on factories: why respect is more important than craft

industrial ad pop art by frozen time photo
industrial ad pop art by frozen time photo - click image for more info

There is a fundamental problem with the idea of buying “handmade.”
Chiefly that the vast majority of things we buy are made by hand.

The hands don’t look familiar, though. They maybe a different color. They may be rough, cracked. They use tools & machines we don’t understand. The hands that made your bookshelf, sofa, or television may be thinner than yours – achy from lack of food.

Those hands have never had much of a choice in how they earn a living. Nor have they had much choice in how they live, where they live, or who governs them.

Those hands get no respect.

Yes, those hands work in factories. But factories aren’t bad. This handmade movement isn’t about factories. It’s not about mass production, it’s not about luxury vs austerity. The handmade movement is about respect: for ourselves, for our goods, for others, and for our community.

The factory system as we know it now is about subjugating workers, concentrating power, and maximizing profit at the expense of quality. In this system, people – and their hands – are merely pawns in a game of profit. Respect is not a consideration.

In recent years, we have rediscovered the ties that bind us together as humans. The digital age – coupled with crippling consumerism – has helped us see each other as equals and not human steps on a ladder to higher status. We recognize the respect due to all of those around us.

Including makers of all ilks.

Is it possible that striving to create a business model that generates respect is as valid as a business model that generates profit?

When I look around the blogosphere, Etsy, eBay, and other marketplaces, I see many individuals, makers, and mom & pop businesses that don’t respect themselves, let alone those who are buying from them. I see makers underselling, I see coaches apologizing, I see designers ceding power, and I see potential visionaries wearing blinders.

I see petty conversations. I see back stabbing. I see values out of focus.

As the handmade movement has grown, it has adopted its own limiting set of expectations.

Instead of creating new rules, we have a tendency to apply old rules to a new paradigm. This is a moment in time where that won’t work. The rules are being rewritten and reimagined – we can choose to be a part of it or not.

I propose that we codify an expectation of respect throughout craft culture, microbusiness, and personal consumption. If you’re an entrepreneur, respect yourself in your prices, your product descriptions, your conversations with cooperititon [definition coming!], and your use of the marketplace. If you’re a consumer, respect others – all of them – for the value they add to your life through the products they produce – whether lovingly handcrafted or mechanically constructed.

As the contemporary handmade movement grows, matures, and scales, we will learn to create factories, collectives, franchises, and chains that embody the respect we have rediscovered in ourselves & those around us.

We can build a system that promotes respect instead of denying it.

How are you working today to promote respect in business & in life? What businesses around you – or around the world – promote respect in innovative ways?

23 thoughts on “on factories: why respect is more important than craft

  1. Thanks for illuminating the essence of what I have been feeling for years. Albeit, it has been a long journey in the dark. Your perspective has opened the door for conversation and opportunity. A non for profit organization that has developed in San Francisco is paving a path for innovative artists, designers and their companies to find their way in this new paradigm. SF Made is inspiring. I hope to see this type of movement move across the country and beyond. Here is there information http://www.sfmade.org/

    Best wishes to all.

  2. I have struggled with this many times myself. When I think about the clothes in the cheap chain stores – when I think about the cheap electronics – I realise that someone HAS made them by hand.

    And the problem is that those people aren’t getting the respect – or pay, or conditions, or lifestyle – that they deserve.

    And I wish I could change that!

  3. This has been a topic on my mind so much lately…I’ve been blogging about it too. You might have to look back a few posts if you care to read, because I’m on my phone and can’t copy the link!

  4. I appreciate you opening up the discussion on this topic, Tara. In this New Economy, it’s going to be more important than ever to look at our businesses in a new way.

  5. You’ve done it again! I am earning next to nothing in my online biz because I want to be sure that
    1. I am not selling myself short-disrespecting myself.
    2. That I am not disrespecting my customers with thoughtless advertising and compromised decisions.
    I am not quite ready for the hard sale but when I am I will know I am doing it responsibly on all parts.

    “Instead of creating new rules, we have a tendency to apply old rules to a new paradigm. This is a moment in time where that won’t work. The rules are being rewritten and reimagined – we can choose to be a part of it or not.”

    I am choosing to be part of it, and that requires some patience.

    I will add that in addition to new rules we can create new words. Can’t wait for the definition of cooperititon :)

  6. This reminds me of something that came up when I was taking my college sociology courses – “Why is a building any less natural than a beehive?” The systems we humans put into place are every bit a part of nature as the systems used by other organisms. The difference is that we have the capacity to distort our systems. So let’s stop.

    Let’s apply new rules to old and new paradigms alike. Let’s ask questions of the places we buy from and let’s tell them when we don’t like what we see. Let’s seek out those who have been disrespected and ask them how we can avoid repeating history.

    So I guess I’m going to change myself first, and then, I promise to stop complaining to my friends and start complaining to those I complain about.

  7. I have often thought about how all things are handmade. Sometimes I look at Etsy sites in other countries and think that is from a factory. Having been to Nepal however, their “factories” are 10 woman sewing sweaters out of yarn that is being dyed on the roof. All those baskets that end up at thrift stores were made my someone. They have never developed a machine that could make a basket.

    I will continue to ponder you points as I begin pricing my jewelry. I am not marketing to the people who buy mass produced and I need to remember that. Looking forward to reading more.

  8. Beautifully said Tara, thank you for taking what sometimes feels like a polarising topic and landing it on the ground. Like a lot of other people, I’ve struggled with this one, both as an artist, entrepreneur and as a consumer. Respect for what you buy is certainly related to respect for the money you have earned. We instituted a new policy in our home last year, where instead of buying a lot of “stuff” cheaply, we buy what we want and need when we can afford it. It has made me feel completely different about what I want and why I want it. Now, to tackle the pricing of my own work, and growing some respect there! Thank you Tara!

  9. Thank you for stating this. I just launched a business & start working with a manufacturer for the first time. Your words made me feel better & at the same time very aware of the impact I can make.

  10. An off-shoot of this discussion is the pervasive American belief that we “deserve” to get things cheaply. The whole world is mass-producing to satiate our desire for “stuff,” and in most cases the prices are getting lower and lower. It makes no sense that we, the world’s richest nation, are surrounded by inexpensive EVERYTHING when the hands that are making most of the stuff overseas cannot afford the things they’re making for us.

    Best 20-min film on this topic: “The Story of Stuff” by Annie Leonard. It changed my buying habits and mentality in one fell swoop.

  11. Tara, I am new to your blog and happy to be a lurker :) I appreciate your address of the assumptions we’ve made – made in a factory is somehow not handmade . . . and I appreciate the poke in the eye about respect, at least that’s how I got it . . . and it was a good poke :) Cause for pause about how I respect others and most importantly how I propagate respect by respecting myself/my work . . . it really all starts ‘at home’ with that sense of self-responsibility

  12. I am helping promote respect in business and my personal life in several ways. I just quit a well paying job because I could no longer stand watching the owner treat good people poorly. I was constantly having to protect my employees customers and business associates from her and when I failed to do that I had to follow in her wake making apologies. It finally got to the point where I couldn’t take the constant misery she created in my life.

    I am now trying to give my own business a kick start and hopefully start consulting. Will it work? I don’t know, I may go down in flames. If I do go down in flames though it will be with a clear conscience, knowing I at least treated all the people in my personal life and business life with dignity and respect.

  13. Interesting points you make! I know I have personally struggled with pricing my work at retail prices, and getting my best friend and her mom to pay themselves fairly for their work. I realize that a large part of those struggles are comparisons to mass produced items and feeling pressure to compete.

  14. When pricing my handmade jewelry.. I could not price my work as the designer and handmade laborer… The labor is a lot cheaper over-seas, which is why most mass produced goods are made there. I do not believe my blistered fingers should be making that type of wage.. it’s not livable in LA.. or any where in the US. So how do I make this work?

    My full time job IS a designer for mass-produced over-seas made goods.. I get paid a very nice livable wage that is in proportion to the cost of living in the city I live.

    Seeing the title “designer” from both sides.. and now assembly line production worker in the same puzzle. I don’t believe designing and hand making your work and selling it on Etsy, craft shows, boutiques.. can work at comparable retail pricing. I dont think the formula works. I’m sorry but I’ve had to hang up my handmade hat for now. For me, just being the designer is more suited for my single-girl city-lifestyle.

    Let’s definitely respect those factory workers! They’re doing a job most of us do not want to do.. and living a life most of us could not even imagine.

  15. “Instead of creating new rules, we have a tendency to apply old rules to a new paradigm. This is a moment in time where that won’t work. The rules are being rewritten and reimagined – we can choose to be a part of it or not.”

    Thank you for this timely post, Tara! I have been such an advocate for the handmade movement ever since I discovered Etsy 2 years ago. I am anti rampant-consumerism and pro mindful-spending. I have deep concern that the economies in India and China are simply following a dreadful model laid out by the West, which will only lead to even greater and more horrible consequences. But this week, I have had my faith in the handmade movement shaken a little.

    Arguments about Heartsy have hijacked the Etsy forums. Some of those passionately in favor of Heartsy have argued that it’s a great way to “clear out unwanted stock” or “or get rid of stuff”. I understand that people are trying to make a living but isn’t that the same model as the big discount stores? And when does artisan-made, turn into unwanted stock, or even stuff?!

    The other thing that has bothered me lately is the marketing of handmade. I was all onboard until recently I have seen some bloggers giving advice on target markets and ideal customers. I totally get the niche market idea and getting the word out to the people who want your product/art/service, etc. but, when I read things like: What does she look like? What is her job title? How old is she? How much does she earn? What is her level of education?… Frankly, I’m starting to feel uncomfortable. What’s next? Race? Religion? In my experience, someone’s age or level of education doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about their values or tastes. Making assumptions based on age, education, income, gender, appearance, etc. seems rather disturbing, and feels very corporate.

    New paradigm = new rules!!

  16. As usual, I love this! Respect is key: respect for ourselves, respect for fellow artists & respect for the ‘handmade movement.’ Thank you for this timely article. I hope that many of us join the revolution & continue rewriting the rules!

  17. Every time I come back here, I am so refreshed.

    Why is there a song playing in my head right now …? I’ll tell you what it means to me. 😉

    As a graphic designer and as well as a maker of things, I see this lack of respect not only in the material sphere but also in the electronic/idea sphere of creativity. It’s so easy now to “crowdsource,” which is sort of a virtual sweatshop if you ask me. So many clients expect me to come up with the start of a project for free (spec work) or to lower my prices to “bid” on their posted projects online.

    No thank you.

    I totally understand the struggle for respect from a slightly different perspective; I’m often struggling with the same sort of defenses whether my goods are digital or tangible.

  18. This is my first time reading your blog. I am loving reading the opinions of everyone about this topic. I feel myself a bit discouraged about how this new paradigm is going to come out. Just like Emma said on a post below, sometimes DIY business feels a bit corporate too. We should all definitely think that we’re making something that someone else needs, I am guessing that’s everyone’s start point when running a DIY business. But, aren’t we also contributing to consumerism? I mean, I understand we are all slaves of money and we still need it to wander around the world, I just really wished we could put together that respect for our work with the respect for the consumer.

  19. Very true!
    People really don’t understand the time that goes into manufacturing “stuff” People seem to think a garment just rolls out of a machine…and maybe that’s possible on a large scale in the future, but we’re not there yet.
    As long as people don’t understand the effort that goes into an object they will have no respect for it.
    Designing and producing garments myself has given me a lot of insight on this subject but it’s a struggle to find balance when building a business.
    I think Alabama Chanin is a very inspiring company they have a beautiful balance between producing, craftsmanship, educating consumers and a business model http://alabamachanin.com

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