The economy of North America has been broadly centralized for the past couple of generations. From our coffee to our clothes, we’re surrounded by the legacies of large manufacturers. The economic boom experienced by emerging world powers in the mid-20th century built the underlying economic structures which enable this reality. The current norms in manufacturing are keeping from realizing a more sustainable future.
This blueprint has allowed the affordability and accessibility of what would otherwise be expensive products. However, along the way, it has also contributed to the devaluing of quality products and environmental destruction and human exploitation on scales previously unimaginable.
In part in response to the disastrous consequences of mass-manufactured goods, today’s consumers are demanding change. A new generation of consumers want superior quality products created by craftspeople or small companies who actively work to reverse the damaging impacts of large scale manufacturing.
Let’s meet some of these “makers,” examine their role in creating a fairer world, and explore how modern technology is enabling the “Maker Movement” to reshape the economy and bring human-scale production back into the mainstream.
Why the Maker Movement is central to a sustainable future
Mass production of products and planned obsolescence is a prevailing model in which corporations intentionally design items with short lifespans. This means that they are actually built to break or become outdated quickly, forcing consumers to buy newer versions and constantly buy new stuff.
Additionally, many of these global corporations further decrease prices by outsourcing labor to developing countries which lack enforcement of wage regulations and workplace safety standards, which can lead to exploiting workers and their health.
In contrast, smaller scale handmade items usually take longer to produce and are more unique. They are made with high-quality materials, and the sole proprietors or start-ups which craft them are more in touch with their manufacturers and the sources of their materials. They also create more domestic jobs.
Also, many people may equate the Maker Movement with local goods, and they do often go hand in hand. However, many companies source materials, art, and handicrafts from overseas but ensure they are ethically traded and that the artists are fairly paid. Makers can now find buyers from around the globe through e-commerce networks.
The movement is growing, with events and Maker Labs popping up in cities all over the world. Even the White House has hosted a local Maker Faire.
How e-commerce levels the playing field
It used to be that artists and small-time crafters could only sell to their local market. When the e-commerce developed and people could start selling their goods online, makers’ reach grew exponentially.
Today, a mind-boggling range of handcrafted wares find customers far and wide through platforms such as ETSY. E-commerce leader Etsy has a vision of transforming manufacturing by connecting makers with manufacturers (when they need to scale) and buyers. ETSY’s event series on ‘ReImagining Manufacturing‘, tackles the future of small scale making to help their sellers start, responsibly scale, and enjoy their creative businesses.
One of the summit’s takeaways was that both designers and manufacturers are seeking assistance in forming relationships. A sizeable number of Etsy sellers noted a desire “to work with small, responsible, local manufacturing partners, and that they would benefit from assistance in finding and establishing effective working relationships with those partners.”
Fairware founder Denise Taschereau is a member of Etsy’s Manufacturing Advisory Board, whose initial meeting occurred at the summit. The Board will work with the ETSY team to address such issues as defining responsible manufacturingand refining tools to help makers scale responsibly.
Meet the makers
Many individuals and companies have risen to the complex challenge of creating handmade, ethically sourced products while still being able to scale their businesses. So, who are the makers spearheading this Maker Movement? One is Ten Thousand Villages.
After a trip to Puerto Rico in the 1940s, founder Edna Ruth Byler believed that she could fight poverty through providing “sustainable economic opportunities for artisans in developing countries by creating a viable marketplace for their products in North America.” Today, Ten Thousand Villages supports a global web of “social entrepreneurs working to empower and provide economic opportunities to artisans in developing countries.”
Another great example is The Window ArtShop. In a partnership with Fairware, they makes hand sewn canvas aprons for Nature’s Path in Vancouver. The Window ArtShop is a social enterprise for artists struggling to make ends meet in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. They make bags, ceramics, and many other textiles.
What really makes this ArtShop notable is that they are completely not-for-profit; 80% of sales return to the artists, and 20% covers operating costs and wages for The Window ArtShop employees. This sustainable business model allows artists to expand their reach using the ArtShop’s network, spending less time marketing and more time creating.
Fairware sources other domestically made products, from laser cut Christmas ornaments to recycled pocket journals made in Portland. By reducing waste, connecting conscious buyers with passionate makers, and ensuring the accessibility and affordability of high-quality and ethically-sourced products, Fairware and a growing number of others are pioneering a more responsible economy and sustainable future.
Those committed to building a brighter future realize the importance of creating top-notch, fairly traded products and making them more available to all. Through the Maker Movement and the structures supporting it, we can work toward a contemporary economy that puts people and the planet before profit.