I talk a great deal about the story of our stuff – mostly in the context of the guilt I feel every time I buy a t-shirt made in China. It’s not news that much of the stuff we purchase in any Target, Walmart, or department store is very likely at the hands of unjust systems where these stores trade with companies overseas that have been known to employ children, pay their workers an incredibly low wage, and treat their workers with hostility. Now, it is also likely that this isn’t the case with all companies, but the thing is – we don’t really know whether or not that is the case with any particular item, and that scares me just as much. It’s unsettling to think that every time I buy new sheets or towels or even coffee or chocolate, I might be buying into our modern-day slave trade. It’s true that I don’t know for sure whether or not the individual in Pakistan who hemmed the selvage on my jeans was paid a fair wage, but if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be better to spend my money on items of which I do have certainty?
It is also not news that our economy is being hollowed out as companies are moving overseas more and more in order to save money – and in the process, take jobs away from our own people. But like I said, I talk a great deal about that, and the reason for my thoughts tonight is that I want to talk about the stuff of mine that I know has a good story, and also to share with my friends some wonderful makers I know of who make quality goods both for practicality and for pleasure.
I think the first step toward being a conscious consumer is to realize that we don’t need stuff, really. When I say that I didn’t want to register for my wedding, I meant it. And I still stand by the principles that guided that desire in the first place. We did eventually cave in and we got a lot of nice things, but you see, we already had an abundance through the generosity of friends and the thoughtfulness of family in heirlooms.
I will begin in the kitchen. My dinner set is a hand-me-down from my great aunt who needed to purge her house of a few things. It is nothing special outside of that, and probably not worth much were I to sell it, but these plates and bowls have stories. They’re durable, they cost me nothing, and they serve their purpose of beautifully dressing a simple meal to provide us the nourishment we need. My mugs are many. A set of four, handmade by MUW art instructor Ian Childers, bought at our local Arts Council where they were featured in a ceramics exhibit, and given to me by my sister, his student. Another set of four, brown sturdy things, found in my grandmother’s cabinets. My glasses, a set of four, old hand-me-downs from a friend that I also happen to find featured in a good many food blogs for their style and antiquity, so that makes me feel super-cool. Another set of four soon-to-be(?) hand-cut out of old syrup bottles from my talented sister. And above my cabinets, a set of wooden salad bowls, also foraged from my grandparents’ treasure chest of a home. Smiling at me next to those are George, John, Paul, and Ringo burned into a set of wooden spoons as a gift from my sister, and behind those, a message from those same men regarding all we need in a wood-burned piece made by my dad.
Above my mantle, the porcelain magnolia that I always remember centered among my grandparents’ portraits of our family and their beloved grandchildren. Beneath my mantle, a basket of blankets – one hand-crocheted by our dear friend Anna as a wedding gift, one hand-quilted my dear aunt Ann as a wedding gift, one Mexican blanket purchased as a honeymoon souvenir, and one hand knitted by our dear aunt Wanda. Beneath the foot of my bed, a cedar chest from (you guessed it!) My grandparents’ house which holds a blanket sewn by my mother when I was still a child and an afghan made by my grandma.
An aloe plant rests in a handmade, hand painted ceramic jug given to me by my friend visiting South Korea. And I absolutely have to mention these two most amazing pieces of furniture I will probably ever own. These Asian cabinets belonged to our cousin who passed away a few years ago, and left everything to us, as she had no children of her own. They are the personality of every room I’ve had them in, and if I get rid of anything else I own, I should never be parted from these.
You see, I believe there is a safe balance with our things. Things are temporary, but they are necessary. If we must have a cup from which to drink, let that cup sustain our needs as long as it may. Let that cup be lovingly formed by hands that will reap the full reward for their work. If we are to eat, let us eat from a bounty we toiled for, let us eat from a bounty close-to-home.
Please do not mistake my words for saying that people overseas do not need our support. I’m not advocating for pulling support from nations that need it. But at the same time, I’ve heard all to many times justification for poor working situations in sweatshops with the excuse of “well it’s better that anything else they could find” to which all I can say is REALLY?!?! First of all, we have no right to assume that as we have never been in such a situation, and second of all, is it really better? There is a right way to do that as well. There are companies and organizations springing up all over the place that support the local economy of other nations by providing quality goods to anyone in the world who wishes to sport a lovely bag or piece of jewelry. And I believe those are worthy causes because the money you spend on those goods go directly to the folks who made them. By purchasing a pair of shoes from Old Navy, you can bet that the makers of those items barely receive a dollar off the thirty that you paid the store. I do advocate for buying local as much as you can, but I also believe there can be a balance in that as well. We know we have plenty here, in spite of the economy, so I absolutely also advocate for supporting global causes that are bettering individuals as opposed to corporations.
Below, I’ve put together a list of my favorite makers that produce items 100% American made as well as some international companies that support their own local economies, and before you gasp at the prices, let me mention the next step in becoming a conscious consumer which is that you are not only paying for a product, you are paying for a service. Those boots may be $300, but they will last you far longer than any pair you find at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
So here are the makers:
Paper & Clay is a studio in Memphis, TN whose maker, Brit McDaniel has the master hands behind some of the most gorgeous ceramic mugs, bowls, pitchers, planters, and so much more.
Frostbeard is a candle company for book nerds and other nerds. They have candles scented for old books, Sherlock’s study, The Shire, all four Hogwarts houses, Dumbledore’s office, Oxford Library, and I’m going to stop now before I buy all of them.
Bourbon French Parfums is a perfumery that has resided in the French Quarter for over 100 years! All their perfumes are mixed in small batches by hand and smell positively divine. I’m completely satisfied with my Lilac & Lace.
Golden Apothecary is Nashville-based and creates all kinds of all-natural body products from beard oil to lip balm to muscle salve to deodorants.
Camellia Fiber Company is also Nashville based and run by Rebekka Seale who sources her fibers locally and spins and dyes the most beautiful and softest yarns you’ve ever seen. And just to give you a heads-up – her products sell out VERY quickly, so make sure you get on her mailing list so you’ll know when to expect the next batch.
Wheat & Co. is another Nashville Store that provides American-made goods and is dedicated to providing products whose makers maintain a close relationship with them. I’m currently salivating over the boots.
Thistle Farms is by far my personal favorite. It is a social enterprise that was started by Becca Stevens, who also founded Magdalene, a residential recovery program for victims of prostitution and addiction in Nashville. The company was begun out of a necessity to provide the women with jobs when no other organization would want to take them on. Zero work history + hundreds of arrests on your record don’t make for a good resume. These women are completely in charge of the company that makes body products and candles and also sells the healing oils that they use in their products. Each item you buy from the lavender soap to the sage & lemon-grass candle were handmade by a survivor of prostitution. And another great aspect is that this company partners with other organizations in other countries that serve the same purpose in their own communities.
And finally, I leave you with a hub of makers. The Just Giving Guide by Sojourners is a collection of resources for fair trade giving options. You can shop for home goods, clothing, food and beverages, and jewelry.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but they are some companies that are a good place to start. We’ve got a long way to go before we would be able to find everything we need with certainty that the products were sustainably and ethically made. But I believe we’ve got to start somewhere. It’s hard to find a garden hose that wasn’t made in Taiwan or a phone that wasn’t assembled in China, but it’s not all that hard to buy secondhand, it’s not all that hard to find at least SOME locally grown produce, and it’s not all that hard to learn to make some of our own things. The world can’t change overnight, but it can change in the small steps we take every day as we think twice about the way we consume things and how much we really need the things we do consume. And if we do find that we really do need these things, let there be a good story behind them.