Apr 132008
 

I’ve been writing about the ravages of globalization and peoples’ ferocious rejection of its conditions for a long time. I researched and wrote about the emergence of an anti-globalization movement before the Seattle protests of the WTO in 1999.[1] Now that circumstances are…er…changing, it’s time to get serious about finding alternatives. Thirteen years of avoiding corporations has delivered a detailed knowledge of alternative production and retail. In addition, I’ve been part of the local food movement from its beginning, and recently I analyzed how it’s been so successful.[2]

Just a few years ago, consumers’ fears about pesticides were trivialized and organic agriculture was dismissed as impossible at large scale. Today organic is a $60-90B global industry ($12B in the US alone), 80% of which is owned and operated by the same companies which sell “conventional”/chemical-grown produce.[3] The New York Times described 2006 as “the year of food.”[4] The Times participated in this development early and consistently, noting in 2004 that “the adage in agriculture to ‘get big or get out’ is being turned on its head by growers who are staying small, and getting much more profitable…”[5] A June 2005 weekly Dining section devoted the cover page and another full page to women farmers, a full page to particular products and farms at Manhattan’s 46 weekly “Greenmarkets”,[6] and another to grass-fed meat and the perspectives of farmers who raise it. By 2002 this movement had accomplished an astonishing material victory. The number of small farms was increasing. The 2002 Census of Agriculture showed an increase in the number of farms between 10 and 49 acres, up from 530 to 563 thousand.[7] Young people are leaving cosmopolitan lives to express their values as farmers.[8]

‘Local’ means: Eat seasonally, eat locally (food grown as close to your home as possible, preferably from your bioregion), know your food, know your farmer, pay MORE to support your farmer (hey, it’s still actually cheaper than buying processed food at the supermarket), stay home and cook all that beautiful stuff (except when you can afford a resto that cooks with such food).  Now we see farm names on menus. Vegetarians are eating meat (because it expresses their ecological values).[9] Chefs are learning to butcher and are teaching their customers to enjoy unusual cuts of meat so they can buy whole animals from local ranchers who are locked out of the consolidated slaughterhouses.[10] Pushed forward by a polycentric network of organizations, championed by articulate iconoclasts, boasting a cross-class constituency of wildly divergent political opinions, and suffering no leaders, the local food movement is a joyful virus.

Can we shift our perspectives on stuff the same way we have with regard to our food? (Reconnect it to our place and a community of producers.) Not that we need any more stuff, really. But we do need some stuff, the stuff we go to Bed Bath & Beyond and Ikea to get, like kitchen tools. What if all that stuff were made by artisans, locally?  Well, we’d have a lot of jobs. And the people making the stuff would have more skills than most of us have now. (We might be able to fix up or repurpose some of our broken stuff too.) And, yes, we’d be paying more – just as we’ve learned that we must pay “the real price of food” – we’d be paying the “real price of stuff”.

What would that increase in price get us? It would get us social justice. We could have “fair trade” right here, with good working conditions in workshops that –as in the European craft guilds— could be open to community inspection. We could get our household stuff to be customized to our tastes and needs. We could get it to be beautiful, as we see beautiful, not whoever seems to be putting together the nearly identical catalogs of West Elm/CB2 or Pottery Barn/Crate&Barrel. Anyway, for those prices, shouldn’t we be able to get handmade stuff?

Well there is some handmade stuff. I’ve been looking at a lot of it lately. I’ve been learning how to make my own stuff at www.Instructables.com, ReadyMade Magazine, Make Magazine, the Portland Church of Craft, and through many DIY/Indie blog sites. This is great because before Marx got into the controversial class war stuff, he said something quite profound about why he cared so much about working conditions. He believed that we experience full humanity through “self-activity” – essentially through creating things. He was worried that when capitalism alienated peoples’ labor, workers lost part of their humanity. So I tried making my own stuff and I think he’s right – somehow I never get tired of admiring the stuff I make. It gives me a deeper fulfillment than stuff I buy.

But if you don’t feel like making your own stuff, you can find handmade goods on etsy.com and at your local flea market or craft fair. There are two styles, traditional (involving high end materials, very fine craftwork, and aesthetics from 1890-1940) and Indie (involving low end materials, DIY skills, and an ironic aesthetic). It’s easier to find in December, when there are lots of “holiday craft fairs” where you can sip hot cider, buy gifts directly from local craftspeople, and learn about their methods of production and their interesting life paths. During the year you can find local crafts at some “artist coops” or during “open studio” days. You can also find some artisanal goods at local boutiques (often mixed in with mass-produced items from Alessi). But the gift-oriented entertainment-shopping presentation of boutiques, limited by the curation whimsy of their owners, does not lend itself to “needs”-oriented shopping.

And if you need something other than jewelry, scarves, art objects, and unusual “gifts”, you are out of luck. In recent visits to 3 craft fairs, I found useful household items at just over 10% of the stalls at each market. When I combined the data from the three craft markets, I found just 8% of all vendors selling useful household items other than the ubiquitous (and unfashionable) ceramics.

Recent articles in Metropolis, San Francisco, and the New York Times indicate emerging attention to local production and retail. They profile designers who work with artisans, with sustainable and reused materials, with function and wit. The Slow Life, Slow Cities, Slow Home, and Slow Design movements expand the Slow Food movement in the direction of conscious, intentional maximization of pleasure and good design.[11] So, what do we need to do to jump-start this movement?

First of all, we need to understand that a sustainable future is not anti-consumption or anti-material. Sustainability will require more attention to material goods, their production, and care. In re-thinking and rebuilding life and work that is ecologically limited, solidary, and self-governed (through reflexive and participatory democracy)  we need to examine the relationships between things and desire, pleasure, happiness, place, and human connection (including the joys to be had through work/self-creation). Objects and consumption need to become more, not less, meaningful.

In Eyerman & Jamison’s terms, the emergent idea of “local objects” modeled on “local food” would be something like this: We develop a relationship to objects that engages our intuition and energy and values in a way that is more like making art than acquisitiveness. (Campbell proposes personalization and customization as the beginning of this trajectory.) Along the continuum of modes of production from DIY to art object is a continuum of possibilities of collaboration between consumer and producer. The early organic movement seemed to face an uphill battle to convince consumers accustomed to aesthetically perfect produce to settle for less; but the outcome of the ecological food movement is that consumers get more flavor, variety, community, and sense of place. “Organic” food is no longer seen as a forfeit of quality. In an artisanal economy of objects, we will buy just one dishdrainer in a lifetime, instead of 20. This “less” may become “more”. As Thomas Kuhn writes about scientific paradigms, consumption paradigms may introduce new questions, new kinds answers, and new forms of admissible evidence. (1970)

We need Artisan Department Stores, reliable marketplaces to drop by and pick up: a bookshelf, garbage can, affordable dishes, and a lamp. The markets need to have rules comparable to those at farmers market about production methods and ownership scale. They should be organized like a department store, so you can go straight to the section you need, (perhaps even more directly than at Ikea): furniture, lighting, kitchen, bath, apparel, art…

But today, such a market would draw more consumers than producers. We don’t just need a market for local stuff, we need to support the development of production of local stuff. We need to support aspiring craftspeople in producing useful objects, learning about sustainable materials, and designing with a wider range of aesthetics (some modernism, please!). But that’s not as hard as it sounds and we can look to the model of the local food movement for innovations. Once farmers found out that people wanted to buy heirloom veggies in person, they started producing and marketing that way. In fact, some aspects of the local stuff project are easier than local food. One is that it’s very hard for aspiring young farmers to afford land. That level of resources isn’t needed for artisans. Also, produce spoils, dishdrainers don’t.

Small and mid-size farmers who monocropped and sold everything wholesale were in bad shape a few years ago. Intensive outreach and training by agricultural agencies and organizations have helped these farmers diversify and get into direct marketing. Similar programs could help tradespeople, like skilled metalworkers and carpenters who do not currently do artisanal pieces, to retool for that market. Community institutions which provide craft education, such as the Elliot School (http://www.eliotschool.org/) could be supported with state job training funds. To increase the aesthetic and functional qualities of artisanal products, craftspeople could be connected with product designers willing to  design for small scale production be particularly appropriate to produce designers’ projects. Public or private programs could offer grants, loans, help with materials (free advice on sourcing and coop buying, transport), workshop and retail space for artisans, providing special incentives for producing everyday goods with sustainable materials and production processes.

Looking at the lessons of the local food movement, we see that meat producers had a more difficult time than produce producers getting their goods to market due to processing requirements. New institutions (some funded as public-private collaborations) are necessary to build small scale (“boutique”) slaughterhouses and to educate chefs (indeed to re-train a new generation of butchers to custom fabricate a whole animal). Similar middle-market functions are needed for local stuff. For example, it might be helpful to build cooperative workshops where artisans can arrange production of larger runs and get advice from staff on how best to maintain quality. An open shared production workshop would also provide good jobs and be an artisan incubator, where young people could learn craft skills.

As we work to re-build the American economy, we might re-think public education, renewing both arts and trade programs with classes in artisanal production and craftsmanship. This will have increasing cross-class appeal. (As it turns out, Stockbrokers and dot.commers just keep quitting because they prefer working with their hands for low profit margins…. The New York Times archives the mutinies in shorttakes in the weekly “Style Desk”.[12])  Perhaps initially as after school programs, school workshops could be kept open to the community at night. Outreach programs should involve elders and immigrant craftspeople who carry diverse knowledge of materials and techniques. Adding a component of reuse, schools could accept donations of industrial and scrap materials for these programs, building on the work of organizations such as Art from Scrap.[13]

Some foodies are already making the connection. In 2005, Alice Waters, champion of the food revolution, partnered with artisans at Heath Ceramics to make tableware “created locally and on a small scale” and showing subtle differences in color and form to emphasize the “handcrafted nature of the production”. Similarly, chef Oliver Rowe’s new restaurant Konstam in London not only serves “nothing but local produce, growing within the limits of Greater London” but also hired a local designer, Thomas Heatherwick, “whose studio is nearby.”[14] It would certainly help to have a directory of artisanal producers, organized by household use categories (current ones I found were organized by materials, which give you no sense of what they make or in what style) and indicating willingness to do custom work. These would be similar to CSA directories and farmers directories.[15]

Finally, the local food movement benefited from conceptual and political work done by non-commercial organizations, such as Food First, the Organic Consumers Association, the Community Food Security Coalition, and many more. We need such organizations to help ethical consumers think through the issues, so they will then be willing to change the meaning and experience of shopping to one of community engagement, as they have so willingly done with food.



[1] Amory Starr, Naming the Enemy: The Emergence of an Anti-Corporate Social Movement (ms completed in 1998), Global Revolt: A guide to alterglobalization. (2000, 2005, Zed Books, London)

[2] Amory Starr, “Is Local Food a Social Movement?” under review at Cultural Studies.

[3] Sligh, Michael, and Carolyn Christman. 2003. Who Owns Organic? The Global Status, Prospects, and Challenges of a Changing Organic Market. Pittsboro NC: Rural Advancement Foundation International- USA.

[4] Burros, Marian. 2006. “You Are What You Eat: 2006 and the politics of food.” The New York Times, December 27, D2+.

[5] Schneider, Keith. 2004. “Sell in Bulk, Lose Farm. Sell Locally, and Watch Revenues Grow.” The New York Times, September 21, G7.

[7] US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2002 Census of Agriculture. US by Table, Table 9.

[8] Salkin, Allen. 2008. “Leaving Behind the Trucker Hat.” The New York Times, March 16.

[9] Christine Lennon, “Why Vegetarians are Eating Meat”. Food & Wine  August 2007.

[10] Dana Bowen, “On the Trail, at last, to the Big City.” New York Times 7.26.06: D4. Clark, Melissa. 2006. “The Chef: Zak Pelaccio; The Freshest Produce (And Duck Tongues?).” The New York Times, August 16, D1, D3.

[11] Julie Tarashka, Belinda Lanks, Martin C. Pedersen, Jade Chang, and Lara Kristin Lentini. 2008. “Bringing it Home.” Metropolis, March, 157-204. Dale Eastman. 2008. “A collector’s guide to the exploding art market.” San Francisco, January, 94-119.

Joanne Furio. 2008. “Stylecounsel: Making Clutter Count.” San Francisco , January, 72,74. Monica Khemsurov. 2007. “THE REMIX; You From Around Here? – New York Times. November 18. Green, Penelope. 2008. “The Slow Life Picks Up Speed.” The New York Times, January 31. Carl Honoré. n.d. “In Praise of Slow FAQ.” http://www.inpraiseofslow.com/faq.php (Accessed February 20, 2008).

[12] Frances Anderton, “Currents: California – Furnishings; Stop/Caution/Go Lamps and Undulating Vases”. 1.13.05 and Stephen Treffinger, “Currents: Pottery; Shades of Blue over Black: A Meditation in Stoneware” both in New York Times House & HomeStyle Desk: F3.

[13] East By Depot for Creative Reuse f. 1980s http://www.east-bay-depot.org. Art from Scrap f. 1990 does community art programs and green schools initiatives http://www.artfromscrap.org. Scrap Creative Reuse in San Francisco offers guidelines for setting up an art scrap center at http://www.scrap-sf.org/start.htm.

[14] Frances Anderton, Currents: Tableware: For Home Cooks Who Like A Dare, Plates Like Those at Chez Panisse”. 8.17.06 [D3] Mallery Roberts Lane, “Currents: London – Restaurants; Homegrown Produce, Homegrown Design” 7.27.06 [F3] in New York Times House & Home Style Desk.

[15] http://www.localharvest.org/csa/