Evidence of the Hand: thoughts on the cost of craft, the cost of sustainability, the cost of everything
by Saeed Al-Rubeyi·
I give that background because even with that experience it still takes thought and work to ensure that we, as people and a company, are acting in a way which doesn’t perpetuate systemic oppression on those we work with and alienate audiences. At the moment Story is largely working with Indian and Thai partners - but Katy and I are culturally neither, so we are always sensitive to the idea that we may be being bad while trying to be good. I’ll go on to explain this later, as well as what our approach is.
We are a company, but we are also people, and as people, we have complex thoughts and opinions that are sometimes set, but on the whole, I think we are quite fluid. I’ve made the mistake before of assuming a level of knowledge of Story on behalf of those that read the essays, so if this is your first contact so to speak I would urge you to have a look at our manifesto, other essays and Instagram. I don’t do a good job of summarising our brand, but if you really want to read this first I would say the most important things to know are that Story mfg. is a brand that cares deeply about sustainability, craft practices, people, politics and doing the right thing.
The high price of sustainable craft (and why sustainability is more than a climate issue)
A question often asked of Story, largely by those new to the brand who likely found us from a press piece titled ‘5 hot sustainable brands’ for example goes something like this:
Why is this so expensive? Sustainability isn’t real unless it's affordable to everyone!
I agree with you if you believe sustainability is a human rights issue. Sustainability, like nutrition, should be accessible to all. I am 100% with you. I also agree with you if you believe sustainability is a racism issue. The climate crisis disproportionally affects vulnerable people in less developed countries and the continuing effects are catastrophic. These tend to be people of colour, working in countries that serve The West cheap labour at their great detriment so people can buy buy buy buy cheap cheap cheap. Entire ecosystems are being destroyed by capitalism and there are undeniable warning signs that many places that supported life will no longer be hospitable. I’ve seen first hand the lasting destruction, and I’ve seen places that have found ways to heal too.
In the West and other more “developed” countries access to sustainable goods is poor and most people are priced out. Sustainability as a consumer at the moment is absolutely a privilege for people who can afford it despite their lifestyles having a far more negative environmental impact.
Systemic change needs to happen. If we insist on buying as much as we do we need H&M, Topshop, Target, Coca-Cola, everyone mass-producing goods that already have the reach, to switch to making things that don’t screw the planet. They have the means, money and audience to make a change that may hurt their bottom line in the short term but change things for the better. Ideally, we would reduce consumption too - but many believe the genie is out of the bottle on this and asking people to ‘buy less, buy better’ is in itself problematic.
I completely understand why someone might look at a brand like ours, one that is vocal about wellness and planetary positivity, and think we are excluding people with our prices. I guarantee you, if we had the skills, reach, marketing, experience and knowhow to transform into a chain that can sell 10,000 tees a month we would. In a heartbeat. A brand like that would be so powerfully good it would dwarf our efforts. But, we are not that company - we are a tiny brand that high fives every time we make a sale.
I’ve talked about this before, and it may have even been in the essay section, but it seems to me that there are two basic routes to sustainability; technology-led (fast and mass-produced) and craft-led (slow made). Story is part of the second stream.
Technology-led solutions are ones that rely on innovation and can be easily upscaled. These can be companies that make fabrics recycled from ocean plastic, and materials like Tencel (a company that has designed a system that makes a much more eco alternative to cotton) etc etc. Your favourite enormous company could switch from using a damaging material to using Tencel and probably only need to put the price up by a fraction to create a far more sustainable option (maybe still not perfect, but a huge leap).
Craft-led solutions take time and draw on knowledge, experience, and often long-held histories. They rely on people doing and making, practising artisanship which takes a long long long time. In the time it takes one of our partners in Thailand to weave enough fabric for a jacket, a state of the art factory could have made enough for 10,000, without a person involved.
Of course, you can buy some cheap handmade goods - but I think it goes without saying at this point that these are often the result of slave labour (there are many names, but let’s call it what it is. If you’re economically trapped into working and compensated only enough to get back to work the next day you are an economic slave).
We pay a high price for craft for many reasons, but chief among them is that we do not place ourselves or our customers above those we work with. To bring the price of our clothes down would be to the detriment (and out of the pocket of) our makers, and that is extremely fucked up.
I know a lot of companies like to show a breakdown of cost in an (often false) show of ‘transparency’, but I do think it might be helpful here this one time. If we just focus on our Sundae Jacket, which is just a couple of elements - handwoven cotton fabric and copper buttons I can go some way to explaining the cost.
The fabric is made in Thailand by a group of farming ladies who weave as a second income (now some of their firsts) and they often grow the cotton and indigo plants to dye with too. It takes each weaver months to grow these plants, then weeks to pick and spin the cotton into useable yarn. They then naturally dye it by hand with indigo several times and hang it to dry. Once dry they need to set up the handloom (usually this is on their front porch, or at local community weaving centres) before finally, weaving can begin. Handweaving enough fabric for one jacket takes about a day, and after that, the fabric needs to be washed. After washing it is cut, sewn and trimmed, then the buttonholes, buttons and labels are added before the final pressing and packaging.
Given all that, and thinking about how much you would charge for your time does £325 seem high, or low? That price, the price you pay, includes a lot more too - including wholesale markups and the costs of running our own business (which we keep super low).
If your answer to the above question is something along the lines of ‘Yeah I would charge way more but South Asian countries are much poorer so the price should be lower’ then you are likely undervaluing the skill and experience of a handweaver based on race.
As a brand we have to be very careful and constantly re-look at ourselves and question if we are creating a positive impact or part of an ongoing problem. Working with artisans is not enough if the exchange is imbalanced and we are in a position of power. I feel I perhaps have a slightly more in-touch understanding of the power of colonial thought, having lived in the devastation of British Colonialism in Iraq and more recent Western war-mongery. It’s very simple for me to understand the deep pain of economic colonialism - the West invaded my home, plunders our natural resource (oil that they pull from our land), profits hugely and sells it back to us ten times the price we used to pay.
This notion may be new to you, and I think I would do it a disservice to surmise it myself, but I think the truth of it is self-evident. There are many brands, many many many especially in fashion, that do the equivalent of this in many countries. They roll in, make and take, and leave the earth poisoned, the people disenfranchised and the craft destroyed through price gouging.
Our view is that craft is not only one of the most precious and important things to support - it is also to our benefit as humankind as a whole to make sure it’s supported.
I use the word ‘support’ knowing there’s almost certainly a better word and I’ll likely come back in here and change it once I find it. Our support as a brand is transactional - we work together and pay for products. I may be non-White but I understand the problematic vision of the ‘White Savior’ and I’m always careful to point out that we exist and succeed with and because of those we work with, not the other way around. I use the word support because as a brand our goal was always to choose the more craft-heavy, more handmade, more time-taking route that others wouldn’t, to build a company where we grow by making more connections, not by buying faster machines. In a nutshell, we support art.
The hardest work, I think, is to keep checking ourselves and actively make sure we are acting without ego. Some say as non-Indians, non-Thai etc. we should not be working in those countries at all - and I understand the argument. I play this idea over and over in my mind constantly but I can’t help but feel as long as we are sensitive and truly collaborate on equal footing succeed together and all benefit. We also have regular honest conversations with our partners on matters and I believe we understand each others philosophies.
I also believe a large issue is representation. Many brands are more than happy to extol the virtues of working with artisans from far-flung places but do little more than instruct a person to make a thing. On the most surface of levels our products are the result of collaboration and conversation over years in some cases, but on a higher level we are also actively looking to (and currently) working with people in other parts of industry - stylists, photographers, models, logistics managers, etc etc. Opportunity in these professional areas is hoarded in Europe and The US and this is something we think is wrong but also extremely short-sighted on the part of creative industries especially.
The real, actual big problem *deep breath* green-neo-colonialism
The entire planet is suffering as a result of unchecked capitalism - that’s a fact. It’s also a fact that this effect isn’t felt equally, and yet we are all asked to focus on what The West views as issues.
It’s important to highlight the battle - but have you ever thought about how odd it is that it’s all westerners circle-jerking catchphrases and buzzwords? For example, Western fabric trade fairs, places most brands go to buy their fabric, hold back-patting panels and discussions every season where they really ‘drill-down’ on the issues and they’re all completely western-centric ‘problems’ that Indian, Chinese, Japanese mills are tasked with solving.
Sustainability is seen through a Western lens - we fixate on Western issues and make it a global focus. I promise you there are many places in the world where which bin to put a coffee cup into is not a primary concern. The West repeats its bad behaviour even in the face of crisis - it victim blames the countries that have had to adapt to making cheap terrible things, then exports the problem when it has decided it is time for them to solve it.
The West seems to believe it’s leading the charge on the subject of sustainability - which is a powerful irony considering the mess we are in is largely a result of Western capitalism, overconsumption and race-to-the-bottom pricing.
Sustainability on a global level will only be achieved if we radically change our approach and break away from a Western-centric problem-solving mindset. The Western ideal of progress is completely fixated on the notion that newness = better, but often we need to look to old ways for solutions that have always existed but been cast aside in favour of rampant ‘advancing’.
I see Story mfg’s place in this landscape as a brand that creates business with people who are trying to tease out these old / traditional / local / permaculture / organic / blended / whatever solutions.
The Colours Of Nature, who do the lions share of natural dyeing and sewing for our production, are leaders in researching ancient natural dye practices and are up to new and exciting experiments every time we speak. After almost 30 years of research and hard work collaborating with nature, they now have and take care of the largest natural indigo fermentation project on the planet.
Nishanth Chopra, who produces some of our handwoven fabrics (but also natural dyes and will make tees with us soon), founded a regenerative agriculture farm in his hometown of Erode and is putting every dime and ounce of time into working with local farmers to make it sing, from seed to stitch. He is actively fixing the soil which has long been abused and re-learning the language of the land.
In Thailand, Suchada and her extended family when we visited explained how they access precious water through a series of dug wells and how important it is now that the landscape is changing. It’s a local solution to a global problem but even if it's hyper-local it’s powerful.
And this goes almost full circle - back to why we are so focused on ‘craft’. Craft represents a direct link to past practices - sometimes the last living embers of ancient physical knowledge. Craft is linked by time and tradition to land and language, and in craft, as a brand, we can help tease out old-new ways of doing things that can make a big local impact where we work, even if they are completely abstract to the West. What I’m saying is - when we make fertiliser out of rotten jackfruit to feed the earth in Tamil Nadu while making a Jacket to be worn in California we feel like we are striking the best balance we can - even if the jacket (and the fertiliser) ends up costing a pretty penny.