The Craftsman and the Sustainable Transition

In the environmental movement, the authentic and hand-made typically arise as preferable to the might of corporate production. Eloise Dethier-Eaton turns to the work of Arts and Crafts Movement founder William Morris to understand her role as a craftsman in the sustainable transition, untangling how greenwashing can be fought on the small scale.


We all know what greenwashing is: corporations, big and small, making misleading or outright false claims about their green credentials through marketing campaigns. These companies are driving a profit and often doing so whilst actively harming the planet.

However, there is a lesser-known side-effect to greenwashing. According to an article by Cassandra Coburn, [1] some companies that are actively spearheading sustainable practices are deciding to keep quiet about their efforts because they don't want to be called out for greenwashing. Sometimes, this stems from a feeling of imperfection, of being hypocritical or unqualified to speak – manufacturing processes are hardly ever 100% sustainable, ethical and guilt-free.


At the height of the Industrial Revolution in late 19th century Britain, William Morris – craftsman, designer, writer, activist and founding member of the Arts and Crafts movement – was already tussling with some of these predicaments. In an increasingly mechanised and capitalist world, Morris deplored the harmful impact of mass industry on the quality of life for people, planet and products. In opposition to what he saw as a society of waste, he depicted and promoted a fairer, more 'sustainable' way of living, based on his (somewhat-idealised) model of the craftsman of the Middle-Ages.


In opposition to what he saw as a society of waste, Morris depicted and promoted a fairer, more 'sustainable' way of living, based on his (somewhat-idealised) model of the craftsman of the Middle-Ages

In his writings [2] and practice as a craftsman and designer, William Morris advocated for beautiful products that are well made, durable, and bring joy to both their maker and consumer. Social concerns were fundamental to his ideal: workers shouldn't just be cogs in the machine, rats in the race. Instead, they could find purpose and self-fulfilment in adopting versatile lifestyles, juggling different roles in the workplace and learning from a variety of experiences, thus making full use of their potential as humans. Morris also believed goods should be created by and for a local community, free from the demands of a competitive global market.

I believe in Morris's dream because I'm lucky enough to be living it. I work within a small craft business with just two people, as paper-marblers making luxury handmade stationery. We have the privilege of making our own decisions and shaping the business as we see fit: working when we like, on projects that we like, without being driven solely by profit.

I believe in Morris's dream because I'm lucky enough to be living it

Indeed, Morris paints a pretty picture: high quality products made by the people, for the people. But he faced a moral dilemma. Although his products were made by the people, they weren't for the people: they were expensive and thus mostly catered to the rich. After his death, his designs were reproduced onto an extensive range of cheap plastic boots, bags and other bits and bobs. [3] In a strategic move that would have Morris rolling in his grave, his genius for design was capitalised upon while his powerful and appealing ideology was largely extinguished. Paradoxically, it was mass production that eventually allowed Morris' dream of popularising his products to come true. Now his work is made for the people, but not by the people.

In many ways, Morris's writings belong to a bygone era of utopian modernism, whereby major societal problems were addressed with sweeping statements and quick-fix solutions, easily prone to contradictions. Yet, despite the inherent paradoxes in his ideals, they are still strikingly prescient of today's calls for a more equitable society and sustainable world. He helped to move the collective imagination forward by encouraging everyone to 'buy less, but better', questioning our ways as makers and consumers, and redefining 'cost' and 'value'.


Despite the inherent paradoxes in his ideals, they are still strikingly prescient of today's calls for a more equitable society and sustainable world

Customers usually value a product or experience by pitting monetary cost against desirability, usefulness, quality, longevity etc. Very often monetary cost wins because it's the most visible and easily calculable metric. However cheaper 'cost' can be misleading – not least because in the long term, cheaper products will probably break faster and quickly become worthless garbage. Furthermore, Morris suggests there's immeasurable value in finding stories of joy and ethics behind the things you buy. Speaking from my company's experience, we want the price of our products to stay fairly high, without being exorbitantly expensive either, as it reflects the real cost of paying someone a fair wage to do something they love, instead of perpetuating an exploitative cycle where the rich get richer while the vast majority of workers are underpaid and unhappy.

Buying from small businesses also gives customers the opportunity to make a personal connection with producers and to take part in the conversation surrounding the construction of the product. We've recently taken the initiative of trying to make our studio practices as sustainable as possible. In order to do so, we're taking concrete steps to implement better systems and writing about it on our blog so we can be held accountable and receive feedback from our customers. [4]

Some things are easy to implement. For example, we stick to the 'reduce-reuse-recycle' approach, by reusing our by-products like the off-cuts from our marbled papers, and the packaging we receive from suppliers. We also make things according to demand, thus reducing waste. These initiatives have the additional advantage of saving or even generating money.

Sometimes there are grey areas. For example, we've introduced compostable cellulose packaging instead of plastic, but there is still much uncertainty about how most people can dispose of these materials responsibly. This also means they cost more at the moment, though in the long term we hope that increased customer understanding will lead to higher demand and therefore supply, leading in turn to cheaper production costs.

In an ideal world, we wouldn't need to use any physical resources whatsoever, but while that is impossible we can aim to use as few as possible instead. When paradoxes arise, we have to weigh the pros and cons on a case-by-case basis. And for every product we make, we must consider where materials come from, where they will go and how to make them last, by ensuring that they are either durable or entirely circular. These aims echo the utopian story from 'News from Nowhere', in which Morris depicts a world without waste of any kind instead of the limitless land of plenty which is typically associated with paradise.


These aims echo the utopian story from 'News from Nowhere', in which Morris depicts a world without waste of any kind instead of the limitless land of plenty which is typically associated with paradise

In other areas, we still have much room for improvement. For instance, we currently dispose of excess acrylic paint by washing our marbled papers in the sink, which directly leads to plastic pollution in the ocean. We've been exploring alternatives and finding lots of potential along the way. We hope to set up new shared systems for disposing of toxic waste (alongside projects for growing and composting food) outside the building of our communal craft studios, thus bringing makers together with these common goals.

We all face these sorts of pitfalls and paradoxes on the journey towards sustainability and this can be discouraging and debilitating at times. But despite some of our flaws, we can combat these feelings by having honest conversations focused on collective gain, not loss. In order to make these informed decisions, we need transparency regarding materials resources and production methods across the board. We must go beyond greenwashing, as well as potentially unfounded accusations of greenwashing, which only serve to further alienate people, to establish a spirit of collaboration over competition. Indeed, it's in everyone's interest to support and learn from each other in this way in order to build a better world together.



[1] Cassandra Coburn. 'Why Industry is Going Green on the Quiet'. The Guardian. September 2019. 

[2] William Morris:
‘Art Under Plutocracy’, in To-day: monthly magazine of scientific socialism. March 1884. Vol.1(3). 
'News from Nowhere'. Roberts Brothers. Boston. 1890.
The Socialist Ideal : Art’, in Monthly Review. January 1997. Vol. 48(8).
Art and Its Producers, and The Arts and Crafts of To-day: Two Addresses Delivered Before the National Association for the Advancement of Art', Longmans & Co., London, 1901

[3] David Mabb. 'The Morris Kitsch Archive'. Delaware Centre for Contemporary Arts. December 2010.
 
[4]Eloise Dethier-Eaton and Lucy McGrath for Marmor Paperie

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