when beautiful is ugly

I bought a new bag today! Here it is.

Take a good look at it. Observe the lovely printed cotton, good quality and strong. I just love that sweet 1930s style print.

It's got a smart magnetic fastener and the edge is prettily self-faced to look good from all angles.

The finishing is nicely done, wth neat double stitching around the top edge, which is a lovely curvy shape.

The mitred bottom is sturdy and well-made, and looks great too.

Even the inside seams have been bound with a tough cotton/synthetic mix fabric to stop them splitting or pulling.

In short, a good deal of work has gone into the making of this lovely bag, from the weaving and printing of that gorgeous sunny fabric, to the cutting, piecing, stitching and making up. Not forgetting, either, the work of the designers who worked on the pattern for the fabric and chose the colours, and thought up those lovely curves and double stitching.

Now then, let's see if you can guess what I paid for it. Being a maker of bags myself, I know that it would take me probably about an hour to make a bag like this. There's about a half metre of fabric in it, plus the thread and notions. I'm not quite sure what this fabric would cost to buy wholesale, but it's lovely quality and I certainly wouldn't be able to get it for less than about £5 a metre if I was very, very lucky. If I sold it for £10 I might cover the materials and my time, but I wouldn't make any profit. And that's assuming I got the fabric at a significant discount.

Tesco were selling this bag today for £2.50.

I find it difficult to express how angry I feel about this. The bag, as you might expect, is made in China. This means it's also had to be brought halfway across the world on a container ship, burning fuel and polluting the oceans. Not to mention the badly paid workers who've slaved away at it, working long hours on heavy machinery to make something that cost me less than my bag of breakfast muesli.

I don't just feel angry for those exploited Chinese workers, either. I feel angry for myself, for all of us who make things by hand, ethically and well, with love and dedication, caring about where we buy our fabric, how we produce and package things, how much we throw away afterwards. How on earth can we compete with a price like this for a product that is worth four, five or six times as much?

I would be proud to have made this bag. I love the fabric and it's a well-designed shape, which, I'm afraid, makes me still more suspicious. I will be careful what I say here, but last week a highly esteemed designer and craft blogger posted about how one of her own distinctive pieces had been copied outright and mass-produced by a British supermarket chain this Easter. We were all shocked and outraged. It would not surprise me in the least if this sweetly designed bag had been copied in a similar way.

Well, what can we do about this? Stop shopping at Tesco? I'd like to do so, but I'm human, they are less than a mile away, and I am not rich. Even if we are able to make that choice personally, they remain our competitors. Apart from one or two members of my family, nobody has bought one of my bags as a simple act of generosity. None of us has money to throw away. We make positive choices when we can, but when nice bags are offered at cut-down prices, people will buy them.

I don't have any answers to offer, just a lot of confusion and anger and frustration and a huge sense of injustice and helplessness. And I haven't decided what to do with that bag yet...

28 comments:

Gilly said...

Well, they are probably selling it at a loss - a sort of "loss leader".

You could say all this to Tesco's. Try writing to the Managing Director. You will get a reply - if you don't, copy the letter again, and say his secretary must have thrown it away.

Can't think of any more helpful things. I can understand your anger and frustration.

All I can do now is say THE BAG YOU MADE ME IS FAR, FAR BETTER THAN TESCO'S, AND I LOVE IT!

sweetmyrtle said...

i so agree with everything you say Sue. i am always very suspicious if something costs so little. £2.50 is nothing.... i am amazed.
i also have made shopper bags and sell them between £25 and £35. they are made from an organic cotton hemp which is double the price of a canvas /metre and have applique work on them and a few little extra details. There is no way to compete with the high street.. although many cheap imported items i see use inferior materials and look like they won't last long.
this is a very good post and i am interested to read the comments you get.
ginny x
hopefully Kirstie's handmade home (channel 4) may start to change mass opinion about handmade... here's hoping!

Mal* said...

I love the bag you gave me, and this post definitely gives me lots of food for thought. The global market has really changed the way the world works, and it hits all the way down to our very local-est levels. Something I really need to think about next time I think I am getting an awesome bargain.

Gigibird said...

Everything you say is true. It is sad in so many ways.
Apart from the exploitation of the Chinese workers it completely and utterly undermines any value handmade goods have.
After spending a wonderful couple of hours at Standen today I think I may just try and make beautiful, detailed items for myself and friends and wait for the odd commission from someone who appreciates detail and has a large wad of disposable money

Bobo Bun said...

You've said it all so eloquently that there is little I can add, but say I agree with you. We feel pushed into a corner by our lack of funds, our knowledge of human rights and the costings of making these products. Because it is so difficult to compete with these type of products right now I've stopped making things I love that are more expensive to make as they just don't sell. We can appreciate the quality and skill in a handcrafted item which many can't and so think they are being ripped off.

Frances said...

Oh Sue, the bag is indeed a very pretty and well made item, and I knew what you had written well before I got to the 2.50 tip off.

Yes, it is a big dilemma. No clear answer here. Think you might try Gilly's suggestion.

xo

nessdonnelly said...

I agree totally sue, it is very frustrating. I also think that when goods are sold so cheaply people believe that is what they are really worth. How many people that buy that bag actually know how much a metre of fabric costs or how long it would take to make it. the food industry is getting a lot of publicity on this at the moment with the buy british and seasonal produce campaign. We need someone to get out there and champion buying handmade, its a shame Jamie Oliver can't sew x
I have put a link on my blog to your wonderful piece on Incline press

cocoa and blankets said...

I feel angry just reading your post...Polly and I now boycot Gap, Monsoon and primark and although we dont have a lot of money I try where possible to buy fair trade (Polly workson a fair trade stall at church) and ecover goods...it also makes me cross because I thought the recycled Cath Kdston designed bags which were sold for charity at Tesco were great...I also make bags and share your opinion abou the time and love hat goes into making them...thank you for sharing and bringing our attention to this...I certainly wont buy one...

Sue said...

"It's a shame Jamie Oliver can't sew!" LOL! Maybe we should teach him...

Thanks everyone for your comments... it is such a dilemma isn't it? We all love a bargain, but when it turns out to be at someone else's expense it's suddenly not quite so desirable.

I guess small steps are all we can take. Enjoy your weekends :-)

elizabethm said...

Fascinating post sue. i agree wholeheartedly and am very aware of the time and effort that goes into making a bag as I have some left over oilcloth, a pattern for a bag I like and I have failed to make it because I think it will take me two or three hours (I am not a super experienced sewer) and I can't seem to find the time. I try to boycott Tescos yet find myself buying things there again and again as a result of a mixture of convenience and price. At least when it is food I can try to comfort myself by trying to buy local produce but with something like this bag there is no way of producing a sop to my conscience. I loved the bags I had from you for my nieces too!

Jackie said...

I share your confusion but I agree with most of what you said. In Marrakech I haggled. I paid low prices for things which were beautifully made. I feel slightly awkward about having done that in view of the fact that I expect a much greater return on the things I make. I suppose it comes down to whether the paltry sum the workers who made your bag get is a reasonable rate comparatively for them, and hope that their working conditions are not too bad.
I wish I had an answer.

Diane said...

Hi, I know, it is a real dilemma. I dont know enough about the politics and dynamics of other country's to be able to make an educated comment (I'm struggling with my own country at the moment!!), but you can tell its not right, but Tesco's wouldnt do it if they didnt sell, so we create the demand. Indirectly through work, I know that a lot of manufacturing plants in Asian countries are making thousands of workers redundant because of the economic climate here, and they don't get "benefits" for unemployment like we do in Britain, so is it better for them to be employed on low wages, or not at all? I make my own bags and have sold some for £5.00, but they are bog standard tote bags - nothing fancy. I couldn't make a living out of it, but it bought a few extra presents at Christmas.
PS Does your Mum appreciate you trying to spice up her weekend?

Ravenhill said...

wow, this was a well-written and thought provoking post. I don't know how tesco can do that?!
~emily x

Wild Somerset Child said...

A magnificent post and what a dilemma. Tescos are doing this to farmers as well and it is ruining rural communities and the rural economy. I've just read a book on this and it makes me so angry and ashamed. I could write an essay on this subject, but won't. I only know from recent experience that I was asked to make some hand-made journals for a local shop and when I costed my time there was no way anyone would pay for them (or so I believe). And when I am asked to write an article on a technique, the sampling and photography takes far longer than I am paid for the writing - pence an hour. (Don't ask why I bother; I need the money!) Where does it end? I can only assume that the majority of Tesco shoppers have no idea of the 'real' world.

Tina ♥ said...

I can't add much more to the words of wisdom already said here, but I absolutely agree with everything you said in this post. It is questionable too when a pair of jeans costs only £3. It is sickening, and yet we all continue to buy them.

What IS the answer to all this??

caireen said...

It's a tough one. I think we are hardwired to appreciate or try and get a bargain, but it seems to backfire, as we end up underappreciated at work and on the receiving end of our own treatments. It takes a cultural shift to say hey, the money isn't mine, its currency supposed to be distributed. Its a mindset I suppose. I also think from experience the things we pay the price for, are things we value, and hence, they manage to keep their appeal a lot longer! Good post..

Sue said...

Thank you for your comments, it does help a lot to hear what everyone else thinks. Caireen, you are so right about valuing what we pay more for. Thanks for good advice :-)

solomi558 said...

I,have been thinking long and hard about this bag and the price .I am a patchwork /quilter. If I get the chance I do sell my work .My work is well made. My quilts can go in the washing machine, I have a quilt on my blog at present If I was selling it, I would ask £250 . Bags I charge £5 .I mean patchwork bags ,I do get the same customers come to me,regularly. mostly christmas.Real craft people never make a fortune but they are usually very happy to cover their costs and a little bit extra, hourly rates never come into it--cottonreel-----P.S If you visit my blog please leave a comment

Lorenza said...

hi Sue, I am catching up with your blog this week, so if you see many comments from me, you know why and I hope you don't mind.

I feel so strongly about this, yet I know too we are all only humans!

I try very hard not to shop at Tesco or big names anymore, I do shop at Aldi or the Coop (their ethical stance is a little better, no angels, but better) for unbranded, tinned stuff or pasta and rice etc, and with the money saved there I can buy all fresh food like meat and fish from the local independent shop.

On the high street I now only shop at Next and Monsoon who have a published and audited ethical policy, I shop a lot more at charity shops and once I year I save up money to buy something special from People Tree.

I have not stepped into shops like Primark since three years, and I shall be damned if I do (!). If it's cheap it's because the people in China, Sri Lanka etc are paid next to nothing and work in conditions that don't meet any health and safety regulations, they do not have a pension and if they hurt themselves they have no compensation, nor medical leave.

I am not rich but I have realised that I can do a little something, and that is to buy less but buy right. If that makes any sense.

I love your work, and I am sure bit by bit more people will realise that cheap stuff is not a worthwhile investment, while we should treasure local and handmade products more!

L xxx

Sue said...

Lorenza, thank you for your support and encouragement, it is good to know there are many of us trying to do 'a little something' and hopefully it will all add up :-)

craftyclaire said...

To a degree I agree with you, however, Tescos are signed up for using ethical factories overseas (although they need to work harde, like everyone, to ensure this is the case) But having items made in China is lifting millions if not billions of the Chinese people out of poverty, and surely that is a good thing. But in the UK most of us can afford more than £2.50 for a bag, so why can't they charge more and pass that back to the Chinese?
On the upside, it's not plastic,and should last a fair while. So that is enviromentally friendly.
Personally I go for fairtrade, buy local, buy from Howies, People Tree (sometimes) and am increasingly making my own clothes. (but where is the fabric produced???)
I don't believe there is ever an easy answer. It all comes down to price, doesn't it. But I say buy less, pay more, buy ethical.

Sue said...

Thanks for commenting Claire, it is good to hear everyone's views. Keep up the good work!

AnnaVallance said...

Everytime you buy something you are voting with your money. I work very hard for my paycheque so I try very hard to support local businesses, buy second hand whenever I can and shop in season. I also make shopping bags but I never recoup the time I spent on them. For me it's very simple; if it's coming across the ocean I will not buy it.

Sue said...

Sensible words Anna, thank you for adding your voice :-)

Crypt Stitch said...

I couldn't agree more. It is all so exasperating, but a viscious circle. I would love to be totally self sufficient, but the thought alone is exhausting. I think we are going to have to go back a ways now, before we can go forward again - hopefully it is not too late!?
xxCryptStitchxx

Mariajaan said...

What an interesting post. I could never think about that from that perspective and reading you has helped me. I saw everything from two different points of view. First: Behavioural economics. The cheapest product sells better, and it would be a fantastic plus if inexpensive products were all made with care and of good quality. No wonder. price is an incentive that no quality can compete with in the large picture, of course! The other angle that I consider is to know for a fact that the workers producing these merchandise do not feel exploited in most cases but rather thankful to have a job without which their families would literally starve. The developed world feeds on these needs. When in Europe, I have the opposite reaction to prices: I see a bag that cost 15EUR and immediately think: What is this? In my country I can find exactly the same bag, with the same characteristics, for a tenth of this cost! It outrages me. I would never purchase it. In fact I could find somebody to make it for me next to free if I gave the materials. A banana in the UK or in Spain costs as much as a box of bundles of bananas in the country of origin. I find it unacceptable. Intermediaries abuse, which I understand was not the case with Tesco. In many countries, sadly, Hand crafting is the occupation that many people resort to when they have no other qualification. So thinking about this in context can help understanding better why this word seems/is so unfair.

Sue said...

Thanks Mariajaan for joining in the debate, it's really interesting to hear your thoughts :-)

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