Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 1 Needs

 I have been really touched by the response to my last blog post, which was a fictional account of two people’s approach to obtaining a new jumper. It contrasted the impact on the environment, communities and individuals of buying one from a high street chain and making one from local, sustainable materials. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on. 

Because of this interest I thought I would write a series of blog posts exploring some of the themes that came out of the short story and go deeper into the issues, motives and also solutions that it touched on. I would love this to be a conversation and I do not pretend to have all the answers or even to fully understand all of the questions, but I hope that these offerings will be a springboard for your own reflections. 


…imagine it is September here in England; the short nights and slight chill let us know that winter is on its way. Two people decide that they are going to need a new jumper to see them through the winter and keep them warm. 

We all have needs. Your needs maybe different to mine and mine in turn will be different to an older lady or a very young boy, but nonetheless there exists a set of physical and emotional requirements that each living person has. Some of these are what we might call base needs; shelter, food, air and water, the fulfillment of which is essential to life itself, others are what makes that life worth living and include love, intimacy, community, creativity, achievement and a sense of self worth.

In the story Hugo and Mary both need a jumper to fulfill a very basic need, that of warmth. Without sufficient layers in the colder months of the year we would get cold, which leads to discomfort, illness and, in extreme cases, even death. And so we can say that both Hugo and Mary have a very legitimate need.

To fulfill this need almost any jumper would do, so long as it provided some insulation, that would be enough. However, this creates a great problem for clothing retailers; if every jumper essentially does the same job in keeping you warm, why should someone buy your jumper and not the shop next doors? Even if we include an element of design into the mix, there are only so many takes on a classic woolen jumper and if we were to go and buy a man’s navy blue jumper from every clothing shop on the high street and line them all up, I dare say they would look pretty similar (or for a more modern way of doing this, try putting 'Navy Blue Jumper' into Google image search).

A further problem for a consumer economy is that actually our needs are pretty simple and fairly basic, requiring only a limited number of purchases. Yes, we need clothes. But how many? What would a basic wardrobe, which could comfortably see you through the seasons in your country, look like? You need shelter, but again what could you actually live in? How small a house would it be practical and comfortable to inhabit on a day-to-day basis? Finally food. What would it cost if we ate using fresh local fruit and vegetables, supplemented with small amounts of meat. Whether or not you wish to live like this is not the point, instead we could live in such a simple way and of course a great percentage of the world’s population does, without any choice.

Many of the higher needs we have; love, intimacy, community, creativity, a feeling of self worth, need not cost anything at all and can be achieved without any (or a least a minimal) consumer consumption.

And so capitalism is left with a real problem; here is a system that is built on the consumption of goods and yet the people do not actually need all that much to live, and that which we do need could almost be obtained from anywhere, with one shop often being no better than another. The response from companies is multi-faceted and we’ll explore more of them through the blog posts, but for our purposes here, looking at needs, we can focus on three: 

1)    Their first approach is to expand, through marketing and increasing cultural perception, what constitutes our basic, essential needs. Let’s take the example of food; clearly this is an essential need, but is it essential to be able to freeze food at home so that we can eat it out of season or eat frozen ready meals? Most people would consider a freezer an essential item in the home – I certainly don’t know of one without one, including my own. And yet this is a very modern, western, perception. How long have we had freezers in homes? 60 years? Our Grandparents lived without one and how many households throughout the world still do? And yet I even feel uncomfortable writing this, as though it is some sort of heresy.  But it’s true – freezers are not a need, they may fulfill many pleasant wants (ice-cream, easy meals etc.), but by perceiving them as a need we distort the reality and this can stop us from engaging with the impacts they cause in their manufacture and use, simply because we believe life to be impossible without them.

2)    The second deliberate distortion is using much higher needs to sell us basic needs, so that we confuse the two and cannot see that there is another way of meeting the base need. We touched on this before, with the navy blue jumper. If all navy blue jumpers are pretty much of a muchness, how can a shop get you to buy their jumper? The answer is by appealing to your sense of self or at least who you would wish to be. Fill a shop, magazine, advert with images of beautiful people, all having impossible levels of fun in gorgeous locations; then get them to look down the camera and ask, are you one of us? Finally offer the chance to join this exclusive club for the price of a jumper, the logo on the breast pocket proudly proclaiming your membership – yes, you can think as you walk home, I am one of you. The need for a jumper (for warmth) is almost forgotten; much greater is the need to be accepted, to belong, to feel your own self worth.

None of this is to say that we don’t have a genuine need to feel accepted or to belong to a community or a sense of our own worth; these are vital. But using consumption to meet them is like eating sweets when you are hungry, it’s a lovely burst of sugar that makes you feel as right as rain for about 5 minutes, before you suddenly realize you are hungry again. 

3)    Finally they create needs that we didn’t even know we had. The example of this that makes me laugh the most are those home-wares catalogues. Who knew that we needed a separate machine to make popcorn, waffles, rice, poached eggs, steam veg, open tins (or wine bottles), chop herbs etc. In the story Hugo gently mocks his customers for their phone, so that they realise just how much they need to upgrade and get all the latest features.

All this is an attempt to cloud our perception of what our needs really are, to muddy the waters so that we judge not on the reality, but on a perceived perception of what our needs are. Hugh and Mary need a jumper to keep warm. They should feel comfortable in it and it should look nice on them. By being able to pare it back to this, both of them can make decisions based on this reality, rather than marketing hype or social norm.

I don’t want to touch here on the nature of work, as I want to leave that for another post, but it is interesting to note that Mary, in making her jumper, is actually meeting her own needs for creativity and self-esteem, through it’s creation. It is not that she is only meeting her needs through the ownership of the jumper, but in the actual process of making it. This is a very different to approach to Hugo, for whom only the acquisition and ownership is meeting his needs.  The sad fact is that in this manufactured confusion of needs, many of our genuine needs actually get forgotten or remain unmet; the need for creativity, for a feeling of being able to look after oneself, accomplishment, of being able to live without negatively impacting on others.

It’s not going to be possible to make everything that modern capitalism makes available to us in affluent countries, to do so would take many more lives than we have. We have to accept that a homemade life is going to be one where we do have less and we need to find a sense of contentment with that. We need to start with a careful consideration of what our real needs are, away from the marking hype of the high street, glossy magazines and TV adverts. If all this sounds a little stark, back to the dark ages living, then I apologise because it needn’t be – actually there are great riches to be had from meeting our simple needs in an original and creative way.

The whole story about Hugo and Mary is really about two different ways of meeting a genuine need. A small snap shot of two people making decisions. Because ultimately much of our lives are taken up with meeting our needs and morality is the choices we take in doing so. Much depends on the consideration we are able to give to others in the process, but also the patience and courage to break from the accepted norm.

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