Design & Make

Breaking the Mold, Part III

by Emma Segal June 12, 2018
ReadBreaking the Mold, Part III

Handmade, local, organic – these words have permeated our collective lexicon over the past few years. They, along with other terms that evoke a bygone era, pop out from signs, labels and hashtags. Stores and high-end craft shows are brimming with beautiful, painstakingly made pieces of useable art, sourced close to home and further afield. The resurgence in popularity for these methods is a sign of a better future and a deeper appreciation from consumers for the energy that goes into making our lives more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing. On the makers’ part, it’s a satisfying labor of love to create our everyday products, from letter pressed greeting cards to hand-finished cutting boards. Having been both a consumer and a producer of a product, I’m acutely aware of the challenges on both sides of the assembly line.

I love buying things made by someone with whom I can shake hands and look in the eye. I also spend hours online, reading the stories of craftspeople whose work is available with the click of a button. It’s an experience that creates intimacy with your belongings, giving them meaning beyond simple tools filling a necessity. I know I have contributed to these people’s lives, too.

Access and affordability play an important part in how we can integrate better choices. While it’s easy in a big city to find nearby alternatives, many smaller towns just don’t have that advantage. From the consumer perspective, buying local can also be extremely confusing. We don’t yet have certifications set up that everyone adheres to, or even knows about. To label as “Made in America” (or other similar implication) in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission guidelines say that the item should be all, or “virtually” all, domestic product. A beautiful brass compass could be made with metal shaped and pressed in the States – but that brass could have come from anywhere. Those products do not require submission for review or approval, and there is no monitoring, oversight, testing or accountability. If the company is reported, an investigation will happen – but until then it’s a trust game. Unless local manufacturers are personally mining or growing the raw materials needed to make their products, they rely on good faith in the company from which they’re buying the components. Ideally, each sourcing step along the production line should be transparent all the way back to the raw material. These systems can become labyrinthine – even for those with the best intentions and resources.

Responsibility comes down to the individual, and we cast votes with our wallets every day. The entire chain of production is reinforced each time money is exchanged, for better or worse. That’s not to say you have to find the most ethical, non-toxic, handmade version of what you’re buying every single time – you’ll likely end up exhausted and confused. A balanced approach can make the process less daunting. For example, just because I can’t afford a hand-knit, 100% organic, fair-trade, vegetable-dyed cashmere blanket for $450 – however beautiful – doesn’t mean I have to buy the $10 polyester Chinese made version at the nearby big box store. (Even conventional cotton is preferable in many ways to polyester.)

With enough curiosity and desire, everything can be replaced with a more sustainable choice – not to mention the satisfaction of siphoning your consumer dollars toward companies and individuals making products that are better for our world, and our bodies. What it takes is a commitment to making a lifestyle change, and embracing the fact that there won’t always be a hit list of solutions. Real work is involved here – an investment in time and money – because we are still at the forefront of this new consumerism. When I started transforming my own purchasing habits, it was the beginning of a learning curve that continues to this day.

There are hurdles – not all those fancy certification logos are legit, and greenwashing is a real issue – but asking the questions leads to finding the answers. How is my table made? Who turned the legs? What kind of metal is in those nails? Why is this backpack $400 and this one $35? What the heck is this “regenerium” ingredient in my shampoo? (Hint: If it sounds made up, it probably is. Trademarking something as a brand name is a clever way to get around claiming it as an actual ingredient.)

One of the first areas I started with was skincare. Moisturizer, shampoo, deodorant, sunscreen, soap and laundry detergent – these all come into contact with your body on a routine basis. They absorb into your system through the body’s largest organ, your skin. Before I buy a new product, I take a look at the ingredient list. It’s not necessarily bad if it’s unpronounceable. Some brands will even put the common name in brackets: Tocopherol (vegetable oil derived vitamin E) is a common addition to skincare products, unless it’s preceded by a ‘dl’ – in which case, it’s synthetically derived from petroleum. The somewhat foreboding sounding Butyrospermum Parkii is just Shea Butter. Cetyl Alcohol, used as an emulsifier, comes from the Latin word cetus, meaning whale, as whale oil was where it was first discovered. (But now it mainly comes from coconut or palm.)

Most of these are easy to find online. For ingredients you’re not sure about, Material Safety Data (MSDS) sheets can be helpful for ingredient research, providing some info on chemicals and safety for both manufacturers and consumers. For textiles and hard goods, read the labels in-store and product descriptions online. Retailers are required to identify the contents and country of origin. In the U.S., it is often required to have either the name and address, or a tracking code, identifying the specific factory that was used. Be aware that vague terms like “color or “perfume” can hide hundreds of ingredients that aren’t required to be listed. If you see an official-looking certification stamp on a product, read up to see if it carries any weight. When in doubt, call up the company. You’re the customer; you have every right to know. If they can’t or won’t tell you, take your business to someone who will. Or, in some cases, make it yourself! Most bathroom and kitchen products can be easily and cheaply concocted with a few items from your fridge. (Inhabitat, Ecouterre and Treehugger are three more reliable resources for general info.)

Consumer goods are often the most challenging and expensive. The cost of labor for an hour in North America or Europe is often equivalent to a week overseas. Luckily, there is a whole new generation that is intent on bringing back some form of cottage industry. Every time I discover someone who has taken on the challenge of making a truly remarkable product, my inspiration and hope is renewed. The work to do so is not easy, but in the end it contributes to our society in a way that goes beyond simple health and wellness – it speaks to how we want to be as a culture.

Along with the peace of mind that you are supporting a manufacturer that you believe in – be it a fair-trade bowl maker from Burkina Faso or a garden tool maker in Minnesota – choosing products with care, and finding thoughtfully crafted versions of the quotidian objects in our lives, transforms them from simple tools into storied objects. It adds a little more humanity back into an increasingly digital life. If we continue to be participants in the manufacturing process, our future selves will thank us.

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Photos courtesy and copyright Emma Segal. See more of Emma’s work here.


This is the final article in a three-part series on the life of a product from the ground up. (Read Part I and Part II.)

How can we as consumers make more informed decisions and better choices? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.

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