Early last week, I stumbled on an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Sorry, Etsy. That Handmade Scarf Won’t Save the World.” I scanned it, rolled my eyes, and moved on.
But the piece didn’t let go; it’s been rattling around my brain like a rubbery pinball. Putting the Etsy part aside — forgive me if I’m not holding my breath for a corporation with a splashy IPO to save much of anything — I found the whole piece oversimplified and condescending, two qualities guaranteed to push my buttons. No wonder I can’t stop thinking about it.
In a nutshell (for you tl;dr types), Ms. Matchar appears to be making the case that buying handmade doesn’t really accomplish anything.
Now, I wholeheartedly agree with a few of the piece’s central themes:
1) a sense of moral superiority based on your buying habits is worthless (not to mention irritating);
2) purchasing something is not, on its own, an agent of change; and
3) major systemic changes are necessary to raise standards of living, support workers and families, and reverse environmental destruction.
Given all that agreement, why did this article get so far under my skin?
There's a bunch of stuff, really (her section on "narrative building" and "affiliative consumerism" made me laugh out loud; what does she think that whole marketing divisions of major brands are trying to do?), but I think the key is it’s not an either-or choice like the piece sets it up to be.
Look at voter participation rates (and attempts to drive them down even further in many places), look at studies of whose interests governments best serve, and tell me how many of us actually believe such changes are even possible. With corporations legally considered people, and an economy rigged to squeeze every last cent out of our pockets and into shareholders’ dividends, how does it serve to be so dismissive of any chance to connect to each other and to our own creativity?
Buying handmade is not a solution in and of itself, but it is (or can be) a point of engagement. It’s part of a larger framework that includes fair trade, cultural awareness, business ethics, etc. Of course we can’t research every.single.decision, and sometimes there really aren’t any good ones, the perfect being the enemy of the good and all that. Should we throw up our hands and just say, “screw it, I’m not going to think about this anymore”? Many people do. But it’s a cop-out, just as surely as thinking your moral virtue is determined by buying something you like directly from the person who made it and calling it a day.
I’m trying to teach my son that our first instinct when we need or want something should be, “can we make that?” rather than “we need to buy that.” Even if the answer is “no” a majority of the time, just the exercise of thinking about our purchases means we buy less (and put to better use the things we do buy), we buy things with more meaning, and we spend more time being curious about how things are made.
The writer of the piece repeatedly dismisses buying handmade as “not that simple.” Well, duh. But when the choice she holds up is a $5 Target scarf vs a $50 handmade one, she’s reflecting the same caricature on the flip side. How many purchasers of a $5 Target scarf are buying it because they badly need a scarf and this is the one they can afford, vs. buying yet another scarf that will mostly hang in the closet with 12 others and be forgotten after a season? Add in other factors, and there are times when buying the $50 scarf that you adore, will wear every day, and helps support an entrepreneur writing their own story at the same time, actually makes economic, environmental, and just plain common sense.
The examples in the piece are pretty weak: someone hand-making 10 toothbrushes a day vs a toothbrush factory? Burning out by stitching iPod cases for 16 hours a day? Those just sound like bad business models to me. Making a living from your own creative work, as anyone who actually does it knows, isn’t that simple, either.
I’m in no hurry to go back to a pre-industrial society any more than Ms. Matchar is. And no, I don’t think buying a handmade scarf on Etsy is a world-saving act either. But I fail to see where mindful evaluation of how I spend my money, and how it affects the actual humans on the other end of the transaction, isn’t worth doing.