Crafts, China & Capitalism

So, the last few days I’ve been at Alexandra Palace in Wood Green for the Knitting & Stitching Show. It’s a huge thing that happens every year and all the crafty people go to it, and if you’re like me, you see things you’ve never seen before. Like Luceting, which I learned, and can now do – gratuitous photo warning – and I’m making some cord with that at the moment:

Getting the hang of the lucet

…But that’s by the by, I didn’t start this blog to bang on about crafting. What intrigued me was that my dad explained that there was this really weird way of dyeing fabric – fabric that this lady was selling at the fair. It sounded interesting so I went to check it out. The stall was totally blue, and actually I found that really off-putting in the beginning, which is why I didn’t originally have a closer look at it.

It’s called Shibori, and it’s very similar to tie-dyeing – like many of us used to do as children – but instead of random knots, there are intricate ties in the fabric to create very specific patterns. There are some particularly stunning examples around, but these may give you an idea:

        

So, it can be beautiful, right? Tying the material takes *so* long, it pretty much wouldn’t be worthwhile to pay someone to do it. She gets the stuff from China. So, what struck me was that this lady is clearly capitalising on very cheap labour, and making a lot of money out of it. I wouldn’t imagine she pays that much for the material itself, and just imports it.

My conundrum was whether this is ethical or not (from her point of view) – but also as a country, what about China? I have noticed that Chinese goods are saturating different markets and undercutting other businesses a ridiculous amount. A quick look on eBay will show you that the Chinese can afford to sell for a pittance – and if you go to places like Camden Market, the older British-owned businesses are being driven out by rising rent and Chinese stalls selling cheap goods. Of course, the cheaper an item, the less of a guarantee you have of quality. But I don’t think people are really concerned about quality in Western society. Just look at Primark and all those other cheap shops. We love to feel like we have a bargain. Especially in the middle of an incredibly deep and long-lasting financial crisis.

On one hand, the people making the Shibori can get money – they are in a job (albeit low paid) and the lady selling the material clearly makes a profit too. Something just seems really odd about it to me, and I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable about it, as I was standing there acknowledging that the people who make the material live in poverty while the lady in front probably has much more in her life, in terms of materialistic things, than they might do. I don’t for one second equate happiness with materialism or ownership of goods and perhaps I am assuming too much but I would imagine their quality of life is less than hers? Yet they are the ones who make it and put all those hours of work in…

And I don’t think it is limited to this precise art or industry. I don’t think she should not be able to make money from it. Good on her for seeing a gap in the market and seizing the opportunity. I wish her all the best (we live in a capitalist society so I suppose in a way it is good to have made your peace with society and to embrace it). I just question the ethics of buying it (personally – as a consumer … I can appreciate that it is pretty but could I buy it knowing the circumstances of the production? No) and more generally, the ethics of a world that seems to be dependent upon goods from China made with cheap labour, yet one that will eventually suffer more because of it.

Disclaimer: I’m not interested in demonising individuals. I’m not interested in naming the company or the lady, or putting people off of buying Shibori. I hope I haven’t given that impression – I think some of the patterns were lovely and I can see why people would buy it, it just made me question how the world works.

HMV crash

HMV are, according to the BBC, going to close 60 stores nationwide, after Christmas sales are down and shares have plummeted. Interesting that the BBC notes HMV Group are having “trouble meeting the terms of a bank loan“.

Those of us who haven’t the slightest inclination towards business, but who are on the pulse and understand that the world has changed, could have told them this years ago. It doesn’t take a business person to realise that with the invention of the internet, approach to physical goods that can easily be made digital, had to change. Not so HMV. I used to go there every week when I was younger and I remember buying 12-track CDs for about £18. “We’re doing well now, so we’re fine” is the kind of attitude they took. “People are stupid so we can continue charging excessive amounts of money for things they can get free or cheaper elsewhere.” I stopped buying in HMV a long, long time ago and I get almost all of my music online, digitally.

It sounds ruthless and unfair of me to be so blasé and matter-of-fact about it – but business is ruthless and unfair. If you stand still and expect that customers will still be flocking to you when there are people selling music in more convenient and cheaper ways, then frankly, you deserve to fail for being so utterly short-sighted and ignorant of developing customer needs. My only surprise is that they have carried on for so long, blindly and arrogantly believing that once you get to the top you don’t need to fight to keep your place.

The bottom line is, and has been for a while: why pay for music when you can get it for free very easily, or at least pay just 60-90p per track?

Perhaps it is not HMV’s fault. Perhaps it is more the fault of the music business in general – and again I say, why did they not realise what I could have told them nearly a decade ago? Did they think that digital downloads and the internet would simply go away and stop being such an inconvenience? Did they think that people wouldn’t be creative and capitalise on the opportunities the internet presented?

Also, the bank loan. Why, why oh why are companies still taking out loans when they are as big as HMV – and I would imagine that is as big as you can get. This is exactly the kind of greedy attitude that got us into a huge mess in the first place. I watched a small part of This Morning, where a finance advisor was answering viewers’ questions. The top one was “How do I pay off my Christmas debt?” – I am astounded that people are still taking out loans. Have they been living under a rock for the last two years?

With regard to business, I’m all for making hay while the sun shines but have a back-up plan, and don’t expect that things will stay the same year after year. The world has changed, and continues changing – to run successful businesses you need to get creative, adapt and use technological advances to your advantage, instead of simply ignoring them.

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