Why Buy Handmade?
“I can’t afford handmade!”
These are some of the things you often hear about products that are handmade by artisans like those you’ll find at Etsy.com. I’d like to take you on a journey of two products to look at the real cost of each item.
Before I get started I want to point out that the choice between the bottom-dollar plastic toy and the much more expensive handmade, quality item is not a choice we all have the luxury to make. This post is intended for those of us that are privelaged enough to make that choice and I acknowledge that it is in fact a privilage that not everyone enjoys. For more on this idea of classism in goods read Arwyn’s awesome post Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and the discomfit of classism. Also I don’t want my post to sound anti-welfare. I’m very pro-social programs but I’m even more pro programs that prevent rather than treat the problem.
So here we have two Baby Dolls. Baby dolls are, of course, wonderful imaginative play items for both boys and girls because they help kids emulate Mom and Dad and develop nurturance habits that ensure the continuation of humanity.
Doll #1 is available at any Big Box store and on Amazon. She is called Little Mommy and she retails for $17.99.
Doll #2 is available on Etsy from FaerieRebecca (of which I have no affiliation and she won’t even know about this post until after it is published. I wanted the doll to be random. There are dolls for both more and less in the handmade market.) She retails for $115.00. I’m going to call her Wallie.
That is a price difference of $97.01 before shipping.
Little Mommy is manufactured by Mattel – the world’s largest toy maker and home to Barbie. Mattel’s products are made in China. Wallie is made by hand by Rebecca in her home in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, USA.
Little Mommy is made of plastic. Good luck finding out what kind of stuffing her soft body has or what her clothes are made out of. The company doesn’t supply any of this information and toy makers are not required to list their components as clothing manufacturers are. From the feel, I think a good guess would be a polyester blend.
Wallie is made entirely of wool and cotton and Rebecca lists the source of each (Pennsylvania and Netherlands, respectively). She specifically tells us, “no need to worry about plastics, petrochemicals, or toxins in your special doll”.
Comments: Materials are important especially when it is a toy for our children that might be (er, probably will be) chewed on. Regardless of the materials though it is sad that finding material information is so difficult on mass produced items. In general all the information for this article was hard to find! Big Companies do not make it easy to find out the details of their manufacturing process.
If you’ve heard the news at all in the past 6 years you know that Mattel has had several recalls for excessive lead in their children’s toys and had to pay out millions in damages. Accidents happen right? Well, even more alarming to me is that Mattel has been fined for intentionally withholding information that their toys were dangerous. In 2001 Mattel “failed to report 116 fires and 1,800 incidents involving failures of the electrical system in the toy cars that children ride. The fine is the largest fine (1.1 million) the agency has ever leveled against a toymaker (source: http://www.greenamerica.org/programs/responsibleshopper/company.cfm?id=263).”
Now I have to include a lot of guestimating. I can find out about wages in the Chinese plants that make Little Mommy. According to Responsible Shopper workers make approximately $.17 per hour. But maybe that is just the cost of living in China? Further review finds that this is 59% the legal minimum wage in China. The single person (usually a young woman sometimes a child) that made your doll made approximately $.0125 for their work. Workers work 14.5 hour days on average and get one day off a week, have no overtime, no health insurance, live in unsanitary dorms, and are fired if they are injured (China Labor Watch, 09/01/2005).
Never fear!, it isn’t all Ramen noodles for Mattel. Mattel CEO, Robert A. Eckert, made $7,278,178 in 2006.
To estimate the cost of Wallie’s construction I found this article about how long it takes to make a Waldorf doll which I thought gave a very accurate 8 hours. Not including materials this would mean Rebecca is making $14.38 per hour. That’s somewhere between Ramen and whatever it is Mr. Eckert eats. I’m assuming Rebecca does not employ slave labor.
Comments: When you buy cheap someone pays. Sometimes it doesn’t affect you directly. Like when it encourages the sweatshop labor of someone else’s daughter thousands of miles away. Sometimes it does affect you and you may not realize it. Like paying higher insurance premiums for your insurance because so many Walmart workers (where the toys are sold) can’t afford healthcare. That doll that costs $17.99 somehow simultaneously makes top executives insanely rich and gives factory workers just enough money to upgrade from starving to hungry. It just doesn’t add up. The real costs of that doll exceed the retail price. Who is paying the difference?
Buying from Rebecca costs you more but the retail price includes the real cost of production. Cost of a living wage, safe, sanitary working conditions and overhead. (And there is much question about how much a skilled artisan like Rebecca should be making. Is 14 dollars an hour fair?). You are also paying for a doll instead of later paying for welfare, insurance premiums, unemployment, and other costs to society of the unemployed and working poor.
Labor actually covered much of the social impact of the purchases but I wanted to point out another avenue. Mattel is rated a 2.6 out of 10 on a “Company rating on whether it has activities or involvement in countries that have oppressive regimes (http://www.goodguide.com/companies/750-mattel-incorporated).”
San Francisco is not known for its oppressive regime.
The best information on the environmental impact is from a site called Good Guide. This site gathers and analyzes environmental and social data on leading companies and compares them with other companies in their sector. Here are some of the key findings for Mattel. You can see the whole report here: http://www.goodguide.com/companies/750-mattel-incorporated
Particulate Matter and VOCs
SOx and NOx
Liabilities for Hazardous Waste
Company rating on whether it has liabilities for hazardous waste sites or fines/penalties for waste management violations. Rating is relative to other companies in the same industry.
Most of the toxic emissions are because of the toxic materials being used in the products (duh.). Rebecca tells us her materials are natural and non-toxic so her footprint is much smaller. She doesn’t talk about her own 3Rs but many artisans do have statements on their recycling/reuse/reduction plans.