Creating a Sustainable Business - "where has this come from, what is it doing for me now and where is it going to end up?”
So, I have been thinking lately about product design and trends and delivering what people want (and what we want to make) in the very best ways.
I feel that most people really do not know what they want so much as they know how they want to feel and so delivering to their demand is really more about creating new possibilites for them and allowing them to feel good about their choices.
There is a design concept originating from Sweden called Lagom which means ”just enough”.
This feels like a very smart aesthetic for a time when 84% of us are inclined to buy less stuff and 72% of us are determined to remove the clutter from our lives. People don't want to just shop until they drop anymore; they want to experience the things they buy.
And this is really great news for the handmade movement!
This is just a brief introduction to a new series of posts about the sustainability of our businesses and our products. There is alot more to this sustainability business than the components of our work- although that plays a part for some of us- it is much bigger than this.
It is also about making things that matter (which they do when we put our heart into them) and making them to last and making the things that people want to hold onto and that will age gracefully (like us) - sustainability is personal.
(I am also starting a new Tuesday post called Tuesday Trends to focus on some design trends that we may want to take a look at for our own work, as well as the trends that the buyers at Pool asked me about last week.)
These 10 principles of good design written in the 1960's by Dieter Rams are still totally appropriate today and applicable to a great model of sustainability:
• Good design is innovative.
• Good design makes a product useful.
• Good design is aesthetic.
• Good design helps us to understand a product.
• Good design is unobtrusive.
• Good design is honest.
• Good design is durable.
• Good design is consequent to the last detail.
• Good design is concerned with the environment.
• Good design is as little design as possible.
I will be posting about sustainable design in terms of the environment (where does it come from, where is it going), innovation, emotions (why do we keep certain things and throw other things away without giving them a second thought?), aesthetics, authenticity (creating a history for our work) and multi use/compatibility and how this can all translate into sales and long-term customer relationships for us makers!
"you are awesome" (I want to feel awesome and I think my customers do, too) necklace by yellowgoat (who is currently closed due to an injury and we wish her a quick and complete recovery)
Rereading this post I'm thinking it sounds heavier and maybe preachier than I intended - sustainability isn't.
I want to kick off this series of posts on creating a sustainable handmade business by focusing on things other than ways of production, production materials, etc.
Now, these are important things and these are the things that are getting alot of attention these days,
(and I am very glad for that)
but there is a bigger picture and a more complex aspect to sustainability that we can capitalize on as makers with a desire to create sustainable work.
When we were kids my sister had a teddy bear who went everywhere with her for years.
(what ever happened to Timmy, sis?)
Parents know that if their children have too many toys and a constant influx of "new stuff" into their lives that they never really get attached to any one special thing for more than a nanosecond.
I think the same is true for all of us.
As a maker trying to create a sustainable business in a disposable world how can I make my work more sustainable by helping my customers develop an emotional attachment to my stuff?
What is the point of using durable materials, recycling, using environmentally friendly production, fair trade, etc if the buyer doesn't connect with the product in a way that creates a long, useful life for our stuff?
Big brands spend big bucks to do this with their advertising campaigns. A clear identity can create an emotional connection for a product and a hefty price tag doesn't hurt (cheap stuff definitely gets tossed easier than the stuff we have saved our pennies to purchase).
The good news for the handmade movement is that we do not need a big bucks advertising campaign to connect with our customer and connect them to our work in a huge and personal way. There are as many ways to do this as there are makers with imagination out there.
1. Create a story for our work that allows the customer to connect to it in a unique way.
Example - BOB - Bunch of Bolts This cool little necklace comes in different colors and different names - nude BOB is pictured here
(it may be time to get the kids out of the room, folks)
BOB comes with an awesome little guide to 'his-story' which includes the following:
"...shortly after cave men discovered them, early man began using BOBs in cave-drawing advertisements for new flint tools and Dino Dung products (for which they were paid very little - since, of course, they didn’t move thus limiting their ability to protest)...."
I think it's genius (plus the maker/designer is my brother). He creates the most amazing connection with his customers who continue to update him on BOB's adventures once they get to their new homes.
2. Tell the story about ourselves, our processes and our materials and include this with our work -
How wonderful would it be to get a beautiful handmade sweater in the mail (like this gorgeous work by ileaiye) with some information about the maker and how this amazing work came to be - maybe even some tracking information on the wool, etc that went into the piece.
A real history of the item (not to support its eco-footprint although that would be great, too) but just to allow the buyer to connect to the work in a stronger, more personal way.
If I bought a sweater made from alpaca and it came with a picture of the actual alpaca, I would be blown away. I would never want to take that sweater off!
3. Use social media to allow your buyers to get to know you and your work in a more personal way
(yes, this means you probably need a blog and you need to update it once in a while and yes, this is work and sometimes alot of work and something that we are all struggling with as our businesses and our lives get busier and busier)
Giving your buyers and potential buyers a peek into your world can definitely create a more emotional attachment to your work.
(of course, it kind of goes without saying- but maybe I should say it anyway, that if our work falls apart right away when used then none of these things will work)
As we seek to create a sustainable business (on so many levels) - giving our customers the tools they need to attach to our products and connect with the maker of our products is a win-win for everyone!
(and yes, this goes against the current business model of creating things with a short life span that get tossed so that the consumer needs and buys more things and it brings us back to the more traditional model of creating work of quality and this is totally a good and necessary thing for our planet and all of us)
Part II -
A sustainable business needs to take into consideration 3 things - people, profits and the planet.
1. People - the people your business touches including yourself and your family, your employees, your customers and the other people your business supports.
2. Profits - if your business is not making money, you will probably not be able to "sustain" it for very long
3. Planet - the future of which is quite literally in our hands
So, we want to create a sustainable business - affecting the environment as little as possible - but we also want to make things for a living and sell them.
How do we balance this?
Well, I think the very fact that more and more makers are asking these questions is a great thing and of course, doing something is always better than doing nothing.
I try not to use components produced in certain countries in my work (although this is not possible with everything) because their environmental practices and labor wages do not sustain people or the planet.
I try not to use toxic chemicals in my work, but brazing is a toxic activity (only to me and those in my immediate vicinity, often my hubby since this is done in his shop) as well as pouring resin. When I can use nontoxic materials though, I always do - again doing something is better than doing nothing.
I try to use recycled and recyclable packaging materials, but a test tube shipped without bubble wrap is a test tube that is probably not going to arrive in one piece, so I buy the biodegradable bubble wrap (even though my own tests with it haven't been totally successful) and use recyclable newspaper.
And, I use a few energy saving techniques in my studio including temperature control, using CFLs and surge strips so I can turn everything off with the flip of a couple switches - all easy, peasy stuff.
This is not to say everyone else has to do these things (and many people are doing alot more) - some of these things may be a good place to start though if you are thinking about the sustainability of what you do.
Note - we are not seeking perfection - we are just seeking to have the smallest impact on the natural environment with our work.
The planet is the one P in the 3 P's of sustainability where making a huge impact is not a good thing.
If it is possible to use a sustainable or locally produced piece in our work - maybe passing the additional costs, along with the story (see Part I of this series) of that component used in our piece on to our customer so they can feel good about the materials and methods that have gone into their purchase. This can also produce some great opportunities to collaborate with other makers.
Also remember that you have your own story and your own need to earn a sustainable living and you are not doing anyone a favor by being your own slave labor department (working on this one).
(customers really don't need or want - for more than 5 minutes- more mass-produced junk and as makers trying to make a living with a sustainable business we certainly don't want it obscuring the importance of craft and durability)
Walk into a store and ask the salesperson about the material and production of the item you are looking at and you will probably get a blank stare. This is a huge advantage to us as designers and makers.
We can know what goes into our products and we can work to make those materials (components, packaging, shipping) as environmentally friendly as possible.
We cannot be perfect in this and just having a global business creates lots of planetary wear and tear, but in making sustainable environmental practices a priority to us I believe we are sending
the energy of our long term commitment to our business out into the world.
"form ever follows function" - architect Louis Sullivan
Now, aesthetics is a tough thing to describe- it does have a real definition, but whether something's aesthetic is good or bad is a pretty subjective thing.
We all have our own likes and dislikes, history and culture that create our predisposition that goes into judging the things we create and the things we purchase.
Function used to be (back in the days of the industrial revolution and today for some people and within some cultures) the most important part of any design and then form followed.
And, maybe for our handmade work to be truly sustainable this is still a good model for us to work with.
As customers become more conscious of how they spend their money it is very possible to see function pushed ahead of form again and this is more good news for the handmade movement where we control both form and function.
So, if you are a maker of flower vases for example - you might think first people want their vase to be cool (whatever that is to them) - to be their own aesthetic whether that be traditional or modern or whatever and obviously the form your work takes is very important and will stir up a certain audience and is the part that most personally reflects you as a maker ...
but, if the top of the vase, for example, sits in such a way - that is very cool and modern and pleasing to the eye of those who share your aesthetic - but will not allow a flower stem to sit straight in water and loses its function, well ...
for makers seeking to create a sustainable business with customers who are making conscious spending decisions putting time and energy into function can be, to quote Martha here, "a really good thing".
I just bought one of the very gorgeous jewelry hanging cases that the amazing Jessica of bluebirdheaven upcycles from antique printer drawers.
Now, as a customer I didn't go searching around Etsy thinking I wonder what interesting something or other I can find made from an antique printer drawer - I went looking for a jewelry case and my aesthetic led me to hers.
(and I am so happy with it by the way!)
Now, I do not know if form or function came first for Jessica - did she stumble upon a stash of amazing vintage printer drawers or want to create unique jewelry cabinets - but because she has taken into consideration both form and function she has created a very sustainable piece.
Functionality is also why sometimes even the most amazing illustrators find it easier to sell their work on t-shirts and jewelry and fabric and coasters and the myriad other functional processes available to them than to sell an 11X14 print.
(that and the fact that so many people have had the same art on their walls since Clinton was president - let's all buy some new art this week - we should start a movement - change your wall for fall or something catchy like that)
I have a beautiful bracelet that I would wear alot more often if I could latch the damn thing without giving myself a carpal tunnel injury or calling out for reinforcements.
(and I am not a "get hubby to zip me into this dress" kind of girl although that does sound kind of cool, if I had a dress like that ... now that I think about it)
Now, all of this is not to say that things can never be just 100% about form
(because all beautiful things serve their own function, of course, what higher calling than to give birth to something beautiful - something that moves us and makes us feel something)
but as makers looking to sell our work and create a sustainable business at the same time, the balance of form and function is surely something we might want to keep in mind.