Tuesday, January 17, 2012

An Open Mind Opens Doors

I've been promising some thoughts on where a cottage industry might fit in modern times, and this required some research. First off, I wanted to be sure I understood what a cottage industry was. According to Wikipedia:

A cottage industry is an industry—primarily manufacturing—which includes many producers, working from their homes, typically part time. The term originally referred to home workers who were engaged in a task such as sewing, lace-making or household manufacturing.

So how does that translate to modern times? When we talk about returning to a cottage industry today, generally it's understood to mean that we're referring to a return to making things ourselves, within a smaller economy. That might mean making horse tack, or knitting hand-made socks, carpentry or making children's clothes by hand, home brewing beer or buying eggs and honey from someone a mile away, and having a payment structure that is less manipulated than what we're accustomed to. But the idea isn't limited to handmade items. Anything that can be made, from baking, to soap, to candles, to hairdressing, to clothing, engine repair, to food production such as honey, meat butchering ... pretty much anything you can think of. Generally, payment for any item or service within a cottage industry is cash, but some have devised a barter system that pleases everyone.

You may be thinking this is an antiquated system that has no place in today's global world. Ah, but not so, Dear Reader.  Whether or not you are aware of it, our global system is fragile. Consider for a moment how many items we buy are made in Japan. Now consider how many will be imported to our shores as that country tries to rebuild after the Tsunami and nuclear emergency. No big deal? Won't affect you too much? Consider now the potential benefits of being able to shop for things closer to home. Of course, that means something different to everyone, and it's not always going to be possible. Now before I get anyone's back up, here's another reason to bring back a cottage industry economy as much as possible. Back when working at home to produce an item was the norm, one's children had more access to their parents, and often were better equipped to take on life when they got older. More often than not, multiple members of the family could contribute to the family's income. This allowed some leeway in skills and desire to take on certain roles. Just recently I overheard a piece on television about a husband and wife team that made clay pieces for the wine industry. He formed the pots, bowls and urns while his wife made the glazes and decorated the pieces. They had settled into this arrangement because she enjoyed the glazing stage while he disliked it, while she was not fond of the actual forming of the pieces.

Not everyone can work out of the home. A dear friend of mine has been forced to accept that she will not be able to take on a "traditional" job outside the home, and so we were discussing ways  she could bring in work. In the end, she decided to create highly customized information books for hospital, and hospice, patients. This serves an ever-present need, has been positively received by medical professionals, reduces the stress of elder care, makes the medical personnel's job a little easier and can ease the family's minds a great deal. Not traditional, but this is an idea that was borne of need, experience and a desire to contribute as well as help others. In this case, the cottage industry is the answer to bringing money into the home while contributing to society, as well as using an intelligent mind when the body will not co-operate.

Another benefit of  the resurgence of a cottage industry is to prevent valuable skills from being lost. Once upon a time, when one decided what trade one was interested in, an apprenticeship was decided upon, skills taught under a watchful eye and the next generation learned how to produce what their culture needed. Blacksmiths, knitters, makers of musical instruments, herbalists, midwives, bakers, potters, broom makers and coopers all once learned this way. Do you know how to make a broom from scratch? How about a pair of shoes? Would you know how to treat blood poisoning without a doctor? Once, there were many people with this kind of knowledge. You may not think we need to know how to make a pair of shoes in our time, with a shoe store on every other block, but I think that the day is coming when we'll need to be able to access that kind of information. Let's take for example, the humble scarf. You may not need a warm winter scarf where you live, perhaps you enjoy wearing the fancy kind that spruce up an outfit. Someone wove that cloth. Did you know there are folks within our own borders who raise fiber producing animals, spin and weave cloth? Some of them go on to make fancy scarves that are enjoyed and purchased by many. This money then, stays within the cottage economy. It goes to purchase feed for those fiber producing animals, or eggs for that person's table, or perhaps to pay the neighbor who sold the weaver apples for her children's lunch. That scarf purchase did not perpetuate abysmal working conditions in another country that demanded yet another young person to work a 20 hour day, because they will accept .30 cents a day. That money stayed within the weaver's own borders, allowed her to continue her trade and allowed her to help make her neighbor's lives better because she was able to use her purchasing power politically and locally.

There's another reason to consider the return of the cottage industry. Once, you worked hard in school, got good marks and went off to either college or university if you were not learning a trade outside of post-secondary education. After school, you got a job, and usually held it long enough for it to become a career, if not for life. Not so any more. Jobs are disappearing faster than governments can keep up with, mainly because it's cheaper to do business in other countries than it is here in North America. I've discussed ways to combat this in other posts, so I'll resist the urge to do so again. We've become a culture of temporary workers, contract and part time employees, even while the cost of living, food and medical care has raced past our incomes. Many of us are forced to look for alternate incomes, and a cottage industry helps serve this need, especially with the cost of child care rising. I remember the day my ex-husband and I had a discussion about me returning to work. He wanted me to get a full time job to help offset the bills. After doing some number crunching, we determined that all of my pay would end up going to the babysitter, even though she was cheaper than anyone else. I remember asking him, "So what's the point?" He never did have a logical answer for me. Many others are in the same situation today, so for them, an income that can be earned at home makes sense.

In these changing times, what worked a generation ago is not working for us today. We need to approach survival in our times from a different perspective. There's a lot to learn from history, and not just what we were supposed to learn from war. An open mind is the first step.


LindaM said...

Excellent article. I certainly agree as you know. As a mother with kids in university which means nothing certain beside debt at this point, I dearly wish that we did have the option of providing them with apprenticeships.

By creating cottage industry we might also provide a future for another generation, not my childrens but maybe theres. We have a lot of work to do in that regard because we are starting nearly from scratch.

Jacquelineand.... said...

Another excellent post dear friend.