Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Musing about stuff

I was looking at the blog of one of my upcoming interviewees, Niccy from Scrapunzel Pixie (waves to Niccy in non-stalkerish fashion), and she is doing a 52 ways to leave your high street retailer where she is making 52 things she would normally buy. This got me to thinking. Now, obviously you may have worked out that I too like to make things that I would normally buy, and I was thinking about how I started doing this and why I continued. Because, and I know this may surprise you, grit your teeth ;-), I am not actually a natural anti-consumerist. I love shopping. I read the Boden catalogue with rapt attention. I don’t quite want to be buried in John Lewis but, you know, I do like Having Stuff.
An example of homemade charm. Don't get attached! Being ripped out as we speak!
Also I used to think, and for this I blame Germaine Greer, that trying to make a difference in terms of what you consume was a form of activism that was not powerful: that it caused women to spend a lot of time thinking about trivial things, such as whether or not to buy a ready meal, whereas actually we should buy the ready meal, save time, and spend the time saved doing something effective. I am not entirely sure what the something effective was (and indeed – neither was Germaine!), but I am quite sure I didn’t always do it, and I would have been better off not buying the ready meal and cooking something instead and eating something nice. To start with I am not convinced that ready meals do actually save time, and I definitely didn’t save the world in the 15 minutes it (arguably) saved me. And the price of the 15 minutes was that I didn’t enjoy my meal, or feel it had nourished me or done me any good.

My watershed moment came when I started buying handmade things from etsy (when I had money. Violins) and realised they were just better. I don’t mean this in an anti-consumerist, dignity-of-craft kind of way, I mean it just in really shallow terms. If I bought handmade I got miles better quality, unusual, effective things that I loved and enjoyed using, and which made the things I bought on the high street seem, well, a bit crap. And when you have had good quality things, you start to think, why should I pay what is after all only a bit less for a High Street something which has been produced in really questionable conditions and which I don’t like as much? Aren’t I worth more than that? So then I started making my own things because I was interested to see what it was realistically possible to integrate the making of into your life, and I discovered that actually some things (like soap) that I assumed before could only be made through a vast scary industrial process were actually really simple to produce at home and knocked anything L'Oreal could make into a cocked hat.

So now I have read books and poked my nose into things, and I can do the politics of why small production and handmade is good, and why big businesses don’t always act ethically and what should be done, and that kind of thing, but really, I just still come back to my first impression. I’ve always found handmade things to be just better, in a cheerful, life-enriching way, and that is why I make my own or buy handmade when I can. Otherwise, frankly, I wouldn’t be as motivated. I mean, obviously there’d still be the same arguments for, say, why Tesco shouldn’t be allowed to expand unchecked, if they still had all the same crappy business practices but they produced food that was like the nectar of the Gods: but for me the most effective argument is, if I make a scone myself it will be light, fresh, delicious and satisfying, whereas if I buy one from Tesco it will not. It will be a strange simulacrum that will leave me unsatisfied and will probably make me keep eating because I’m not full from a satisfying meal. And why should I have a nasty scone rather than a nice one? Don’t I merit a nice scone? (Is that the worst anti-Tesco rallying cry ever? Let’s never put it on a tshirt).

In fact, if I was cynical, I would say that this is how consumerism works, we’re sold things that are never quite right and because they are so unsatisfying we keep on buying more until we run out of money or end up on Hoarders. But obviously, as you know, I do not have a cynical bone in my body, so I just cook and knit and make cosmetics, whether it is unpowerful or unfeminist or not, and I enjoy all my stuff more than if I were buying it. In fact that’s the final irony in a way: all of us breaking our necks and ruining the planet to get Money to buy Stuff and then it’s just a mass-produced simulacrum of a satisfying thing and we could just have made it ourselves and it would have been better and more fun.

What do you think? Is handmade better or is this a slippery slope which will end in me making my own knickers and boasting about it? (I do actually make my own knickers. And they’re very comfy! OK, things are worse than I ever suspected).


Vivianne said...

OK, now if you said you made your own lace-trimmed, silk camiknickers .,....then I would be impressed :-)

Anonymous said...

Sometimes handmade is better - often in fact but due to market forces etc I can't afford to buy them very often although etsy buying is a lovely experience. The cost of raw materials is simply too much; add on the labour costs and to me it is prohibitive. I can't even make what I want to myself for the same reason and it makes me mad as it also means talented people are unable to sell their skills in order to make a living. I have yet to come across a successful person (ie earning enough to pay mortgage costs and living expenses), who doesn't have the backup of a partner and is probably at home looking after children anyway. This immediately relegates what they are doing as being 'pin money' which is a step backwards. (I don't mean that as an insult, it is just how it seems to be interpreted to me.) I am sure it is possible but I don't know a woman making a proper living from it who isn't supported in someway. I am looking believe me, as I dream that might be me and I would love to know it is possible. It is not that people do not want to buy handmade but the costs of labour and the raw materials make the prices prohibitive to many. Most sellers on etsy under-price and many do not do more than cover costs, some not even that but the goods are still in many cases too expensive for me to buy even while recognising they are selling themselves sort. In the mean time I am stuck buying Primark, not because it is throw away and I can have tons of the stuff but because I might be able to get my first new pair of jeans in 4 years from there but I kid you not right now I can't afford it. If you take away dual incomes and relate our wages in the UK to those who make these cheap products in a real way (none of this people earn a dollar a day stuff, unless you are going to tell us that a dollar in certain countries buys the same as £10 here), you will find that there are many who depend on these shops just to survive. I don't pretend we have third world poverty here but we do have people struggling to put food on the table and staying cold while making hard choices. The people who fill their baskets are the middle classes with money to spare who could choose to make more ethical choices but don't. Don't assume that is all of us though - I'm still buying 19 p noodles from Aldi to get through the week. I care but I just don't always have the cash. Is it more ethical to make anyway - what about the corrosive fabric/wool dyes and the huge mark up in the cost of the raw materials, who gets that? What about the people deprived of manufacturing because people make their own? The child labour who is out of work and out of a meal if he is 'saved' from the sweat shop. Does he then go to school and get educated, with a full tummy? Don't think so. In fact it has taken us a long time in the west to realise that some of our well intentioned 'help' is just meddling which can have devastating effects.

Germaine Greer wrote a very necessary book at a time people needed to hear some of it. She has spouted a lot of nonsense since about all sorts of things and has got away with it. I think she has got an awful lot wrong. I am a feminist on my own terms, not hers. In many ways I feel she is very silly and at times holds dangerous views (with particular reference to female circumcision) which have appalled me. She does not speak for me. I do.

I must apologise for coming on here and ranting. It is just that you say interesting things and seem to encourage opinion. If my comments are too long or unwelcome please say and I will clear off.

p.s. you definitely deserve nice scones and can you tell us how you make knickers? Please?

Anonymous said...

Sorry for sounding like I missed the whole point of your post, which I honestly didn't, promise - but can I third a knicker pattern request?? :-))

Susie said...

Ahahaha! I go out, I come back to interesting comments!!!! :-).

1/ Absolutely everyone can have the knickers pattern. I will think how to make it comprehensible. It might have to just be a photograph of the pattern pieces. Sorry though Vivianne they are profoundly unerotic ;-).

2/ Anonymous - these are excellent points and really I think you're right. I agree. It's very easy to come at this from a place of (relative) economic privilege but yes in reality if you're buying handmade/ green for certain things the cost is (relatively) prohibitive, and I agree with you entirely on the Primark issue - it can easily be a choice between having something or not having it, which (possibly) fair enough if it's something fun and discretionary (and that's a privilege in itself to be able to have fun discretionary stuff), but not if it's a winter coat or school uniforms for the kids or new jeans like you say.

This is how value and expense has somehow got really skewed though, don't you think? It's like the eternal handknitted sock question: if you add up all the hours it takes to knit a sock and charged minimum wage each pair would cost £500 and no-one would have socks. And yet I'm sure some things which cost £500 could be made very cheaply (don't anyone ask me for an example ;-) ).

It's all a difficult issue. This is why 'green' has become to an extent a middle-class lifestyle choice and that is WRONG. Ethical production should not be about that, it should be about all of us having access to/ means to make excellent stuff, but I don't know how that is effected.

I shall ponder further. Thank you for the interesting points which make me think.

Susie x

yvette said...

Yes, Germaine Greer has always been a bit of a loose cannon - always thought provoking but often infuriating!
I do share your scepticism about consumption choice as power - you can only choose from what is made available, and consumer influence on what is made available can be weak. At best it is a very limited power - though I still think we should try to exercise it with care when we can.
I agree with anonymous - my partner recently had a period of unemployment and we lived on my part-time income, and I certainly could not afford the handmade things I prefer, nor the free-range eggs and other more ethically-produced foods I would like to have bought. I had to feed us and clothe us as cheaply as possible and that was that.
My only thought is that we could all share the skills we have a bit more, and perhaps move towards LETS schemes and barter systems - but this won't enable someone to pay the mortgage.

Susie said...

I think where the consumer choice power comes from is that it leads to other things. So you might start with questioning where your food comes from and that might lead to growing your own. But the question of cost is a difficult one. Yvette, yes I agree ethically-produced food wouldn't be my top priority in a time of very restricted income (housing costs would) - however, I bet you didn't find it was cheaper to eat ready meals, I bet it was cheaper to buy raw ingredients and cook them. (Or was it? Tell me if I'm wrong).

Anonymous said...

Had to come back and post this link http://verypurpleperson.com/2011/06/pretty-lingerie-set.html as you mentioned you make your own knickers. Wow is all I am saying!