

I do not, however, think anything more than this is nice, I like it and I would wear it or put it in my house and enjoy it. I don't have secondary thoughts as to what I am or am not doing to make this sale have an impact beyond the singular transaction it is.

It is nice to think we are doing some good but in reality we are all job creators every time we do buy or use a service. That is all the good we need.

Sorry, Etsy. That Handmade Scarf Won’t Save the World.

MAY 1, 2015

IN her memoir, “Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Ms. Lynn remembers the thrill of receiving her first “store-boughten” dress from a social services agent when she was around 7. It was blue with pink flowers and “dainty little pockets.”

“Mercy, how I loved it,” the singer recalls. Unfortunately, the family hog loved it, too. The dress was chewed to pieces and the young Ms. Lynn had to go back to wearing the dresses her mother sewed from old flour sacks.

Today, some 75 years later, you can buy a little blue dress with pink flowers on for $6.44. A handmade flour sack dress, on the other hand, will cost you $90 on Etsy.

Once a mark of poverty, handmade is hot these days. Nothing seems to shout “upper-middle-class values” like hand-carved wooden children’s toys, handmade lavender soap from the farmers’ market, artisan country bread and chunky hand-knit scarves. Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, brought this homespun mania to national attention last month when it went public with a bang, ending its first day of trading at $30, up 87 percent from its I.P.O. of $16. It’s now joined by dozens of other handmade-goods sites, and hundreds of artisan markets across America.

Our hunger for handmade has gone beyond aesthetics, uniqueness and quality. 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.

While buying homemade gifts is a lovely thing to do, thinking of it as a social good is problematic.
Like locavorism and “eco consumerism,” it’s part of a troubling trend for neoliberal “all change begins with your personal choices” ideology. This ideology is attractive: Buy something nice, do something good. But it doesn’t work, at least not very well.

When it comes to complex issues, “vote with your wallet” campaigns have never been particularly effective in driving consumer change. In the 1970s, musical “look for the union label” TV ads were so ubiquitous they earned a parody on “Saturday Night Live.” But they didn’t halt the decline of unions. Around the same time, cars sported “Buy American: The Job You Save May Be Your Own” bumper stickers. Did it stop people from buying Toyotas? Hardly.

A vast majority of people will continue to buy what they buy for one reason: It’s a good value. Very few of us will order a $50 handmade scarf on Etsy when one is available for $5 at Target. We can’t expect most consumers to avoid items made in sweatshops or by otherwise exploited workers. We need regulations for that. When “buy handmade” is couched as a solution to exploitative labor conditions, it’s easy to forget structural change-making.

As curmudgeonly as this sounds, the sweet idea of “community building” through personal connection with artisans is not as simple as it seems, either. A few years ago, I attended a conference for Etsy entrepreneurs, where I sat in on a seminar about “narrative building.” It was critical, the seminar leader explained, to give your customers something personal: pictures of your kids, a story about a project that failed. If they found you likable, they’d be more eager to buy.

This is what you might call “affiliative consumerism” — people buying stuff from people they know and find appealing. People who are like them. On the face of it, this is a good thing: Isn’t that what community is about? Yet it means that money stays in a circle of like-minded individuals.

In her 2012 book “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” the journalist Elizabeth Cline visits Alta Gracia, a unionized garment factory in the Dominican Republic. The workers are paid a living wage, roughly three and a half times the Dominican Republic’s minimum wage. Is it better for my dollar to go to the likable, just-like-me Brooklyn mom selling handmade headbands on Etsy or to a company that uses garment factories like Alta Gracia?

Much is also made about the eco-friendliness of handmade.

“Buying handmade (especially really locally) can greatly reduce your carbon footprint on the world,” reads a post on the popular website Handmadeology.

But few economists give much credence to the idea that buying local necessarily saves energy. Most believe that the economies of scale inherent in mass production outweigh the benefits of nearness. These same economies of scale most likely make a toothbrush factory less wasteful, in terms of materials, than 100 individual toothbrush makers each handcrafting 10 toothbrushes a day. An efficient toothbrush factory bound by strong environmental regulations would benefit everyone the most.

A potentially positive effect of the handmade movement has been the creation of a new income stream for parents (mostly mothers) and others who need flexible work. Since its inception, Etsy has served as a sort of modern version of what selling Mary Kay and Tupperware used to be. It offers the possibility of self-directed part-time work that can be done while attending to child care responsibilities, a rarity in America. But the dream has only ever materialized for a few, and even those who become successful often burn out trying to stitch iPod cases for 16 hours a day. Again, what’s truly needed is systemic change: mandatory paid parental leave and subsidized day care.

There are plenty of good reasons to buy handmade. You’re probably not going to find a squid-shaped dining chair or a crocheted sloth at a big box store, for one. 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. But will buying handmade change the economy or save the world? Not likely.

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