Who can afford artisan goods? For truly green businesses, we have to kick the money habit

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Posted Mar 11 2018 by Eloise Sentito of These Isles

Hi, how’s business? As an artisan working with wool, January and February are usually peak season for me, but this year they’ve been the worst months on my records, despite the big freeze.

I’m a ‘nomadic’ handweaver travelling the Celtic lands with my craft business on board an old motorhome. I put ‘nomadic’ in inverted commas because it sounds more romantic, free and choiceful than it is: although it *is* poetic to an extent, it is also very hard, very insecure, sometimes unsafe, and never that cheap. It was a liberating but slightly kamikaze choice I made from a position of feeling that, since for my increasing anxiety levels I needed the tranquility of my native rural habitat, I could see no other choice.

Here’s how it goes – you might recognise yourself:

I had tried pursuing a sensible career for a decade, as an employee. I had tried being a tenant for that long too. I had tried running a craft business to fund a household. I had tried living in the city. I had tried paying higher prices for greener lifestyle and consumption choices. I had tried making savings by consuming less and less (I was never profligate overall). I had tried keeping chickens to cut food costs. I had tried making time for the undug vegetable garden so as to feed myself more. I had tried maintaining my mammalian dependents on a shoestring. I had tried borrowing money to keep all of this going. I had tried borrowing more money to pay for the borrowed money to keep all of this going. But none of it was ultimately sustainable unless I climbed the career ladder towards management and away from the fulfilment of coalface teaching work, or unless I sold my craft to richer and richer folk. Both of those rubbed. I’m not sure either was really possible for the person that I am.

In other words, born landless, I couldn’t live rurally, well or healthily without chasing the money. Which is nuts, because generally more money doesn’t mean greater sustainability or wellness. In fact we’re told that the global richest 1% could have 175 times the carbon footprint of the world’s poorest 10% and Gross National Happiness reportedly decreases with wealth inequality, which is particularly stark in the UK.

I’ve come to think of money – potentially a neutral, helpful tool – as something I need to break my dependency on. That I might have become dependent upon it surprises me, as I was brought up below the breadline and never sought to accumulate capital. I believe in abundance. I get by. I inherited, and still hold, ideological beliefs along the lines of Schumacher College’s founder Satish Kumar’s incisive observation that ‘poverty is not the problem; wealth is the problem’.

And yet of course we all have skills, services and products to offer, and needs and wants to maintain. We all produce, and we all consume, and, unless 100% self-sufficient, we all have to exchange. So we tend to become dependent upon the means of exchange, currency, because it is our society’s principal tool for engaging in material exchange.

Artisans, artists, writers, musicians, and commitedly small-scale growers, producers and manufacturers know even before embarking on such a vocation that money is unlikely to be on our side (unless we are one of those extremely few who hit the statisitcally ever-rarer ‘big time’ and ‘sell out’). Many of us consciously or subconsciously choose social and environmental justice over wealth accumulation, knowing at least instinctively that the latter is at odds.

My travelling weaving business is at a crossroads: I have increased my sale prices to the extent that my peers find them increasingly hard to afford (and you can probably tell from my accent that most of my peers are culturally privileged middle class professionals); handweaving, like all craft, is so labour intensive that I am still earning well below the minimum wage; I limit costs by buying some imported yarn of unverifiable sustainability all the way from Peru; in my tiny mobile workshop I have no space for increased productivity via mechanisation (even if I agreed with it) or additional manpower. But my business must grow just for me to be able to stand still.

I don’t know whether steady state economies are possible in a world where growth and decay is a natural cycle, but I’m pretty sure that steady state economies are *not* possible when the means of exchange has a built-in locking mechanism for infinite growth. I’m talking about money creation as debt, at interest – which is >97% of all money in the world. Austerity policies are only an unfriendly government’s symptomatic reaction to this driving mechanism. Here’s the crux of the problem from a maker/producer’s point of view. (Its hard squeeze is perhaps also a reason why decent people vote for even the nastiest populism).

The principal monetary cost of production is the cost of labour. Humans do not pay (in money) for raw materials: we pay for the labour to extract and process them. In order to reduce these principal costs (this bit is key, so I’ll say it again: in order to reduce these principal costs), we mechanise, using cheaper, non-human energy. This energy is usually dirtier, since it usually involves fossil fuels, with actual or embodied burning of carbon. Alternatively and usually additionally, we outsource the labour to where costs of living are lower, because that makes the labour cheaper. Places with lower costs of living generally have poorer working conditions and, when they hurry to meet our industrial needs in order to meet their hunger needs (which are often a result of our own resource plundering activities there), they often have poorer environmental practices too. Consumers here do not pay for our negative environmental and social impacts there.

So making environmentally-friendly and labour-intensive goods out of ethically sourced materials that were similarly labour-intensive to produce results in a very expensive product. In current global economics, these ‘luxury’ or ‘novelty’ goods are only generally affordable to a richer community than one’s own. So my lovely peers knowingly buy cheap, environmentally and socially unsustainable petro-fibre clothes from another continent and I ship my local wool textiles to yet another continent to find that richer audience. And here’s the mechanism that drives honest consumers to seek bargains, and honest producers to seek cost reductions.

To start from the beginning: the Bank of England recognises that most people don’t understand money creation, and this document of theirs explains the world-prevalent, corporate, debt-based system of creating money at interest. (Study this if you’ve a few months or years to spare; otherwise check that my reference is legit and take my word for it from there. But vote for governor Mark Carney if ever you’ve chance, as making this material public on his watch makes me think that he’s a good’un.) This debt based money creation system has the following impact on our societies.

Prices must necessarily be higher than wages (in aggregate). This is due to the interest component on >97% of all money. Because >97% of all the money handled by individuals and companies is debt, all individuals and companies, regardless of their own actual borrowing, have to cover not just labour and embodied labour costs in production of their goods and services, but above and beyond have also to service the borrowed money, i.e. pay interest on loans. Prices being higher than wages means that there is not enough money to consume all the goods and services that we produce – scarcity is in-built. To sell our wares we must enagage in a constant battle of noveltising, undercutting, shortcutting and bargaining: we are economically compelled as producers to compete in ever more socially and environmentally unfriendly ways. If we want or need ordinary folk to afford our wares, we have to get things made or done more cheaply, which generally means replacing labour with mechanisation and/or outsourcing labour to places where working conditions, rights, pay and environmental practices are worse – which means that our local ordinary folk are further deprived of work, which means that they cannot afford our wares, which means that we have to get things made or done yet more cheaply… and so on.

This race to the bottom is a vortex: our current monetary system is driving capitalism to its extreme and wrecking life and the planet. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Wouldnt it be different if you all could afford the fruits of my labour, and I yours. I’m aware of two approaches to addressing this.

One is that the debt/interest locking mechanism for infinite growth can be mitigated through measures designed by more intelligent and conscienscious governmental and global financial centre policies. This sometimes happens, but the complete solution would be if the locking mechanism were to be eliminated altogether. This would involve friendly governments being persuaded to bring positive money creation solely and routinely into public hands (which is what they do periodically when they conduct Quantitative Easing). It’s estimated that after approximately 30 years of such a sovereign money system, the gradual effects of wealth redistribution would be significant. This is not a new solution: there are successful historical and contemporary precedents around the world.

An example of artisan goods produced by Eloïse Sentito of These Isles

But do have we time to wait for our politicians and bankers, when even the best of them have limited agency in the structures that our societies have created over centuries? In any case, for a multi-pronged approach, I’d argue for taking the means of exchange back into our own hands, as per the famous Clause IV of the earlier UK Labour Party:

‘To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.’

Saying that trade is difficult because there’s not enough money is like saying that building is difficult because there aren’t enough inches’. We all have needs and wants and we can all produce goods and services, even when the money has all been hoovered up. So lets all get on with our business a long way away from the corporate moneymaker machine hellbent on its race to the bottom.

Makers, artists and economists are e-gathering in the Green Cloth Collective, an international network of professionals, activists and would-be producers who believe in making things closer to home for greater sustainability. We’re discussing the economic problems, challenges and possible solutions. At least for now, increased resilience is likely to involve breaking our dependency on money and developing strong networks and communities in which collaborative credit and gift economies can thrive, for the sake of people and planet.