Craft production, prices and mutual credit: weaving

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Posted Oct 10 2021 by Eloise Sentito of These Isles

This is the third and final part of an interview with weaver and mutual credit enthusiast Eloise Sentito of These Isles, in which we talk about the prices of craft produce, and how mutual credit can help. Part 1 contained advice for anyone considering a career as a weaver, and part 2 was about the sustainability of craft production.

Let’s talk about price then. That’s the big stumbling block. I interviewed a potter recently and it was exactly the same for him. I think the prices that we call expensive are actually the correct prices. If you see a mug or a t-shirt that are suspiciously cheap, you know that someone is getting exploited somewhere – and the environment is getting exploited too.

It’s safe to say that, yes – unless it’s second-hand.

What can we do about this price problem?

Well you and I both know what we want to do about it.

Yes. We’ve been talking about mutual credit quite a lot. My position is that if you’re a producer as well as a consumer, the attitude to price is different. So if you and the potter are in the same community – at some point he’s going to need clothes from you and you’re going to need mugs and plates and bowls from him. And there will be lots of other trades represented in the community too – that everyone needs – including food, energy, builders, couriers, printers, etc. etc. So if you’re producing things for this local market as well as consuming things from this local market, you’ll be receiving higher prices as well as paying higher prices. So they cancel each other out – and everyone gets higher-quality, sustainable goods; and your job becomes more interesting – you’re not on the slippery slope to the Amazon warehouse or Uber cab.

Yes – it’s no longer a race to the bottom. 20 or 30 years ago, a Devon was talking to me about free-range eggs, and a friend who refused to buy them because they were too expensive. The guy said that the price of a free-range egg IS the price of an egg. But in capitalism, a good price is the cheapest possible. But that’s not a good price. It doesn’t produce good results. But as you say, if we’re both consumers and producers, things are ironed out and it ceases to be an issue.

But if you’re on minimum wage, on zero-hours contracts, this kind of conversation is meaningless. But if you lived in the kind of community that hosted a mutual credit club, and you could join a group of 100-200 people who are committed to providing goods and services to that club, and also trying to get as much as they can from that club, then you could take the time to learn a skill, and then join this group of people who are committed to buying from you, as long as you buy from them. You have a local market for your work.

You have a market that isn’t distorted. You have an actual free market.

Yes. If you’re a small producer, you have to pay your full share of tax. If you’re Amazon or Starbucks or Microsoft, you don’t. You can afford expensive lawyers to make sure you don’t pay your fair share of tax.

And you can use sweatshop labour to undercut local markets. In your local town, no-one would let you use slave labour. You’d be ostracised. But if you’re part of a giant company that does that, that seems to be OK. And you can monopolise markets.

So the mutual credit advantage is that you don’t actually need any money to trade. In a mutual credit club, people get an account and provide things to each other for credit in their account. Say if I were a blacksmith, and you needed some metalwork done, I would get credit in my account. And when I wanted a blanket I’d come to you and you’d get credit in your account, and my account would go down. But it’s not money, it’s just numbers in accounts. We can add smallholders and builders and renewables installers and restaurants and craft producers and taxi drivers, and everybody can have an account. It works even if there’s no money in your community. And if you can trade without money, then it’s not an exchange medium that can be extracted from your community and deposited in a tax haven. It’s just a different kind of business model altogether. How do we communicate this to existing craftspeople and potential craftspeople?

I think it might be important to look at transition steps to that model. I’ve been travelling around the south-west, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Brittany, so I haven’t been able to plug into one community, and I regret that, for all sorts of reasons, including this one. But it’s a huge step from where we are now. One illustration: my goods are considered luxury – to do with the price – even in a mutual credit system, in terms of your time spent providing your products or services. In capitalism, people are used to having a huge amount of choice at rock-bottom prices. Not everyone likes or wants the luxury crafts products. We can’t get communist about it, and say that there will be just one weaver in your community – they produce chunky brown woollen garments, and you have to wear them. We have to be careful of appearing like that. Lots of people love what I do, but they love my style, colours etc. It’s personal.

I just want to make one thing clear (laughing). Lowimpact is not advocating compulsory purchasing of craft goods – it’s entirely voluntary.

I know – but in a mutual credit scheme, if there’s only one, or maybe two weavers…

You don’t have to use them if you don’t like their stuff – you can use conventional money and get things from elsewhere.

Yes. What I need is an online solution where people can see my stuff. My work is visual. People need to see what they’re getting. So I wonder if there are steps in between. We don’t all live in these strong communities with craft producers, smallholders, small businesses etc. So what are the steps towards these communities?

I’m from a working-class background, and when I go home and talk with working-class people, everyone likes this vision. Most people don’t like their jobs, and like the idea of doing things with their hands, having autonomy, not having a boss breathing down my neck, getting a good income for the work that I do – that sounds great. I think we’re pushing at an open door. I don’t think there’s much opposition out there to this kind of vision. So when it comes to transition steps, what if some places where local businesses are well represented – Lewes, Totnes, Stroud, Hebden Bridge etc. Where the will is there, and maybe a bit of money too. Maybe these can be developed as models that we can point at, and say: look, it works here, it could work in your community.

Do you think there’s any value in an interim step which is an online marketplace which therefore reaches a wider, more dispersed audience, but does deal in a new currency? Maybe we can’t hit the alternative currency model, the sustainable model, the localist model, at the same time providing choice, attracting the numbers etc. Maybe we can break it down into stages.

Yes – you know about the Credit Commons protocol. If we could get clubs started in a range of towns all over the country, and in fact all over the world, the protocol is a language that allows those clubs to talk to each other and to trade with each other seamlessly. So if you can’t find customers or suppliers in your local town, you could look for them further afield. As time goes on, and this movement grows, you can find customers and suppliers closer to home.

Yeah. I think that one thing that a business like mine needs an online showcase for its products. You’re a man – no offence – but women are more fussy about what their clothes look like. I’ve noticed that you guys haven’t taken visuals into consideration enough. People have to see my work.

That’s a really good point. And we are largely a bunch of nerdy blokes.

And who’s your youngest member?

No – we have new members in their twenties. Mostly older though.

So this question of how to get there from here. I don’t want to use the internet. I want to live like Mark Boyle.

Mark Boyle is the Moneyless Man, who had a column in the Guardian, and wrote the Moneyless Manifesto. He came to visit on his way to Ireland a few years ago, where he now lives in an off-grid community, and you can only contact him by letter.

He doesn’t use electricity or carbon-heavy machines. I think his highest-tech machine is a Rayburn. I want to live like that. But I have to work out how to get from here to there. At the moment I’m reliant on the internet and therefore electricity. I’m not on Sardinia, where you have that island community, and everybody knows each other.

It’s a bit bigger than that. I should explain that you’re talking about an island-wide mutual credit network on Sardinia, that turns over more than 50 million euros worth of trade per year, but without money.

But there’s a lot of brokering isn’t there? There isn’t an all-singing, all-dancing platform for people to display their goods. For a transition model we need something like that. I drew up a business plan for it, and we can talk more about the details at some point.

Also, maybe one of the things a mutual credit club could talk about straight away is a shop premises. There are lots of shops boarded up in towns. Get a shop, put all the local produce in it, including food and craft produce, so that people can pick it up and have a look at it – but also advertising for conventional business services that accept mutual credit.

My first idea was that – a few years ago, I was talking about opening an exchange hub shop in Totnes, so that every producer has a tiny display of what they do. At the moment, for me, geographically, that doesn’t work. I’m thinking about businesses that are internet-dependent, I’m wondering whether we can have an internet solution to begin with that can decentralise to the town level later.

We need photographs and videos to display products.

I do that in my Etsy shop. Maybe Lowimpact.org should change into a massive exchange hub as well?

Funny you should say that – we’ve been talking about having a mutual credit network for the businesses in Lowimpact’s directory – from craft businesses, to growers, smallholders, renewables installers, natural builders and course providers.

Can your website also host all the visuals, so that there isn’t a heavy brokering service required in the middle, and so that producers and consumers can meet on your website?

Definitely. Members can add images to their profiles now. We’re getting a new site – by the end of September, fingers crossed – and they’ll be able to add videos.

What would be good for me is if it were an actual trading platform.

It will be – a mutual credit trading platform, yes.

Brilliant.

Yes, and apart from the mutual credit platform, we’re looking at ‘wikifying‘ the topics, so that we can work with specialists, such as your good self, who will look after the topics that they’re specialists in – and they’ll get good promotion in return.

Yes, that’s important if we can’t get visibility from a shop on the High Street. Maybe a lot of businesses don’t produce for High St shops. That could be the next step – to real shops.

Highlights

  1. If you see a mug or a t-shirt that are suspiciously cheap, you know that someone is getting exploited somewhere – and the environment is getting exploited too.
  2. If you’re producing things for this local market as well as consuming things from this local market, you’ll be receiving higher prices as well as paying higher prices. So they cancel each other out – and everyone gets higher-quality, sustainable goods.
  3. The mutual credit advantage is that you don’t actually need any money to trade.