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Global handmade products and the taste for the exotic

Pierre Rossini Jacques

Global handmade products and the taste for the exotic

The recent ascent of global handmade

Anybody interested in the global handmade goods will have observed the flurry of blog posts on the web dedicated to the topic (ironically this is one more of them!). Handmade vs. mass produced; why buy handmade instead of big brands? 101 reasons to buy handmade etc. I think the question has been asked, answered and repeated several times, with all the industry brainstorming on the reasons why handmade is better, why handmade is the future etc. Truth is, as far as we are living on a planet with an exponentially growing 7 billion human beings, there is no doubt that the future will require mass produced goods; maybe unfortunately to even larger scales than we already know.

Yet the industry of global handmade products is itself steadily growing. Besides the natural fact that the population itself is growing, this is due to several other reasons. The trend of global arts and crafts is a social phenomenon, a rising tide appealing to distinct needs of consumers that mass produced goods have not been able to satisfy.  We’ll try to tap into those reasons throughout this post.

The downsides of mass production

There was a time when European explorers had to travel the unknown for the sake of spices, silk and other exotic goods. Nowadays those times have changed; on our grocery shelves we effortlessly pick up produces from around the world. Same goes for the choice of our home décor, our occasional gifts or other accessories: Big brands with complex logistic chains have the power to bring the world to our everyday.

Mass produced goods don’t lack quality. All the contrary! The proper of industrialized processes is the application of strict standards of production and quality control, so as to ensure every product coming out of a factory is identical to its source model. And even when compared to goods that traditionally were handmade, one can design, source, brand and produce similar manufactured products with same if not more finished looks at a lower cost.

But the bonanza of manufactured products bears in itself many downsides: industrialized products are mass produced, many times -not that it’s always the case- minimizing costs at the expense of safety, labour and wage conditions. Most of the times of course, this happens in developing countries, where faulty regulations and government complacency help corporations cutting corners.

The catch: by nature, manufactured products are not unique. I mean…that’s what they’re created for in the first place. Bring the same product to as many consumers as possible, at the lowest cost. By doing so however, industries often overlook the culture and identity of the countries where they are established. Were it not for the tag on our clothes, whether they are made in China, Bangladesh, India or Myanmar would be nearly undetectable. Workers are not there to create, but execute standards, and a product becomes the vehicle of a brand instead of a culture.

The industrial model as it is known, though it is designed to satisfy the massive needs of a growing population, lags behind when it comes to the environment, to the moral fibre, and very importantly, to the expression of cultural identities. These, the human aspects, the ones that refer not to the work but to the people behind it, are the places where handmade crafts come into play

Global handmade goods to the rescue

Crafts, handmade traditions and skills have never stopped. That we, being flooded with industrialized products, have for a while turned our back on handmade products for the low cost and ease of access of manufactured goods is a complete different issue.

Between rising inequalities, poverty, environmental degradation, and the most recent rise of spiritual need of connection to nature, the last decades have seen growing numbers of consumers unsatisfied with the harsh and cold reality of mass production to turn to handmade. If local craftspeople seldom produce all the range or variety of products we need, globalization has come as a handy instrument for global arts and crafts. Those who have travelled the world can be witnesses: diversity of cultures and inspirations, combined with an ever globalising world, unleash a marketplace with endless offers of shapes, colours, textures and inspirations.  

As opposed to manufactured goods, handmadeproducts are often conceived and executed by the same artisan, or cooperative of artisans working together for the common good. Many of them are women, who by leveraging the revenue from their crafts, often stretch it to provide for their children’s basic needs. Even better, hand execution has been demonstrated to produce less environmental degradation than all the industrial processes. With this in mind, it is comprehensible that global handmade products have become the cornerstone of consumers willing to make a change: change from practices deemed unsustainable, often polluting industries and growing inequalities. Fair trade, ethical trading, handmade-ology even, are fruit of these concerns.

There is however a trigger which has been highly overlooked when considering why global handmade products have taken such extension. It is true that when buying handmade, we sometimes agree to pay more, just knowing that our purchase helps an artisan somewhere. We don’t buy a product, we contribute to a cause. It is also true that buying handmade encourages preservation of skills, helps the environment and ensures us a product created with love, pleasure, and care.

But let’s be honest. Most of us are bombarded by endless financial burdens; let them be mortgages, schooling, clothing, life projects, social life and so on. Saying that without any further reason, we buy handmade -often more expensive than manufactured- just for the sake of participating to a cause may be ignoring essential parts of the picture. There is, besides the satisfaction of a more humane shopping, something else that triggers the consumer in us in search of our own satisfaction. After all, if we were not to expect satisfaction from our handmade products, it would be way simpler just to buy manufactured products, and contribute to some other foundation for humanitarian causes. But a handmade item appeals to something special in us, and to my view it is this tendency -more present than ever- to stand out from the crowd; the need we feel to be different, choose different, and trigger at least curiosity on the wisdom, style, or inspiration behind our choices.

Handmade is essentially unique. Even when items are executed following a same pattern, the very imperfections of our human nature gives rise to differences among each and every item. Not only this, with so much information on the media, we live in a more pronounced awareness of other cultures, other people, and, of course, the beauty that is born from all what they stand for.

When we buy handmade, with all its imperfections and variations, it’s no longer only about the item we buy. Of course we want something beautiful, magnificent and dazzling. But more than an item, we buy the story behind it, a piece of the culture where beauty has expressed itself in a specific way. We don’t buy an object, but a concept; a lifestyle.

Handmade is about uniqueness. It’s about works executed with care, one-at-a-time, sometimes customized to our very personal taste. Added to this, they come from other cultures that see the world through a different lens, different people with emotions, concerns, beliefs, traditions and histories worth telling. Handmade bears the power of being exotic, not only by its shapes, colours and tones, but also by the stories it tells.  It testifies of our openness to other cultures, our eclectic side would we say. Don’t we smile of satisfaction when our décor magnetizes attention? When our guests fall of admiration for a Caribbean painting, a Balinese sculpture or Mexican ceramic? Don’t we all enjoy it when our carefully picked handmade gift causes sensation, or when we hear the inevitable “where did you get that?

It comes across that in this search of uniqueness lies a key ingredient of our taste for global handmade products. In the 21st century, exotic is no longer about how far products have come from: the world is smaller every day! But exotic is about the cultural differences that we appraise through every item we choose to populate our personal space. Furniture, rugs, décor and accessories, all are invited to make a statement; of whom we are; of what we handpick in the wonderful buffet of cultures open to us, the ones we feel so close, while coming from so far.

Buying global handmade is a statement: Of our taste of the exotic, our drive of uniqueness, and our pleasure of sparking a conversation, let it be on beauty itself, on cultures or social justice.

And you, what’s your main reason to buy handmade?

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