We live in a society founded on growth and change, without it our economies fail and “boredom” infects us. The more cynical among us see this as a moral tragedy and yet are generally as quick to condemn the State of Things as we are to upgrade our phone. We’re not defined by our actions but rather by how we spend our money and by the items we possess. A life of moderation, lived with only limited modern convenience is almost seen as ascetic or as the conceited antagonism of a philistine.
Convenience, efficiency, economy, disposable, upgrade, update, obsolete, cheap, rapid, fast, range, options, choice, bulk, mass, margin, overhead…A pyroclastic cloud, pervading our worldview, clogging our pores, grounding the flight of durability, specificity, niche-focus and a truer philosophy of materialism that attributes actual value to the things we own and their production, rather than to the speed with which we can go around the production and replacement merry-go-round. Where is the respect for ingenuity and craftsman-ship, for durability and maintenance?
Where is the dialogue between producer and consumer? The modern Producer-Consumer interaction is typically a duplicitous monologue. They talk we listen; the corner-store conversation between clerk and client a faded photograph brought out awkwardly at family gatherings; a memory of times oft forgotten, but fortunately not gone.
In an age of Mass Production, where Luddites sound about as far-fetched as Gulliver’s wretched Yahoos, the Cottage Manufacturer is digging in, front-running a renaissance of quality, longevity, specificity and horizontal Consumer-Producer interaction. As falling production and material costs make the margins of multinationals hockey-stick, they also open the door for smaller, cottage producers to enter the market at relatively low risk, traditionally speaking. They remind us of a golden age of car-boot sales (think Billabong and Patagonia), garage workshops and tiny, hand-made production runs. The brands, and the people behind them who are profiled in this series, all produce awesome gear, cater to a very specific market and see their customers as business partners, not meme hosts. Cottage producers differentiate themselves with specificity, highly-niched products and an emphasis on building a Tribe. A relationship with their customers that is two-way, symbiotic, responsible, respectful, and receptive.
Of course there is a place for quality mass production and massive markets. I’m the proud owner of Suunto watches, Salomon running gear, Vibram and Inov-8 shoes, Petzl climbing equipment, Pelican Cases, GoPro, Garmin, Ay-Up, Iridium and Apple electronics, Patagonia clothing, Nalgene bottles and MSR shelters and stoves. Interestingly, the big brands that come to mind as representing quality and integrity have fairly humble origins themselves. Without this history they’d most likely be another faceless company targeting some Survey-Says-Defined, approximated market middle point in order to justify the high set-up costs of large-scale mass production and keep investors on side.
Sure, I’m being melodramatic and pompous, apparently undermining my inclination toward free-market capitalism, but it’s not a hatred of big-business that upsets me. Rather, I advocate a market formed through a partnership of intelligent consumer and responsible producer. There is no charity here, neither is doing the other a favour, the producer is simply responding to the demands of a market that knows what they want and how much they’re willing to pay for it. I’m sure this wont be the last time I paraphrase Ayn Rand.
In the 1970s Marsh Hyman, president of the Nalge Company, manufacturers of state-of-the-art Polyethylene Nalgene laboratory equipment, responded to staff pilfering lab bottles for hiking trips by approaching the Nalge Specialty Department with a mission: “Spread the word to outdoorspeople all over! Tell them about this new line of high-quality camping equipment.” Around the same time recently-retrenched Boeing Engineers Jim Lea and Neil Anderson took a piece of open-cell foam, some airtight fabric, melted it together with a sandwich press and by 1972 had filed for patent on what would be come Therm-a-rest (who also own MSR and Sealine). A few years earlier Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost had founded Chouinard Equipment, a company making climbing hardware for rock climbers. Chouinard started out by teaching himself blacksmithing on a 2nd hand forge and anvil, making reusable pitons by hand from old axles. By 1972 they’d helped to phase out the damaging practice of hammering in climbing protection and began punching out reusable, aluminium chocks that would allow climbers to climb “clean”, leaving “the rock unaltered by the passing of the climber”. The pair soon split their focus and Patagonia was born, a company with a reputation for strongly supporting the people and communities who use their products and for helping to protect the wild places we love.
Nalgene, Therm-a-rest and Patagonia are in no way, shape or form small companies. But in spite of their size they continue to develop and produce consumer-relevant products and do so without having auctioned their integrity or exacting standards to the lowest bidder. For me, it is these values that Cottage Manufacturers like Cactus, RocBloc, THIR and Sweet Cheeks represent.