Guest column: “What Would Jesus Sell?”

Posted by The Murketing Organization on January 22, 2008
Posted Under: DIYism,Guest Contributor,Subculture Inc.

Murketing is pleased to publish this special guest column by Jean Railla, which I believe will be interesting to many crafters and followers of the DIY scene. It was written for her regular column in Craft Magazine, which chose not to publish it out of concern, the magazine told her, that it might be “anti-religious.” (Update 1/25: The magazine says it was a matter of timing and space issues. Whatever the reason, the column addresses issues I think many participants in the crafter/DIY phenomenon are very interested in.) See what you think.

What Would Jesus Sell?

By Jean Railla

What Would Jesus Buy is the suitably ironic title of the documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame), which follows the antics of “Reverend Billy.” As the head of the Church of Stop Shopping Reverend Billy, a character developed by the New York City actor Bill Talen, preaches an anti-corporate theology with an authenticity of feeling and full gospel choir. In the film, Reverend Billy is up to his old antics–exorcising demons at Walmart Headquarters, taking over the Mall of America, and finally crashing Disney Land. His objective? “To save Christmas from the Shopocalypse: the end of mankind from consumerism, over-consumption and the fires of eternal debt!”

I wonder what Reverend Billy would have thought about the handmade pledge sponsored by Etsy, Craftster, Craft Magazine and others this past holiday season: “I pledge to buy handmade…and request that others do the same for me.”

On the one hand, this sentiment, urging us to buy handmade goods, like fingerless gloves crafted by a seller named Corpseknit on Etsy, or a lavender soap found at Seattle’s new Urban Craft Uprising fair, is in opposition to the very type of consumerism that Reverend Billy is bemoaning. On Etsy we can actually “meet” the producer, read about him or her, see photos. Doing this, we know that when we buy from them, we will be circumventing horrific labor practices like those described by John Bowe in Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, which chronicles dehumanizing cases of slavery, environmental damage and other atrocities both in America and abroad. Clearly, supporting Corpseknit, or sellers at any of the dozens of hip craft fairs around the country, is a welcome alternative to mass-production.

But I can’t help thinking: Isn’t shopping, no matter how wonderfully crafty and politically correct still, well, shopping? Can you escape the so-called sin of consumerism by buying handmade? Isn’t the whole point of modern crafting Do It Yourself — not Buy from Someone Who is Doing It Themselves? Not to be a total hypocrite; I shop Etsy and artisan crafters as well as buy the crap from China just like everyone else. It’s just that I see a new trend, which is moving away from crafting and towards consuming. What’s next? “Hip Craft” aisles at Wal-Mart?

Actually, it’s already happening. Scion, a youth-targeted-division of Toyota, which last year marketed its automobiles through West Coast street racer culture (read: Fast and the Furious), recently held a “Craft My Ride” competition, which strove to use modern craft customization to give a DIY patina to their otherwise anonymous econo-boxes. Clearly, this is not a good sign. Crafting is incredibly popular and corporate America is taking note. They are jockeying to figure out how to sell to the growing audience of crafters.

So, where does the craft community stand? Like all other subculture movements before, punk rock, indie rock, skateboarding, zinemaking etal, will crafting become just another consumer product, or is there something more meaningful happening here?

* *

Jean Railla is the founder of and author of the craft manifesto Get Crafty. Her ode to food and drink can be found at Murketing thanks her for allowing this piece to be published here.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Why is the mere the mention of Jesus in the title of your article construed as anti-religious?! Wow! Crazy! And so what if it was?

Written By Elaine Cohen on January 22nd, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

This is what they refused to publish, because it might offend religious people? What kind of religious people? It seems to me that the inward look at the movement Jean is part of, celebrates, and rightfully questions (as all members of movements must) might be the true reason the magazine refused to publish. Even the most mild of pills seems bitter when we’re forced to swallow it ourselves. Anyway, this is an excellent and thoughtful column. I’m glad it saw the (electronic) light of day here.

Written By Dan Koeppel on January 22nd, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

Dear Jean,
Thank you for your insightful article which gave me a little “OH YEAH! – THAT IS HAPPENING” moment. A good reminder of the some of the advantages of crafting and why I should tighten my belt on my consumerist tendencies, it’s more than satisfying, good for my wallet and good for the world.

Love, Zoe

Written By Zoe on January 22nd, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

Hip crafts aisle at Walmart?! Oh no, it’s gonna happen, isn’t it? Yep, I hate to agree, but it looks like it might go that way. Consumption has become just so ingrained in our culture and our psyches, it seems every thing is destined to be a consumer product. Sigh.

Great blog!

Written By Joanne Rendell on January 22nd, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

the funny thing about the crafts aisle at Walmart concept is that Walmart, as a “heartland” retailer, locates itself at the center of what might be called the “true” crafts community (or what once was) – the unselfconscious knitters, quilters, and home-town recipe book makers of Middle America. It would be interesting to see whether places like Walmart have crushed the So-Fro Fabrics and Joanne’s Fabrics and Crafts of the world, which occupied nearly every small-to-medium sized town mall in the 1970s and 1980s Anyway, as much as I want to be totally judgmental of Walmart, if they are doing something to encourage crafting – rather than supplanting it with pseudo-crafts – it might not be a terrible thing (this debate, btw, is VERY similar to the debate over Walmart’s recent push to add organic products to its supermarket aisles. The notion makes some people very uncomfortable, even as they acknowledge that the program brings organics to people who almost certainly would otherwise not have such products available to them.

Written By Dan Koeppel on January 23rd, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

I’ve been thinking about that too. I didn’t buy anything for the holidays actually… I made all of my gifts, and I’m glad I did that instead of shopping.

Written By panoptica on January 25th, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

I don’t know that Rev. Billy would be all that upset with people selling crafts. He celebrates lots of local stores. He says Mudd Coffee has saved Astor Place. In the movie he loved visiting an old fashioned clothing store that sold American-made stuff. When you buy from a chain store you’re going for convenience and cost and so is the store, so you end up having someone in China working for 30 cents an hour. On Etsy you pay someone a fair price for doing something they presumably love.
To overconsume at Walmart is easy. I think you’d have to work on it at Etsy.

Written By C vinzant on January 25th, 2008 @ 6:26 pm

One of the problems with etsy is that the crafts on it are often *not* priced particularly fairly; a lot of them are not priced in a way that would actually support the artisan if that’s how they made their living. This isn’t always a bad thing. Crafters who are just learning their business are able to make some of their investment back and see what sells, test out new designs, styles, or techniques. Craft shoppers are delusional, though, if they think paying 10 or 15 dollars for a hand-knit item represents its true cost. I’m not hating on people who sell mittens to make yarn money, but am frustrated with so much of mainstream media which talks about this as a viable part of the industry. The whole problem with consumerism in this country is that we have developed this idea that we deserve to have a lot of stuff, that stuff is easy to get and it’s important to have a lot of it. What I think craft as a movement and Rev Billy both espouse is the idea that things should be hard to get. You shouldn’t have that many of them, and the ones that you do have you should cherish.

Written By rachelyra on January 26th, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

Walmart? Hasn’t anyone wandered into their neighbourhood Urban Outfitters lately? It’s happening, for sure.

It’s great that Jean Railla has written this because this is definitely where things are headed – but things tend to head in this direction when they move from the underground to mass-populated and moneyed aboveground. Even people that embrace the craft movement from a maker’s/diy perspective are keeping huge-box stores open and raking it in.

I guess people will simply examine why they started making stuff in the first place and their hearts and business minds will follow. To re-use and live sustainably, for the feeling you get when you make something yourself and it’s great(!), or to learn a new skill so you could quit your day job and never get out of your pajamas again – which is also just fine because it’s a business model for sure, but a much more thoughtful one. How many Walmart execs sit back and contemplate consumerism and how dirty it might make them feel every once in a while.

Written By leah buckareff on January 26th, 2008 @ 7:32 pm

fantastic article and fantastic discourse.

i support myself through the things i make (usually in a tenuous manner) and have been rolling these same ideas in my head for almost the entire life of my crafty business.

i find the label “handmade” mildly misleading in many respects. a lot of the stuff available at wal-mart is handmade. it’s just made by hands in another country and usually in a factory. not that i am espousing a super-polluting, slave-waged factory model. i’m not. it just rubs me as mildly dehumanizing to imply that goods made in factories in the third world are not made by hand.

besides, those of us with businesses (especially those super-sellers on etsy) are going to have to face questions of outsourcing and production sooner rather than later. i mean, i have to pay friends to come over to my place and work during crunch times. and i am certainly struck by the images of doing so. it strikes me that the only difference between these “making” parties and a factory is the space in which they occur. and possibly the beer.

but more and more our well-intentioned businesses are pushed towards the values we originally set out to oppose. we don’t sell locally and contribute to shipping-based pollution. we don’t buy locally made materials (i see tonnes of stuff made with dollar store or walmart fare as a base which were both transported to the stores and made in unknown working conditions). we create disposable promotional materials. we package things to sell (the biggest crisis i’ve had in my business revolved around plastic baggies). and we have to do these things to stay afloat (or many of them, anyway).

so, what do we do in the face of this growing popularity?

well, i think anyone making crafts for sale has to continually ask themselves what their standards are for ethical pricing, environmental impact, outsourcing and other business practices. it’s probably a good idea to make some big decisions at the outset of one’s business. that way, when faced with the temptation to slip away from your values, you will at least have a greater level of dilemma to contend with.

and it never hurts to hatch out a business model that maintains your values from the outset. that way, if you stay on track, you won’t need scion’s money. and who knows, maybe you can launch an ergonomic, no-impact, $25/hour factory.

Written By Becky on January 26th, 2008 @ 8:36 pm

Becky, I was really struck by this:
“i find the label “handmade” mildly misleading in many respects. a lot of the stuff available at wal-mart is handmade. it’s just made by hands in another country and usually in a factory. not that i am espousing a super-polluting, slave-waged factory model. i’m not. it just rubs me as mildly dehumanizing to imply that goods made in factories in the third world are not made by hand.” I think it’s interesting how constantly we tell people that things we made with machines are handmade and often wonder aloud with my customers where the line is.

I absolutely agree that laying out your commitment to these things is a good idea – anytime you start a business you should spell out your goals and methods in a business plan, and i think this is just one of the ways in which crafters are finding that staying at home in your pajamas all day doesn’t keep you from having to solve really tough business problems.

Becky, I hope you don’t mind I lifted that paragraph as part of a session idea for Craft Con this spring. Let me know if you are interested in speaking – I’m hoping to have discussion panels on topics like this and would love to have you chair this one!

Written By rachelyra on January 28th, 2008 @ 9:34 pm

Interesting article to be sure…thanks to Murketing for posting it! I do have to say, however, that I think any uproar over the “Handmade Pledge” being too commercial or consumer-driven seems really odd to me. Generally speaking, it’s been my feeling that when people make something, it is usually for other people to enjoy on one level or another. Rarely do people make anything (a web site, a magazine, a cup, clothing, a stuffed-animal etc.) purely for their own edification. Things are often made to be used by others and I would say they are always made to engage others so of course there are going to be those searching to sell what they make – to get it into the hands of others by some method. The “Handmade Pledge” seems like a reasonable method to achieve that goal and again to engage consumers in questioning their habits without cramming anything down anyone’s throat. The mere fact that discussion regarding where these items originate is a huge step towards “something more meaningful” happening. The fact that this question of origin is inherent in craft means that there will always be something meaningful taking place in the exchange of craft-based goods. The more people that are called into questioning their ways of existing in the world the better. Any fears that craft will become “just another consumer product” seem to me to be just a sure sign of growing pains – of a small, tight-knit community suddenly thrown into the bright lights and having it’s warts (and it’s beautify marks) revealed.

The thing I find much more interesting about all of this is that “Craft” magazine killed the piece. Who knows why they actually did it but if it were for the “religious” reasons stated at first, that just seems bizarre. If it is because the article was being critical of the craft community, then that is just plain sad. But if it was for space considerations, I have to say, as an editor of a magazine, I understand. Thanks again Murketing and Jean for getting people to talk! It’s always appreciated!!!

Written By Andrew Wagner on January 29th, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

What I find most interesting is that the ‘Handmade Pledge’ which was passed around so many blogs this holiday season was created by the founders of Etsy as a marketing tool to get more people to buy on Etsy. It was a smart marketing move, and I’m sure helped Etsy and its sellers make more money the last few months of the year. Any time there is a big organized group that emerges, like the crafting community, there are corporations and companies who spend time and energy trying to figure out how to get that group to consume their products. And sometimes it’s even people who are big players within the community. Personally I don’t think that takes away from the ‘meaning’ of the culture, it just may help push it into the mainstream a little faster.

Written By christina on January 29th, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

Not to mention that the bazillion-dollar a year scrapbook market sector is both driven and supplied by companies with major LDS ties. Many if not most of the craft supply companies which fuel our creative pursuits are Utah based, if we read the labels. What goes around comes around — we want to make our own stuff, we want to watch where it comes from, we need stuff to make our stuff — short of raising our own sheep and making everything we touch from scratch, yeesh, it’s difficult to avoid the political and/or religious implications and motivations of others which inevitably contribute to and benefit from just about everything we do. I’m not into scrapbooking, but I bought a lot of art supplies at my local scrapbooking store in the interest of supporting a local merchant rather than a big box chainstore, and only recently became aware of the pervasive religious agenda underlying the massive growth of the seemingly innocuous scrapbook trend. Sadder but wiser, I’m back to making my own paper out of recycled junk mail and old phone books.

Written By J on January 30th, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

Great article! I totally agree. My partner and I try our hardest to not buy anything – but when we do buy, we try to buy as ethically as possible, which for us means handmade is good, but handmade and *local* is even better. Etsy and other crafty sites are awesome, but just think of all the packing materials and diesel fuel that goes into packing those craft items up and shipping them all over the place.

Written By Ari on February 1st, 2008 @ 7:47 pm

Excellent article. I’d be willing to venture a guess it was not published in Craft Magazine because the questions being raised suggest that the crafting movement is, without question and inevitably, moving into the “mainstream;” and the commercial enterprises such as crafting magazines and other media would prefer it remain in the perceived realm of “socially responsible and subversive.” As a crafter/artist myself, I am very interested in the “psychology” of the whole craft movement. One comes across crafters’ slogans such as, “Hip Adventures in Crochet!” or, “Not Your Mama’s Knitting!” There is a resistance to the reality that our grandmothers made EVERYTHING by hand out of necessity, but today, we make things because we want to, so therefore it is “hip, cool and trendy.” These seem to be very “commercial” attitudes. I do see several types of crafters- the purists, who really do make everything by hand- raise their own sheep for fiber, grow their own plants, make their own paper, etc, and the “hobbyists” who buy their supplies at Michael’s and Walmart. Of course people consume. Responsible consumption is the key. I would prefer to buy my hat and mittens from the sheep farmer who spun his/her own fiber, and that crafter in return will buy their milk and bread from the dairy farmer down the road. The money stays in the community and everyone benefits, and hopefully we contribute less to the Corporate System that has outsourced jobs and facilitates deplorable working conditions in poorer nations. What would Jesus sell? Well, he had a message to sell- and a lot of people bought it. So don’t feel too bad about your own ventures in buying/selling. Just try to stick to the message.

Written By Colleen on February 10th, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

Hello Rob and Jean! We posted a response on Etsy’s Storque.

I think it’s so important to discuss these ideas. Looking forward to more…Vanessa

Written By vanessa on February 11th, 2008 @ 11:46 am

This war between handmade and mass-produced has gone on for years, and the truth is this: they are interdependent. I craft, but I buy mass-produced goods to do it. I don’t make my own yarn, fabric, needles, paper, glue, scissors, etc. Because these supplies are so readily, and cheaply, available, crafters can do their thing. Crafters keep the mass-production guys in business by purchasing the items. It’s the craft “circle-of-life”.

Mass-production is not the enemy, niether is consumerism. We all need to buy things. The “things” are value-neutral. Walmart has been a savior to the lower class. People can afford the basics there. People can afford clothes for themselves and their kids, along with food, sheets, towels, etc. Walmart uses cheap labor to make this possible, but in many cases the people who do that labor get paid better and have better work environment than they would working for their own governments.

And we all need mass-production. We want our Charmin toilet paper and our Cover Girl mascara to be the same quality and the same price every time we buy it. We also don’t want to have to drive to ten different stores in search of these items because they are not widely available. That is what m.p. does best : consistent pricing, quality, and availability. If Lion Brand yarn was $4.00 a skein one week and $25.00 the next, crafters would have a HISSY fit! Thankfully, it is mass-produced, so in the absence of mind-blowing inflation, this should not happen.

Making things instead of buying them has made my life richer. All the more so because I like to give those things away as gifts. I could sell them, but I would probably only make my money back unless I marked everything up 200%. The joy is in the creating – the pride in a job well done. And I couldn’t do it without the mass-produced materials.

Written By Jen on February 11th, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

Well, here’s my two cents. First, thanks for a thought provoking piece and thank you to the friend who sent it to me to read.

I think it’s all about balance and moderation. When I read the book Mutant Message Down Under, the author changed the way I think about material things the moment she saw her folded clothing and jewelry being placed in a fire.

I have a friend who is part of a group trying to control their compulsive shopping. A few have made covenants with themselves to go a full one year without buying anything for themselves. Think about it. You have tons of clothes in your closet and just how many trinkets do we really need?

I haven’t stopped buying but I buy differently. I buy most of my clothing at Goodwill and usually take several bags back every year. It’s just a revolving door but it gets my shopping yayas taken care of and for very little cash.

I love books and try to buy several bags at two terrific charity book sales we have locally every year. I do succumb to Barnes and Noble once or twice, but I’m trying really hard to curb that, too.

So, we each find what works for us but just going through the act of thinking about it is healthy. Thanks for making me think.

Oh, and one more thing. Turn off the TV and the radio and listen to real life. It’s beautiful.

Written By Diane on February 14th, 2008 @ 10:38 am

Thanks for publishing this where Craft wouldn’t. I’m glad I got to read it – has gotten me thinking and crystallised something that was bothering me as a writer of a blog on craft and green issues.

My response is here:

Written By Joelle on February 14th, 2008 @ 11:35 am

As someone who is a unashamed consumer and collector I no longer have the guilt I once did about spending. However, I am now more consciences then ever of where my dollar is going.

Anyhow, kudos to this discussion and in lieu of it I would like to suggest some reading that hits on a lot of above discussed topics. “Waste and Want: A Social History Of Trash” by Susan Strasser is a fantastic quick read and if you are interested in consumer culture, the history of women’s handi-work, recycling and garbage, this is a must to add it to your reading list.

Written By Faythe Levine on February 27th, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

As a serious follower of Jesus Christ, I have no objections to the use of the name in this article. Indeed, it reflects the concept of the Jesus who overthrew the martmeisters of His day as they ran their scams in the Jewish Temple and turned it into what He called a “den of thieves”.

Written By SharonRCC on March 17th, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

To make the argument of what would Jesus sell, is certainly an eye catcher, yet has little meaning to His truth. I would think, he wouldn’t come down on either side of this argument. Shopping hand made, union backed, or overseas, relates nothing to what He saw, as our direction. This argument is based entirely upon our own prejudices. What we think is good for others, rather than what is good for ourselves. In a very subtle way, we crafters, are a self righteous bunch. Not too different than any other self righteous bunch. In essence, we are making what we see as a sound argument to tell others where, and what they should do or think.
Yes poor children are abused and forced to work for pennies, ans sometimes it’s those pennies, that allow them to eat. Should we stop buying those goods, before we help to correct that problem? There are children right hear at home, that go without food at night. Buying from we crafter’s, certainly won’t solve that problem. For that to happen, we would have to make big money so that we could then afford to give some away. This is a social, not a religious one. It has more to do with Judas’ concerns than Christs’. Christ wants us to be ethical beings, not dictate what that means to others . The only force He used was to throw the money changers out of a holy place. We would be seen as the money changers, if this is our arugument. Christ helped to feed the poor by lifting thier spirits, He never once mentioned where they should shop!
It is the spirit in whivh we approach our own callings, that fulfill the purpose of who we are. Not a movement that needs to determine where to shop!

Written By Ellie Dee on March 21st, 2008 @ 4:02 pm

That was a really interesting article. I do find it significant that Craft magazine didn’t publish it, because as well as being well written by one of their regulars, it really did have something thought-provoking and fresh to say (as evidenced by all the comments!) which editors will normally find space for.

My no doubt will be rambly thoughts: Anything that gets popular enough will get commercialised, there’s nothing that’s “revolution-proof”. Good points in the comments about “handmade” being worldwide, I remember seeing a team of teenage boys carving wooden buddhas amongst a mountain of woodchips under a tin roof in Indonesia. I guess for me what’s important is that people get paid a fair wage for doing what they do, but so much of the West’s affluence depends upon cheap labour elsewhere that our current lifestyles would be unsustainable if everyone was paid a fair wage. So be it then, let us roll back our current lifestyles, and move more and more towards fair wages for those near and far, and rolling back our current lifestyles means doing a lot of things for ourselves too, a lot of crafting and DIY and fixing and reusing things and not consuming extra resources. I am uneasy with the argument that not buying something exploitative is unfair to those paid that 15c.

I am a bit cynical about crafting and selling of being the forefront of a push towards a new radical lifestyle, because I think that buying in itself will never make great changes, not unless everyone changed their patterns all at once and if they did that I think so much radicalism would have caused this that it wouldn’t just be about buying at this stage, it would be about widespread agitating. I think that a lot of subcultures are about individualism and what pleases the individual (which is still valid and important), rather than about working towards true widespread social change. I know that if I sell my DIY products that I’m just trying to make money that will see me avoid or reduce working for and receiving money from some unpleasant corp or two, but I don’t see how that makes the world in general a better place, it’s an individualist thing, it makes me happier and that’s important but not much of a ripple effect. The DIY ethic takes in things like modifying consumer items to suit yourself, such as that site that tells you to buy Ikea things and how you can use them to build other things, it’s cool and funky and creative yes but it’s not ethic-challenging. And all that plasticky fabric I sew with! I think that reusing and recycling materials when crafting does make more of a radical statement, as it is really reducing the impact on the Earth and people, and to a lesser extent environmentally sustainable and fair trade sourced products, such as new hemp material. Just as there’s starting to be a focus on “food miles” there needs to be a focus on “product miles” and sourcing and buying locally is just so fantastic, but eh, there is a role for finding and selling your niche art worldwide where there isn’t enough people locally to be interested, or sources of an unusual product to be found. And also, the article makes the point that wanting these crafty things, may be like wanting anything pretty you see when you’re shopping. What impact does it have on the earth and workers? And how much of it is changing the patterns of consumer compulsions in the first place? It’s unfortunate that the creation of beautiful things and consumption have to be so tangled up with one another, I guess I’ll leave that up to another person, or another time, to think about that. /ramble

Written By goatsfoot on April 4th, 2008 @ 12:36 am
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