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Why Craft is Worldchanging

Article Photo
by Worldchanging New York local blogger, Amy Shaw

Craft is radical, craft is worldchanging, and craft has been with us all along.

How do we know anything about ancient civilizations? Sometimes there is writing, but always there is material: shards of pottery, metal tools and weapons, jewelry made from gold and silver. In a word: craft.

We are defined by our need to use and to make things. We are homo faber, beings who make. To aid in our survival, we have also become traders. On a very basic level, what we make, use, and trade, and how we go about these activities, defines our humanity and shapes our world.

Today there are 6.5+ billion people living on Earth. The economic hegemony governing this massive number of people in the developed and developing worlds is what we’ve come to call “the Walmart economy.? It’s an economy operating on such a vast scale that one one-hundredth of a penny makes the difference between whether a business is profitable or not.

Every one of us on the planet is involved in using, making, and trading. Big corporations make, use, and trade as giant faceless entities with a million tentacles moving as fast as possible and effecting billions of people. Billions of people worldwide are also involved in making, using, and trading craft. (A recent survey published by the Craft Organization Director’s Association measures the U.S. craft industry alone at $14 billion per year.) However compared with big corporations, the craft industry operates on a more individual, intimate, and personal manner, and on a smaller scale.

Craft is radical. In this age of corporate-driven mass-production, the act of an individual making a useful thing is radical. The act of buying a useful thing made by an individual is radical. It is akin to living off the grid: trading outside the big box.

Craft is to shopping what slow food is to restaurants. Buying high-quality things that needn’t be replaced over time but instead may be passed on to future generations is not only old-fashioned, it is also worldchanging. Craft is slow retail, slow consumption.

When dealing with craft, there is an awareness and appreciation for where a thing came from, how it was made, what materials were used in its fashioning, and who labored over it. Through this awareness, a relationship forms between the maker and the user, narrowing the huge gap between the producer and the consumer fostered by our mass-production globalized economy. Putting a face on an object is one way in which craft is, and always has been, worldchanging.

Today, large corporations are starting to show concern for their social and environmental impact and voluntarily implementing changes for the better. Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, for instance, oversees a company that spends more on health insurance for its employees than on coffee. Ray Anderson of the carpet company Interface has become keenly focused on making as small an ecological footprint possible while running a successful business. These business leaders and others like them are tackling environmental and social issues not only to save money, but also to do something to benefit the greater good, even if it doesn’t yield the highest possible profit reports. There is a second bottom line these corporations are starting to value. Their actions have real consequences.



In the same way, the consequences of our collective individual actions are tremendous. Choosing to switch to low-energy light bulbs isn’t just going to save a person money and make them feel good for “doing the right thing.? On the larger scale, we know that if everyone switched to low-energy light bulbs (and more fuel-efficient vehicles, and recycled paper towels, etc.) the reduction of energy use and pollution would be significant. These choices become a force for change.

Ghandi said we must be the change we want to see. I would add that as participants in a market economy, we must also trade in that change: we must make, sell, and buy the change. This is where dollar voting comes in – every dollar you spend is a vote for the product you are buying and the system it supports.

People are literally handmaking alternatives for a bright green future every day. Craft is radical, craft is worldchanging, and craft has been with us all along.

Image: Frank Ridley Makes a Toy. Photo by Amy Shaw.

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Comments

There have been attempts to unionize Starbucks by workers in order to get "A healthier and safer workplace". I think the workers have a better perspective then the CEO of their working condition.

Our power as workers dwarfs our power as citizens and it in turn dwarfs our power as consummers. The first only requires much more "power with" than "power over" (these are forms of power between humans). As a culture, we have grown much more used to the latter. Which is why it is not peceived as easily accessible as the latter.

World changing will happen when we have technology or human processes that truly helps achieving "power with".


Posted by: Julien Lamarche on 27 Jan 07

Thank you for your salute to Craftiness! Craft work is antithetical to mass production. Each item has its own personality, and bears a signature of the owner.

The most beautiful objects in the world are hand-made. We wouldn't be motivated to replace all our furniture and every ten years if it were better made.

The industrial revolution gave us everything we need, but not everything we want.


Posted by: rob on 27 Jan 07

I logged on and thought - GREAT! a section about the role of crafts in promoting pro-poor development... cultural empowerment ...and the sense of pride in creativity and enterprise and working with your hands to make something beautiful. But... why so few links? Is it because there aren't any craftspeople with interesting websites?? I want more... please enlarge on the theme... Across the developing world NGOs are struggling with handicraft businesses that are scarcely viable...(we are one of them)... so any good references to useful advice would be most welcome. (especially advice on ceramics!)


Posted by: winkie williamson on 28 Jan 07

The author replies: This is my first article for Worldchanging, and I will be writing twice each month about issues relating to craft, ethical business, and the environment. Glad to know there is such passionate interest in the topic of craft as a force for creating a bright green future!


Posted by: Amy Shaw on 28 Jan 07

I do think there are a lot of disjuncts in the chain between craft maker and rich western consumer. The people who make the stuff don't get the message quickly enough about what sells and what doesn't, probably because there are too many middlemen. Therefore we get oriental rugs which are cheap, but don't match the market because they use bleached wool, chemical dyes, and bear the stigma of child labor. And we get a lot of fine Russian handicrafts (lacquered trays and vases, etc) which are very finely executed but too florid and baroque for western consumers. I suggest people do a google for the Dobag Project of Turkey, which makes rugs using untreated wools and natural dyes, and also has standards regarding child labor and local investment. (Of course the rugs are more costly.)


Posted by: rob on 28 Jan 07

I like to think of craft as methodological manufacturing. Reasonably similar facsimiles are created through common understanding, while variations are introduced to accommodate local materials and needs.

It is personally interesting to note, that while I buy blue jeans, they are hand crafted. I buy furniture, though it is increasingly made by somebody. I buy food that is crafted, cheese for example. This is far removed from the lower economic strata, but I am interested in creating such possibilities for the poorer of Chicago.


Posted by: Nicholas Paredes on 28 Jan 07

Some ideas for sustainable, household-level craft food.: yogurt, pickling, mushroom growing (there are a lot of kits on the internet) vegetable gardening (in rural areas), and spice gardening (for urban windows).

Home canning, where you have to sterilize the glassware, may be less sustainable than buying jelly, unless your an expert and have access to cheap fruit in rural areas. Also, most Americans are not yogurt eaters.

People could give away live spice plants at food banks, or yogurt makers, crock pots, mushroom farms, or books on pickling and canning.


Posted by: rob on 29 Jan 07

Stimulated by this conversation, I just returned to a site that is inspiring for those of us involved in crafts in developing countries. http://aidtoartisans.org/home.php
Any more like it out there?


Posted by: winkie williamson on 29 Jan 07

This is a great subject. I look forward to reading your future posts. I want to recommend 2 articles I've read recently that explore craft as world changing: Slow Clothing by Sharon Astyk on Groovy Green (http://groovygreen.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=303&Itemid=58), and Shop Class as Soul Craft, by Mathew Crawford in the New Atlantis(http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/13/crawford.htm)


Posted by: TruffulaTuft on 29 Jan 07

May I add... buy local crafts. Are there people in your hometown making soap or dog treats or furniture or hotpads? The farmers markets are a truly radical place to shop. When you buy from the craftsperson or farmer you encourage the diversity of your own community and participate in a vibrant inner working of the place that sustains you. Become a citizen of your own place and a real neighbor.


Posted by: Gail on 2 Feb 07

You might find this interesting.

http://www.communityeconomies.org/


Posted by: donald on 2 Feb 07

just got time to post a comment again before this closes. The Guardian newspaper (UK) had a whole supplement on crafts today (Saturday 3 Feb), but its subscriber only for the digital version. Here is a list of the websites they mentioned... which in turn lead to other places... and so I happily spent three hours before going to the pot-shop.
http://craftster.org/
http://cutoutandkeep.net/
http://www.diynetwork.com/diy/crafts
http://notmartha.org/
http://isew.co.uk/
http://www.ohmystars.net/craft/
http://thriftdeluxe.com/
http://www.etsy.com/
http://tordboontje.com/
(The transglass recycled bottles are cool)
http://wemake.co.uk/
(the tetris cardboard furniture is explained in the Guardian article... start collecting those boxes)... and the dumpster sofa looks challenging.
The challenge for me is finding areas where these ideas intersect with those of my creative colleagues locally... looking to add an Arabic / Middle Eastern / orientalist / calligraphy slant to a recycled dumpster is a challenge. Watch this space.


Posted by: winkie williamson on 3 Feb 07

Craft is cultural. It is defined often by the culture that surrounds the maker and often defines the culture. Look around the "majority world" as well as US states like KY and NM.

There are many organizations making a difference. One organization that is making a difference in the world of craft is Aid to Artisans Another is the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market the largest folk art market in the US, perhaps the world as well. Also sites like New Mexico Creates promotes the work of over 400 artisans and artists throughout New Mexico...Hispanic, Native American, Anglos, all together. This is an economic development initiative that supports creative people of New Mexico and generates profit for the Museum of New Mexico. And another site is There is much discussion about social enterprise but none around cultural enterprise. It is time to focus on their contribution to music, art, literature, performance, photography, craft, folk art, etc. Tom Aageson


Posted by: Tom Aageson on 4 Feb 07

Thanks for this great article, I LOVE the comparison between slow food and crafts, I think it is a very realistic comparasion.

I am currently working on a documentary about the "New Wave of Craft" a "younger" generation of folks interested in hand produced goods and a DIY (do it yourself) lifestyle.

We know there are thousands of people out there who are willing to buy handmade and support small indie businesses.

Some links I recomend in relation to this article are:

http://etsy.com
http://craftivism.com
http://craftersforcritters.com
http://craftrevolution.com
http://homeofthesampler.com

If you are interested check out these sites and their links and you will find a burgeoning creative community which is making an realistic effort to create a counter economy.


Posted by: faythe on 12 Feb 07



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