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The Empty Ethics of “Shop Small”

As economies crater in the pandemic recession, the call to buy “handmade” local goods has gained new force. It’s not that simple.

SAI AUNG MAIN/AFP/Getty Images

This spring, Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles, had a Zoom meeting with some of the center’s 300 members. Even during the pandemic, when they were considered essential workers as they made thousands of face masks, the members reported a lack of personal protective equipment, no social distancing, and little disinfection of facilities or even time to wash their hands during long factory shifts. Nuncio searched Etsy for face masks to show workers what the going rate was. “Our members show a lot of resilience through their humor,” Nuncio said. “And they just cracked up laughing—$20! $15! They were like, ‘We’re getting paid two cents a mask in our factories.’”

Much has been written about the explosive interest in hobbies like sewing, knitting, and other crafts as people who could afford to stay home during the pandemic sought to keep their hands busy amid ceaseless waves of tragedy. This year, even the compulsion to shop for the holidays might look a bit different as the world nears the one-year mark since the coronavirus outbreak. As local economies crater, the call to “shop local” and “shop small” has gained new force. (American Express has built an entire holiday campaign around it.) The “craftcore” trend is bolstering not just small-batch and independently produced goods but even mass-produced clothing pretending to be homemade.

But most of the garments people buy and wear aren’t made in cozy workspaces by the artisan-entrepreneur type with a social media presence. There are an estimated 200,000 garment workers in the United States, many of whom work long, grueling hours in factories that operate under what advocates call sweatshop conditions. And despite the skill and textile knowledge required of industrial garment workers—and the fact that no matter the retail price, a person was behind the clothes you’re wearing now—their output is the primary target for indignation within fashion, the boogeyman for a vein of activism that demands shoppers consume more rather than ask what we can do to make workers’ conditions more livable. The idea of voting with your wallet is especially persuasive during the holiday season, but as researchers and labor organizers have long argued, fundamentally reforming the garment industry requires more than shifting individual shopping habits: Exploitative, anti-worker practices are too entrenched for consumers to literally shop their way out of the problems. Small-business aesthetics will not save us.


Scroll through a few of the top Instagram posts tagged #handmade, and you’ll notice a pattern: Perfectly lit photos of everything from trendy geometric clay earrings to crocheted “granny square” cardigans, artfully arranged in flat layers on kitchen tables. Most of it is also for sale. There’s an endless stream of microshops on Etsy, Instagram, Depop, and elsewhere that have found success in the handmade and made-to-order fashion sphere. According to her website, Lirika Matoshi, designer of the tulle strawberry dress that flooded social media earlier this year, started out selling choker necklaces on Etsy; the label was picked up by Nordstrom and has shared clips of employees hand-knitting sweaters to be sold online. Often, crafters and sellers position their products against budget or “fast” fashion, as a more ethical and, by extension, more fashionable alternative to mass-produced garments. When you buy something handmade, you’re paying not just for the product itself but also for the social currency of being able to say you made the “right” choice. This emphasis on alternative consumption is always the answer repeated to buyers who are angered by harmful production practices: Just buy this more “ethical” (and more expensive) version of the same thing.

A “handmade” label might soothe consumers’ concerns about the origins of the product they just purchased, but the line between what is and isn’t handmade is ill-defined. At times, it’s a marketing tactic with a variety of interpretations. Etsy, for example, has a detailed handmade policy distinguishing between “makers” and “designers,” and requires sellers to disclose if they use “production assistance.” But even those guidelines are subject to change at any time, as they did in 2013, when the company, much to the ire of some sellers, loosened restrictions around hiring outside production help. That change allowed Etsy sellers to use garment factories in Los Angeles to produce masks as demand exploded in the spring and, as The Verge reported, make millions in the process. After a certain point, it becomes impossible to scale a business that depends on one person making the product from start to finish, a reality Etsy embraced as it prioritized growth.

There’s no universally understood metric to determine whether something is handmade. Hear the word “knitting,” for example, and the general public likely envisions an older white woman in a rocking chair with two knitting needles. But in commercial knitwear (including even small shops and labels), this is exceedingly rare, so labor-intensive is the process. Your small-batch knitwear is more likely to have come from a knitting machine, which streamlines production and opens up the craft to some people with disabilities who might otherwise be excluded. It’s still an involved process that can require hand finishings and a human operator, and within the knitting community, there is debate on how to characterize home machine-knit projects.

The fight over the definition of handmade has made its way into the legal system, too. Liquor companies like Tito’s Vodka, Jim Beam, and Maker’s Mark have all faced lawsuits alleging deceptive advertising for using words like “handmade,” “handcrafted,” and “small-batch” in packaging (suits against the liquor makers were eventually dismissed). The Federal Trade Commission provides guidelines for the use of the term “handmade” in the context of jewelry, but they raise questions as to whether, for example, popular bracelet styles that use beads purchased at a craft store could be considered handmade. By this definition, the hurdle to create something handmade by the book is even higher. A teen selling beaded necklaces on Etsy would have to make their own beads and jewelry findings even to qualify.

Still, growth at the very top underscores the value proposition inherent in the allure of the handmade. Etsy was once a scrappy purveyor of the weird and niche (knitted elephant boxers with a trunk/sheath, a small vial of bees) that kept posting losses after a multibillion-dollar valuation in 2015. This year, Etsy stocks have soared by more than 250 percent, with The New York Times calling it “by far, the best-performing stock in the S&P 500 stock index.”

While crafting and homemade/indie products and creators have enjoyed a flood of money and press during the pandemic, conditions for garment workers are not getting better, Nuncio says. There are some 75 million garment workers worldwide, mostly working in factories in Asia, and in the U.S., garment workers are largely Latino and Asian immigrants. The pandemic has been devastating to these workers: Labour Behind the Label, a U.K.-based nonprofit focused on workers’ rights in the global garment industry, estimates that in the first three months of the pandemic, garment workers lost up to $5.78 billion in wages.

As the coronavirus dampened consumers’ shopping habits, retailers canceled orders already in production or completed, leaving garment workers without jobs and pay. Retail price doesn’t necessarily denote fair labor practices: Shops all the way from Sears to high-end labels like Oscar de la Renta and Balmain have not committed to paying for their orders, according to a Workers Rights Consortium tracker. In L.A., the nucleus of the American garment industry, some seamstresses sewed thousands of masks for others without PPE for themselves, making just a few cents per unit.

Garment workers, despite being so underpaid, are highly skilled. Factory jobs range from operating giant machinery that cuts fabric according to a pattern to pressing fabric and trimming loose threads and, of course, sewing and assembling the garments. Seamstresses must be able to sew on an industrial sewing machine at rapid pace, often in cramped spaces with poor lighting. They have to be nimble with the fabric they work with and be able to switch gears quickly, Nuncio said, because even a small factory could be simultaneously producing garments for up to two dozen brands.

“I think there is this tendency to devalue workers’ skill and experience when you picture a mass-produced garment industry,” Nuncio said. “Outside of their job, many of these workers really are craftspeople.”

Halfway across the world from the seamstresses in L.A.’s garment district, in France, Marie Dewet sources material and plans the next MaisonCléo product drop, sharing progress with her 98,000 Instagram followers. The brand has been featured in fashion publications like Elle, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar and markets itself as a mother-daughter company, with Dewet and her mother handling the designing, sourcing, and production of the strictly limited collections. The barriers to access—cost, obviously, but also being speedy enough to secure product when the site goes live once a week—and the bespoke nature of MaisonCléo isn’t just a quirk. It’s the entire point of the label.

In a 2019 CR Fashion Book article (“This French Mother-Daughter Duo are Waging War With Fast Fashion”), Dewet discussed budget-brand copies of her designs. “In the beginning I was very angry, because it’s not fair to steal my ideas,” she said. “Now, though, I’m more angry about the type of brands that do this—the way they handle production, the quality, the way they treat their workers etcetera. Even if it’s the same blouse it’s made in cheap polyester—who will want to buy it?” (Dewet did not respond to my requests for comment in time for publication.)

For Dewet, the solution to bad labor practices is for consumers to buy clothes produced in more ethical ways. This year, she designed a popular green and cream balloon-sleeve sweater that reads “FFF” (fuck fast fashion). It retails for more than $500. “I also use [MaisonCléo] to spread awareness on the fashion industry, especially on the fast fashion and all the bad it causes on not only the environment but on people,” Dewet writes on the brand’s web shop. “Buying a piece of [clothing] has never been a more concrete action you can do from your own [to] make change happen.”

Intentions aside, reactions against fast fashion specifically miss the defining elements of the global supply chain and fashion industry, says Minh-Ha T. Pham, associate professor at the Pratt Institute. Trade policies and labor laws going back decades that benefit Western companies at the expense of workers in Asia and Latin America cover lower-priced retailers and high-end designers alike.

“The idea that ‘fast fashion’ is a particular problem isn’t grounded in an understanding of the larger political economy of global fashion so much as it’s reflecting and reproducing classist stereotypes about budget markets and consumers,” Pham said in an email.

The appeal of a “handmade” label goes beyond fashion garments, and 2020 saw the distinction elevate even face masks, a decidedly basic and aseptic product. In her essay “How to Make a Mask: Quarantine Feminism and Global Supply Chains,” Pham examines the social and political power of Etsy mask makers relative to their garment-worker counterparts.

Many handmade products stress where the item is made and by whom, in an effort to tie a commercial product to an identifiable person. Brands often feature “behind-the-scenes” content related to the production process, and on social media, it’s hard to tell where the person ends and the product begins. As Pham argues, “What distinguishes Etsy masks from mass-produced versions (i.e., those made by garment workers), is their aura of authenticity.”

Other products described as handmade appeal to this same rhetoric of legitimacy and purportedly ethical consumption, too, often using “fast fashion” as the scapegoat or erasing the work of garment workers entirely. “The homemade mask … localizes ideal feminist civic participation to the domestic mask-maker rather than the industrial seamstress and to the middle-class home rather than the garment factory,” Pham writes.

“It is beautiful that there are communities of people coming together to make masks when we do have a government that hasn’t taken care of its people the way it needs to,” Nuncio said. “And I think that the invisible labor that exists behind most of our garments, including most of our masks, continues to be invisible during the pandemic.”

“‘Fast fashion shaming’ blames poor and working-class people for the structural inequalities of global capitalism—and makes it their responsibility to fix (by buying more expensive clothes),” Pham wrote in an email. Instead, Pham suggests supporting worker cooperatives like Homework for Health and Blue Tin Production.

Most mainstream anti–fast fashion campaigns call for boycotts once exploitative labor practices or other wrongdoing is revealed, but Nuncio says that isn’t always what workers want. Labor organizers are constantly meeting and thinking about how to advance demands, and consumers who care about improving working conditions should follow workers’ leads.

Garment Worker Center members are currently collecting petition signatures for the Garment Worker Protection Act, which would eliminate the per-piece pay system in the industry and expand liability for wage theft. The bill wasn’t brought to a vote in the California state assembly this year after passing the state senate, but Nuncio says workers plan on continuing their campaign in 2021.

“Workers are really saying, ‘Look, this is something that provides workers long-term solutions, but it also is a way to respect us right now, as we’re out there making your masks.’”