Small-scale goes big

A great article on Slate today suggests that the future of manufacturing is small, local, artisan. Our factory jobs aren’t coming back from China, and perhaps the market is even shifting a little toward a preference for quality, hand-crafted goods, but how big can a movement who’s mantra is “small-scale” ever really be? As Will Oremus puts it:

The question is whether these shaggy liberal-arts entrepreneurs will usher in a new era of middle-class prosperity or remain bit players in the nation’s economy, cloistered in urban hipster havens like Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Portland.

Artist Samantha Lamb’s work begs that you imagine her on a perpetual picnic, communing with “cuddly meadow creatures” (according to her own bio.) But her advocacy and policy work with the National Young Farmers’ Coalition is serious business, as she explains in this video. Warning to the hungry: Video contains food porn.

The article goes on to say that the revolution will depend on its ability to expand into Middle America and the American consumer’s ability (I would say willingness) to pay for it. But there’s a third factor the article touches on that I think is equally important: Will we embrace these romanticized upstarts as they grow, or does our love and patronage insist they they remain small, independent endeavors? When the woman knitting and selling The World’s Best Socks is actually successful enough to invest in a few employees or perhaps even a machine to speed up production, will she cease to be the darling of the day? Equally important, will the sock maker herself love her work more or less when she is elevated (reduced?) to the role of manager rather than chief knitter?

As consumers, quality obviously looms large in our decision to support a product, but an increasing number of us also value a sort of supply-chain karma that comes from believing that the items in our home came from happy hands. Even if we are still toiling away at desk jobs, at least our socks can support the existence of a knitter, sitting somewhere in a light-filled loft with a cup of hot tea close at hand. The antithesis of grueling child labor. But I have known a few of these “shaggy liberal-arts entrepreneurs,” and they don’t always have an easy time of it, especially the farmers. Most of them dream of scaling up at least a little—enough to afford health insurance and a good Christmas for their kids.

As a consumer, I know where I draw the line when it comes to supporting businesses as they grow: Is the quality still good? Is their market still local or have they shipped production and half of their sales overseas or across the country? Are they still good stewards of their community and its people? And if their work involves animals, are they still treated well?

But ask not what your artisan entrepreneur can do for you, ask what you can do for them:

  • Pay them fairly. What is your time worth and how long would it take you to knit a pair of socks (assuming you knew how)?
  • Support them year-round, not just at Christmas or when the farmers’ market is flush with strawberries.
  • Support policies that allow these folks to do business. Ignore the national conversation about job creation for a minute, and find out what your health department’s policy is on meat and egg sales at farmers’ markets. How many commercial kitchens in your area rent space to small entrepreneurs?
  • One national conversation you should care about is health care. It has long perplexed me that although America prides itself—defines itself even— as a nation of self-made men and innovators, these are the folks who are hit the hardest by the lack of affordable insurance coverage. I can’t count the number of people I’ve known over the years who chose not to start a business of their own solely because they couldn’t afford healthcare for their families. One way or another, the system has to be fixed.

So how big can the “small-scale” movement be? The key is to know what we really want beyond the fairly universal agreement that quality products are good and socially irresponsible manufacturing is bad. If we’re not careful, we’ll wind up shunning the sock maker when she stops showing up at the market in person and embracing “ethically sourced artisan knitwear” when it comes packaged in a boutique-size Walmart, fooled yet again by the engines of capitalism as usual.

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One thought on “Small-scale goes big

  1. Great post, Chelsey. It reminds me of this book I’ve wanted to read since our facilitator quoted it during that co-op brainstorming session:
    http://www.amazon.com/Small-Giants-Companies-Choose-Instead/dp/1591841496

    I’m not sure going big is necessarily the answer, as much as educating customers and inspiring them to embrace specialization (again). (Not that small companies can’t keep their ethos and get big. Although, I can’t think of a smallish, funky company that hasn’t been bought out. Like Ben & Jerry’s, Burt’s Bees, Tom’s of Maine, Odwalla, etc.)

    That Portlandia clip has become something of a theme song for Transition OKC.

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