I love bicycles and riding. It’s a simple and wonderful practice that contains health and environmental benefits and encourages social intercourse. A recent visit to Rivendell Bicycle Works, a niche bicycle operation in the Bay Area focusing on craft, got me thinking about global modes of production and consumption. In speaking with the owner, Grant Peterson, it became clear that his focus on craft, quality, and supporting small producers is a constant struggle. Why?
“Race to the Bottom” achieved a level of common sense in contemporary global capitalism over the last few decades. Here’s how I understand it, from production forward:
Low Pay for Workers
Low-cost Work Conditions
Low Production Quality
Low Yield Per Unit for Producers
Low Pay for Retail Workers
Low Price for Consumer
Somehow, for most of us living in overdeveloped countries, the low price seems to justify the whole chain. Among the ideologies supporting this chain (efficiency, convenience, collecting), one stands out: MORE FOR LESS. This simple and easy ideology is a key theme in quite a bit of advertising. Who wouldn’t want more stuff for less money? Now, granted, if one is hard for cash or struggling or desperate, that $19.99 toaster comes in darn handy. Two tacos for 99 cents might help feed your family at the end of a pay cycle. But these are false choices, pushed forward by the created needs of advertising. Human needs – food, shelter, love – can be satisfied in more humane ways. Beyond real needs lie a kind of consumer mania – which results in our accumulation of a lot of junk, that isn’t benefiting people. Its bad for people. Its bad for animals. Its bad for the our chances of sustaining our species on Earth.
I advocate a LESS FOR MORE consumer economy. Buying fewer, better made goods that support small producers (local is a plus) and paying MORE for them. Price reflects the kind of labor, modes of production, and thoughtfulness that goes into craft. Remember pride of ownership? Where did shoe, stereo, and furniture repair shops go? Disposable goods come from disposable models of consumption, as far as I’m concerned. So out with it!
It seems that we are currently witnessing an emergent craft movement. Slow food, Etsy, mix tapes, burgeoning independent and underground music labels and scenes all point to change. In the bicycle industry, folks like Rivendell have tapped into a backlash against industry-defined norms of bicycling.
Many style and business oriented news stories discuss how the “Great Recession” (using the language of the NY Times) motivates Americans to change our voracious habits. It’s more likely that consumer culture has already devised strategies to put our spending in a semi-sustainable holding pattern, preparing us for the next bubble-fueled explosion of desire.