We live in a world that’s pretty disconnected from how things are done. You don’t really think about it, do you. That hat and scarf you’re wearing because it’s cold outside was made somewhere. Nowadays, that somewhere is probably China or Southeast Asia, on a machine run by someone who isn’t being paid very much to do it. It’s made from acrylic fiber, which while very versatile, isn’t especially warm, nor is it designed to last a long time.
That’s why that hat and scarf cost you maybe $20 at Target or some similar place. You’ll have to buy another in a year or two, but by the end of this season they’ll already be looking somewhat scraggly. It’s the nature of cheap materials. It’s actually got a name. Maybe you’ve heard it. Planned obsolescence. They make something, anything, electronics, clothing, appliances, intentionally poorly. So it’s got a limited lifespan. So you’ll have to buy another.
And we’ve gotten kind of lazy and kind of cheap (I’m guilty too) so we do it. We don’t spend the money on the thing that will last 20 years because the thing that will last 2 is so much cheaper. Of course it is.
I make stuff. Take that hat and scarf, for example. Those ones I was just talking about on sale at Target for $20.
A simple hat on large-ish needles takes me four hours to make. The materials I use are good wool blends. Maybe a little acrylic for color and texture, but the body is nice, solid wool that so long as you don’t toss it in the washer, will last for years. The materials cost me around $15 dollars. Say I’m only paying myself minimum wage. Anyone who has worked for minimum wage can tell you that there’s no living on it. But say that’s what I’m doing. So $8.25 an hour, at four hours, plus $15 for materials is $45 dollars. That is exactly how much I would need to charge for a hat to cover my labor and materials cost. I charge only $40 for my simple hats. The reason? People won’t pay more. Which means I’m not even making minimum wage on my labor, let alone a profit. My two skein scarves that use up about 250 yards of hand dyed, hand spun Merino wool, at $15 a skein, I charge $80 for. They don’t move. To make any kind of profit I’d have to charge $120, but people wont’ pay it.
Here’s the thing, they’ll pay that at Bloomingdales. For something knit on a machine in the same factories as the ones at Target. Slightly better materials, but essentially the same thing.
The point of all this is to shine a light on how we think about objects. Even necessary ones. How we think about spending and saving. A $40 hat that will last you many years will end up saving you at least as much as you spent on it in the first place because you won’t have to replace it every two years. But when you look at the price tag it seems high. If someone told you your new job had you making less than minimum wage, you’d tell them there was no way you’d do it.
It’s important to think about these things. There are people out there who still make furniture by hand. Who raise their meat animals humanely. Who hand process cheeses, smoked meats, preserves. There are people out there that make leather belts and bags from raw hide to finished product. And all of these people need to make a living. Pay their bills. Feed their kids.
Meanwhile all these factories that make the very affordable but very short lived items that we’re so addicted to, don’t have particularly good human rights records. Nor do the massive multi-national corporations that own them. But we don’t think about that because it’s waaaay over there. Well, artisans abound right here. You could be an activist just by not giving in to the urge to buy cheap mass produced and buy hand made instead. We’re all over the place, you know. Farmers markets. Craft shows. Renaissance faires.
Think about it.