You’ve probably heard about the local foods movement, and I don’t doubt for a moment that the word “artisanal” has crossed your ears a time or two in the last few years. All of this is in response to a growing backlash against the culture of overlarge retail in the United States that flourished in the 1990s and 2000s. On the back of rising stock prices, retailers strove to cut costs wherever possible to maintain not just their market superiority, but also their bottom line. Consumers, in turn, grew to expect falling prices everywhere they went, a la “Wal-Mart,” and the iconic yellow smiley face glowing back at shoppers from low-price bargain bins worldwide.
Few, if anyone, envisioned the final outcome of this cost-cutting extravaganza, the resurgence of craft in the United States. Of course, to determine where this all started, we have to dig into politics, and trade negotiations, and ultimately, our own propensity to purchase stuff, whether we actually need it or not. Maybe it was when we faced this dilemma toe-to-toe that we finally came to grips with the fact that what was rampant consumerism was getting us nowhere. In that light, small businesses today should (and sometimes are) rightly seen as the saviors of not only our local economies, but of our faith in quality, as well.
The historical truth behind product quality is relative. Today, shoes cost many times what they did in the 1800s, but an average pair of shoes today easily outclasses any shoe produced then in terms of comfort and quality. Cars are the same way. We tend to look back at the early days of the automobile as halcyon days when cars were the ultimate expression of craftsmanship without remembering that cars often couldn’t be driven more than 20 miles or so without breaking down somehow, or could break your arms if you weren’t paying attention to what you were doing when you started one. They were rust buckets with obnoxious exhaust noise, drafty windows, and uncomfortable seating. The lowliest of today’s cars could beat the most powerful muscle cars of yesteryear on a drag strip all day long with the air conditioning running. Quality is relative to the time period in which it is being judged.
That’s what makes today’s craft industries and small retailers so impressive. Rather than receding in terms of quality in order to meet a profit goal, locals often produce superior quality products that are actually worth what you might pay for them. Sure, they’re foregoing selling through mass retailers like Wal-Mart, but the internet has much more easily leveled the playing field without small producers having to cut quality in order to meet price demands.
These days, all you really need is an internet connection and a skill to make a living fighting the big retailers with high-quality goods. Throw in a good YouTube tutorial video, and you’ll be golden! From a consumer angle, though, there’s an obstacle to overcome, and that is price. There is an argument to be made that buying a $20 Indonesian-made wallet from the store will last every bit as long as a $75 handmade wallet from someone local. Maybe it will last just as long, be just as comfortable, and perform exactly the same, but ask yourself- what’s more important, supporting local business or huge multi-nationals on an item that will probably last long enough for you to forget how much you paid for it?