11. Don't expect someone to save you from the big, bad world. Protectionism has never worked.  


This is something I've been wanting to talk about for ages. Globalisation.

Okay, all of you are yawning now and it all seems a bit blah,blah, blah, yes?

But go over to somewhere like Etsy and on the forums there you'll find endless anger, confusion and accusations about competition. And underlying most of it is a fear of being undercut by foreigners. You know, those people who run sweatshops and produce crap.

The fact that Etsy has been all over the place about its Terms and Conditions - one day you have to be a "collective" (what IS a collective?) and the next no problem, you can have employees, dithery, dithery, do - has not helped. But the fundamental issue is much more basic and goes much deeper. People are just afraid, at heart, that they won't be able to compete. That the bag they make by hand on the domestic sewing machine they have set up in a back room in their own home will not be a match for the one coming from a factory in China or India. And you know what, they're often probably right. The Chinese one may well be sewn better, look more professional, use higher quality fabric, be more fashionable - and yes, be a whole lot cheaper.

So they demand that Etsy, for instance, protect them. That it throw out anyone who is not making "homemade". That anyone bigger should move on because they have outgrown the site. That any "resellers" should be hounded off and, if possible (er, how?) hit with huge fines. Okay, I agree that resellers - those who are trading mass-produced goods rather than making their own - are outside the current T&Cs of the site and should not be there. But the fear of anyone who is bigger than a single person? The pleas that it's impossible to compete with anyone who uses efficient production techniques to keep their costs down? The expectation that Etsy will somehow put up a protective barrier -and presumably keep the buyers inside it somehow. Where does all that come from? It's fear, and a desire to be protected.

Etsy has its own, fairly unique problems based on the whole confusion and lack of think-through of its claim to be "the place to buy and sell all things handmade". Doubtless now that the VCs have taken over (however nicely they put it), that will change in any case. But to broaden this, these attitudes shown on Etsy are just one manifestation of the deep desire that I think many of us have in the West to be protected from what's coming. We feel that if walls are put up - with us in a nice walled garden inside and all that nasty, unethical and unfamiliar competition kept outside in the barren wastes, then all will be well. So we desire walls - no, actually we demand them and we attack anyone who isn't keen on building and defending those walls. We seem really to believe that somehow we can keep back this tidal wave of change that's rushing towards us. And, because we're afraid, a lot of the fear comes out in the form of racism, resentment, unfair accusations and a self-righteous belief that, God damn it, we are entitled to use the developing world but to be saved from having it use us.

Well, this can't be done. Nor do I think it's ethical to ask for it.

Protectionism has never worked. If you want to see someone talk in very "big view" technology change and historical terms about the reason that globalisation is here to stay - and a good thing - then take a look at Carlota Perez's lecture to IBM (scroll about halfway down the page to the white area and "See video of lecture in IBM Leadership Forum, Rome 2006" ). Or there is a good PDF here if you'd rather read than watch.

Or if you want to read something smaller, less ambitious and maybe a bit more immediately practical for small studio businesses, then read my next post when I want to talk about why and how you can compete. Or at least not get knocked over by the wave. What's coming is change and we need to adapt. But handled well, it provides wonderful opportunities for an indie designer/maker - it's not a disaster to be feared.

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