The Consumption Conundrum: Connecting With Makers and Making Mindful Purchases

by Maxwell Tielman

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Over the past few weeks, we’ve been contemplating our spending habits and, more specifically, what it means to splurge. The idea of splurging is a somewhat enigmatic one, its definition shifting depending on its context and usage, but I’ve always associated it with the broader notion of spending more than one typically would on something. As our team sat around our little table at Makeshift Society discussing what the term means to each of us specifically (Amy noted how she prefers to splurge on beautiful, memorable experiences; Grace mused on the importance of waiting for the right purchase), I found myself thinking about my own choices as a consumer—my role the grand scheme of the worldwide marketplace and how I felt about that role.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in Kingston’s Stockade Tavern, having a glass of wine with a friend and chatting—as one does—about life, work and the problem of sweatshop labor. I had just read an article in The New Yorker about the troublesome disappearance of the anti-sweatshop movement in America. The movement, which was practically inescapable on college campuses and activist circles in the nineties, has all but disappeared, its battle cries hushed to quiet whispers, the siren call of $5 t-shirts apparently too strong to question. My friend, a purveyor and professor of textile design, is well-versed in such matters, so I took the opportunity to pick her brain on the subject. What she said, while quite simple, blew my mind.

“This is an exercise I often do with my students,” she said. “Think about the last time somebody gave you something handmade. A sweater, a scarf—even a small piece of jewelry. How did it make you feel? How did you treat it?”

“I treat it like a treasure,” I said. “It feels so special when I get something handmade from a friend.”

“Well,” my friend continued, “why is that? What makes you feel that way?”

I took a minute to think. “I don’t know—I think the time and the effort put into it. Making something by hand, rather than just buying something… It was made with love. With me in mind.”

“Ok,” my friend said. “Now let’s look at the shirt you’re wearing. Where did you get it?”

I named one of the big, faceless stores at the shopping mall.

“Well—you don’t know who made that shirt for you. But somebody did. A person sewed those stitches, a person put time into making sure everything was properly constructed. And that person was definitely thinking about something while they made it.”

Everything she was saying was true. And in that moment, the weight of that truth hit me like a five-ton sack of bricks. I had gone through the grand majority of my life surrounded by objects—objects that had at some point in their construction, come into contact with human hands. Objects whose materials had been grown, sourced or mined by human hands. Objects that had, through the modern miracles of flight and fossil fuel consumption, ended up on a store shelf where I had picked them up, thinking little of their point of origin.

I looked again at the shirt I was wearing. I had spent probably less than fifty dollars on it. Even at the lowest of “living” wages, my shirt—at the consumer end—cost a little over five hours of work. But what about at the producer’s end? How long had it taken to pick the cotton needed to make that shirt? How many gallons of water were used to treat, process and dye that cotton? How much time did the factory worker responsible for my shirt spend making it? How much were they paid to do it? Were they paid fairly? How much fuel did it take to ship that shirt across the ocean to the shopping mall where I eventually picked it up? At what expense to the environment did all of that come? Suddenly, my fifty dollar shirt—the fifty dollar shirt that I would likely toss away as soon as it became too stained, ragged and weatherworn for my taste—seemed remarkably underpriced.

When I got home that night, I took a look around my home. What other objects had I treated the same way? How much did I actually know about my things, aside from that fact that they worked well or I liked the way that they looked? I began opening my drawers and closets, reading tags and flipping over objects. The portrait painted in my mind was not unlike an atlas of far-off locales that I had never been to—places that, more likely than not, had fractured economies, little support for workers, few environmental regulations, and governments too willing to allow outsiders to exploit their citizens. Far too many of the objects I owned were part of a system that I did not support, a system that I did not want to be a part of.

But that’s the issue with systemic problems—opting out of them is often easier said than done. After all, I’m just one person. One person who, despite my best efforts to educate myself and live mindfully, still unwittingly takes part in flawed, incredibly unsustainable systems. And, let’s be real—there are not a whole lot of options for the average consumer interested in leaving behind the trappings of modern-day “pile it high and sell it cheap” capitalism. In many ways, any efforts in that vein seem painfully, insurmountably futile. So, what to do?

I think I’m a realistic person, but I’m also an optimistic one. There must be ways to consume consciously and ethically—even on an income unbefitting of the so-called 1%. “How do you do it?” I asked my friend, at this point so panic-stricken about my state of consumptive affairs that I was seriously contemplating becoming a hermit. “How do you live and function in this world and still manage to make conscious choices that you can feel good about?”

The answer, it would seem, was as clear-cut as the problem that preceded it. Live with less. Instead of spending a little on a lot, spend more on the things you really need. Check your labels. Know your sources. Try to connect with the makers behind your purchases, whether they be a clothing designer, a jeweler, or a farmer. And, most importantly, wait. Time, and patience especially, seems to be integral to mindful living. Patience to save the necessary pennies needed to pay the fair price for something. Patience to wait until that thing you need (or want) becomes available on eBay or Craigslist. Patience to sort through the intimidating racks of thrift stores and consignment shops—places that, at the second-hand, are divorced from many of the ethical issues that plague first-hand sources. Most importantly, patience and faith in the fact that if you can change, others can, too. We’re not just citizens of our countries—we are citizens of the world. And as citizens, it is our duty to stand up for what we believe in, to be active in those beliefs, and trust that others can (and will!) follow suit. It might take a long, long time, but patience and awareness are key. They may be hard pills to swallow, but they can be the cure and the path to wiser, more sustainable, healthier and happier choices. Here’s to happy choices!

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  • really happy to see your mindful, self reflective words here. I could not agree more. I find this to be so important… in my own way I have chosen to use a local company Greenerprinter- which receives the highest awards for environmental integrity- to reproduce all my art reproductions, greeting cards etc. Of course it would be so much cheaper to have a home printer..but that just adds to more landfill waste and further toxic inks. Each action we make can be used to support clean water, pure air and happy people!

  • As a maker I so appreciate this post, I always hope that the person who has my work and uses it in their daily life gives some thought to the hands that crafted it. Each piece made to last with the utmost respect for the materials used, I believe that the things we bring into our home should be used and grow even more beautiful the longer we have them. Things that can be treasured and given to a future generation. Thank you for this.

  • I just learned about a company called American Giant and I intend to start purchasing more of my t-shirts and hoodies from them! Check them out!

  • I love the conclusion of this post… other reads seem to only suggest mindful spending (in itself is good, but fails to address the root problem). At first, it seems very unappealing to purchase less and not feed our habitual spending, but the rewards from practicing patient purchasing are truly unparalleled. Buying less allows me to splurge a little more, making my closet, home, and conscious very happy!

  • Fantastic post. Since owning my own small upholstery business, I have made changes to the way I shop, always trying to buy local when I can and help support other makers. We all feel like we’re just one person, how can our shopping habits make a difference? But they can, one person at a time. I hope Design Sponge keeps communicating this message from time to time. I believe it can make a difference!

  • This issue is very close to my heart and I’m so happy to see you guys tackling it here! I’ve begun to make as much of my own clothing as I can. Everyone is very impressed when they see something I made and I turn it back on them just like your friend- the pants you’re wearing, that top, they were made by somebody, too! I think that everyone should try to make a piece of clothing. You might love it but if you don’t, you’ll REALLY appreciate the skill and time that goes into the production!

    When I do buy clothing, I don’t mind spending more on a piece that will last a long time. I don’t need to follow trends, black is always in. Everlane has amazing basics and their philosophy is to be very transparent so they post exactly how much each piece costs. Knowing what I’m paying for and having that trust that they really care makes me feel better about spending. Plus, their t-shirts (made in LA) are only $15!

  • This resonates with me so much, thanks for posting! I often wonder why & how the local food movement has left behind so many other, parallel supply chains. You can’t exactly grow your own tee shirt on your fire escape, but I am so in love with the domestic & local fiber movement that’s growing! I definitely get inspired by Design*Sponge profiles of textile makers, but sometimes I’m frustrated when it seems like there’s so much effort put into handmade processes (like designing and sewing) but not much discussion of where the materials come from before they land in the studio — I’d love to see this incorporated into more DS interviews.
    Check out Fibershed for an example of soil-beneficial slow fashion: http://www.fibershed.com/

  • Echoing the comments, I love this post and thoroughly agree about the importance of challenging industrial production.

    Elizabeth Cline’s book, “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” (2012) similarly addresses this issue.

    I admit that I lack the time and talent to make my own clothes, BUT I’ve been participating in Project 333 and writing about shrinking our wardrobes, selling extra clothes and giving to charity, and learning to purchase recycled or handmade things.

    Keep up the great work!

  • Thank you for this fantastic and insightful article! I love what your friend told you and the activity she does with her students. It’s so important to bring these big, global, social issues down to a personal level for real change to actually begin. These practices are so important and we need to be more aware of them as we move forward.

    If you have a second, check out the article I recently posted on FeltBallRug’s website about Fair Trade!


  • I like to think of living a great life as a “slow life” movement. Grow what you can, cook what you can, make what you can. And, when you cannot, know who can and buy or barter from them. Or browse antique and other thrift stores… It adds almost a spiritual element to living– mindfulness.

  • Just spending more will invariably put more money in the pockets of sellers not the makers. Deliberately locating artisans and local designers and dress makers is the way to go. You are in touch with what goes into a piece and invariably it is created just for you.

  • Totally why I supported Mohop’s Kickstarter campain! Mohop makes wooden sandals which use interchangeable ribbon to strap them to your feet. They are open with their sources, the ribbon, wood and several other supplies are made in the USA. The shoes themselves are made in Chicago. Their focus is on sustainability. The shoes are SUPER comfortable and so beautiful!!! You would think I work for them, but I don’t! check them out at mohop.com

    has Design Sponge thought of offering US manufacturers a discount on ads? Eh, just a thought.

  • Wholeheartedly agree. I try to do this with jewelry in particular- buy almost everything directly from metalsmiths and other artists at art fairs rather than big box stores. Not only do I recollect the interactions with the artists when I wear the jewelry, I also get so many compliments on those pieces and I think it’s because the unique, handmade quality shows- it carries so much more interest! What you’re talking about here also gets back to what Grace posted recently about adopting a kind of “slowness” to one’s collecting practices- acquiring things thoughtfully and paring down existing possessions to the things that really matter to you.

  • Agree. Agree. Three years ago my life turned upside down and I moved to Alaska with only what I could pack in my car. It is interesting how the things we need define us.

  • It’s a great idea to make our own clothes or to be willing to pay more for something locally made, but this doesn’t necessarily help those who are still working in a sweatshop. I’ve been struggling with this concept for many years. I would love to hear “part 2” of what you or your friends might suggest is the best way we can help them!

  • I can’t thank you enough for this article! I was just having this conversation with friends this morning over a cuppa. As crafters of handmade furniture in Australia (Plank and Trestle) it is so hard to compete for us with the prices of mass-market overseas-made pieces so we rely on our customers placing true value on the personal contact they with who is making their furniture for them and the devotion they know we personally give to each piece we make. I am so grateful for our customers and this new movement that places value on where things come from and how they are made. I just wish that overseas manufacturers were paid the true cost of their time, skills and labour. Imagine how the first world could help families in the developing world if retailers paid the true cost for their products. Thanks Design Sponge!

  • This article goes hand in hand with our philosophy at Fairgoods- putting the makers at the forefront – introducing them, their talent and their methods.

  • Love the article and love the comments! As an artisan I really appreaciate the comments. There is hope for the future. Bravo Design Sponge for putting it out there

  • I went to a Green Fashion Show on Wednesday and it was wonderful to see so many people taking such an interest in the production methods, fabrics and sustainability of the clothes and the businesses that produce them. At the very end the organiser reiterated the organisation’s motto: Make One Change. One suggestion for people to try was to buy gifts from small, independent businesses, a nice way to support I thought! Hoping some people will buy gifts from my sculptural lighting collection this Sunday at Green Festival Market, Shropshire UK

  • Thanks for this wonderful, honest essay! I buy lots of vintage and handmade goods to lighten my manufacturing impact, but sometimes the consumption battle seems unwinnable. I feel that guidance from a friend over drinks is the best possible way to dive into a difficult issue (same goes for gay rights, drones, etc.). Shouting protestors can be so alienating, even if you agree with their cause! I think big change comes about most effectively when conscious people set good examples for their loved ones and gently educate those around them.

  • Such a good read, this rings so true to me. You often have to be quite creative and unafraid to step outside the norm if you want most of your purchases to be ethical, especially if you only have a small budget.

  • I’m so glad to see a post that sheds light on how many industries including fashion really work. I honestly wish this topic were more apparent in blogs because it is so important to be conscious consumers. I started reading into eco-friendly and ethically made fashion in February and made a pledge to never buy an item that doesn’t support sustainability. My style blog is purely focused on sustainable fashion and where to buy your clothes without feeling guilty. I really hope more people support this effort. Thanks for starting the conversation!

  • I work at a 101 year old garment factory, one of the last in the area. I give tours on a regular basis to folks wanting to know more about how something is actually made. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Many questions stir in my guests minds such as:

    What happened to textile industry?

    How come people in the past sometimes wore the same brand of clothes their entire lives?

    How do you manage to stay open?

    How important is the factory to your community?

    I don’t have all the answers, but I do know there is a very large elephant in the room. It’s called Economics. Very specifically, the less something costs, the more likely it will be bought. So the big question every American really needs to ask is: why is price is the most important thing?

    The answer to that question leads to something very deep and important that this article begins to touch on.

  • This is something I’m working on these days, especially as I work on clearing out my clutter and editing my belongings. It is so painful to confront the reality that I no longer have a use for something and now it must take up space elsewhere. It really is best to save up/wait for the thing you really want, rather than spring for a bargain of lesser value and appeal. Ugh, hard lessons learned.

  • great essay, expansive thought provoking comments. My mother, born 1919, said to only handle and bring into your life what is beautiful, functional, and inevitable… trained on the Bauhaus aesthetic. This issue touches on the time travel, “magical” qualities objects have in connecting us to the past, and our varied cultures. For a very moving meditation on the power of possessions to give us back our individuality see Linda Grant’s novel The Clothes on their Backs

  • Everything has a number of costs: financial, environmental, social, etc. whenever we make a purchase (from essential food to non-essential luxuries) we have to decide which of those costs are more important to us – do we need to chose a cheaper option with a higher environmental or social cost or can we afford to pay a higher financial price and chose something with a lower social or environmental price? I think we need to be realistic and find the balance that works for us – mindfully.

  • Wow. How fascinating! We are experiencing the same things in different ways. I was just writing about this same thing on my blog. I would rather spend money on one really good piece – RTW, indie, or memade., than have 3 that don’t quite fit, nor last more than 1 washing or wear.

  • Thank you for this article Grace. This is a constant discussion we have here in my creative community in Australia. Our area is probably one of the more progressive and open-minded about the need to live on less but as our social-economic status sees many people here struggle it is tempting for many to purchase “cheap” – against their belief systems. Our small letterpress studio is part of our “simple and mindful” lifestyle here and our aim is to encourage people to not forget about Local / Handcrafted / Mindful making and consuming. I feel this may be a discussion that needs to rage again- we have sadly become very comfortable with thoughtless consumption. Thank you again.

  • I sewed my own clothes from an early age, as a hobby and from necessity – no cheap clothes or clothes for tall girls when I was a teenager in the 60s. Mass affordable clothing came much later and bought clothes were expensive, you made a good choice because you had to stick to a coat, for instance, for at least five years, until it wore out or you outgrew it. Fast, cheap fashion changed those ideas, no-one was forced to wear one coat only until it fell apart. The downside of this (I started to notice this from the nineties) is that very few people, apart from older ones, knew anymore what an item was made from (it didn’t matter, it was disposable), how well it was made or not, or recognised quality in a product. I’m talking about clothing, but it extended to nearly all manufactured products gradually. I went to art school in my thirties and onto textile design, eventually teaching textiles on a degree course. Most students could not sew when they arrived, these skills no longer being thought important here in the UK. Most of the students wanted to be fashion designers or stylists, but didn’t want to work with actual materials, hands on, that was considered a little too technician, too lower class for their tastes and is no longer taught in schools. Hence we now have to employ pattern cutters and staff who can sew from the rest of Europe. I hate to see how people now buy clothes for the label or the celebratory indorsement, rather than because they can actually trust their own tastes. But to be fair, that awareness of materials and processes, that eye for quality through touch and knowledge of fabrics has not been taught to them. A whole world of sensual pleasure, plus a sense of personal discernment built on knowledge and awareness has been lost to several generations.

  • Nice piece. It’s so hard though! It is such a conundrum! – I mean, even this site, while it heavily supports thoughtfully crafted products and independent designers, wouldn’t be where it is without the advertising support of major brands and companies. It’s always a mixed bag.

  • As a professional cook, I am very careful about where I source my food from. I do my best to pay respect to the farmer, maker, animal, that gave me good ingredients to cook with. I recently decided to do the same with my clothing. I believe American’s are on a slow, but wonderful journey toward mindful consumption. This article and all of these comments reaffirm that belief. Bravo!

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