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The Qualitative Life: Environmental and Personal Wellbeing through Artisan Appreciation

"Sale" by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

During the holiday season this year, I saw many requests on social media inviting people to consider avoiding purchasing gifts, especially poorly-fabricated prepackaged items manufactured specifically for the holidays. There were several reasons for this request:

1) to curb the excessive consumerism that has become synonymous with the season;

2) to avoid over-spending on unnecessary and/or unwanted items;

3) to decrease the production of poorly-made and overly packaged items that create pollution during the manufacturing process;

4) to eliminate the poor working conditions for many who make the objects we buy; and

5) to limit the number of broken and unwanted items that may eventually contaminate the environment by ending up in landfills and seas.

Instead of gifts, the social media posts suggested that it was important to spend quality time with family and friends creating memories that can last a lifetime.

The push towards holiday consumerism begins the day after Halloween in the United States when Christmas decorations appear in the shops. This is followed by Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Many people begin queuing for the sales events on Thanksgiving evening. The shopping sprees and one-off sales continue until Christmas Eve, only to have more sales the day after Christmas. These special times intended to be spent with family and friends and/or focusing on spiritual practices have seemingly become events for the accumulation of objects, which the non-profit Frontier Group warns has harmful effects on human and environmental well-being.

I do not wish to sound like the Grinch, because the spirit of giving is a lovely sentiment and it is nice to give and receive something meaningful. However, as I look around shops at holidays and throughout the year, I am reminded of a quote in a French book entitled A Guide to Elegance[1] written in 1964. This handbook explains how to create an elegant wardrobe consisting of beautifully designed and well-crafted items on the tightest of budgets. In the section appropriately entitled “Quantity,” the author, Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, makes a comparison between French and American women. She notes that French women own far fewer clothes than their American counterparts, but their clothes are more expensive, very well-crafted, and intended to last for years. Women will wear their few items repeatedly with pride that they own something beautifully made that fits them well. In comparison, she states that American women tend to own many more clothes than the French, at less expense, but they will not be as well-made.

Even in 1964, Dariaux made an insightful observation about the different values of both countries. I quote,

"It is undeniable that the American woman is constantly surrounded by new temptations and assailed by the most irresistible kind of fashion advertising. Moreover, she has been told that her role in the national economy is to continually buy and consume.”[2]

Undoubtedly this comment can be taken as offensive, especially now there is a growing trend in many countries, not just the United States, for excessive consumption and fast fashion. When I first read her work over 20 years ago, I was taken aback by her comment, being American; yet, I ultimately found myself agreeing with her.

Her comment forced me to question why I had a compulsion to own more, spend more, and ultimately waste more, which is harmful to me and the environment. The answers to these questions are complex, but I found a solution to the problem in the concluding paragraph of the section. She questioned,

“And yet, I wonder if she (the American woman) wouldn’t profit by replacing her penchant for quantity with a quest for quality. She might find that not only is her elegance increased, but also the enjoyment and even the confidence that she gets from her clothes.” [3]

In essence, I eventually began purchasing fewer, items ranging from kitchen gadgets to furnishing, for example. I would also like to make it clear that I cannot afford to buy high end designers like Gucci or Chanel. Though, I admire the creativity and quality of the tailoring and cobbling that come out of these fashion houses. Now, I try to buy items that fit well, last long, can be repaired, will be used regularly, and suite my style. Of course, I am not perfect, but I have found that over time I have gained a much greater appreciation for quality craftsmanship that goes into the creation of the objects I own. Ultimately, I found that owning less is more.

With less accumulation, I also discovered a greater appreciation for ephemeral objects that are delightfully crafted, such as organic soaps with natural scents; naturally scented candles; and, of course, beautifully designed flowers. I like these because they bring nature into my home and are changeable in terms of sensory experiences: views, smells, textures, sounds (with music), and taste (with foods). They make me feel healthy and happy, and I know that they will not clutter my home. When one item is done, I can change it for something in a different scent or color, meaning I do not tire of having the same items in my home. The trash created by these items is minimal and some of it, like flowers and food scraps, can be composted.

Aside from the pleasure I gain from having well-made items, the experience of being a floral designer has given me further cause for thought about artisans and the people who create what we need and buy. It would take a seismic shift in attitude, but I wonder if one way to eliminate harmful environmental waste and over-consumption is for us to learn to appreciate the artisans who create well-crafted items made with pride and care. Should we not recognize the work, talent, and education that goes into their creations and pay artisans a comfortable wage that allows them a good life.[4] The appreciation and appropriate pay would make it desirable for more people to pursue careers where they create something they are proud to call their own, rather than seek careers that place value on the accumulation of wealth and objects.

This shift in thought could also mean there might be more well-made objects available for the wider public, at a fair cost, because there might be more people pursuing careers as artisans who create objects. At the same time, their work would be coming out of smaller workshops, rather than factories, which means we would have to learn a bit of patience while we wait for our item to be made rather than expect immediate gratification.[5] With workshops, in comparison to large-scale factories, we would be creating less waste because most objects would be made to order. This could also mean that there would be fewer unwanted or broken items ending up in landfills. Moreover, this could lead to better working conditions than what we find in many of the factories in existence today.

These issues are highly complex and require much thought and discussion, but I mention the appreciation of artisans who make many of the objects we need to kick-start conversations about our buying habits and the harms they can cause to the environment and ourselves. I end this with an historical example. In the present era, people still enjoy a Roman bath located in Khenchela in Algeria. Men meet daily in this structure , as the Romans did, to clean themselves and socialize. The baths were built in the first century AD and are testaments to the care, time, and thought that went into their construction. Not everything the Romans built lasted and, admittedly, they used their military and slave labor for the construction of large projects, so there are issues concerning their working practices, but the architecture that survives, such as the baths and the Pantheon in Rome, are things of beauty in terms of their design, engineering, and decoration.

Today, we sit in wonder when we see these structures. Wouldn’t it be nice for people living in the future to marvel at the objects we make, and our appreciation for those who create them, rather than finding landfills of plastic waste, evidence for people suffering from poor working conditions, and evidence to suggest that we led shallow lives filled with objects rather than meaningful experiences and creations?

Dr. Patty Baker

[1] Genevieve Antoine Daraiux 1964. A Guide to Elegance: For Every woman who wants to be well and properly dressed on all occasions. New York: Harper Collins. [2] Daraiux 1964: 148. [3] Daraiux 1964: 148. [4] As should everyone, such as teachers, nurses, professors, career coaches, public transportation workers, cleaners, custodial technicians, farm workers, etc. [5] A case in point: I needed a new boat cover for my sailing dinghy this year. I could have purchased a cheaply made item at half the cost on Amazon, but I found a local sail maker who also makes boat covers for my dinghy. I had to wait about 4 weeks for my order to be made, but the quality of the workmanship is incredible. The new cover fits my boat perfectly, and during a recent storm, the cover kept my boat dry, which is a testament to the quality of the workmanship and the materials used. The cover will last a long time. The money I spent, $175.00 dollars, will mean that in the long-term I will spend less than I would buying cheap covers that will need to be thrown out on a near yearly basis.



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