The Challenges of Scaling NZ-made Sustainable Products
Across New Zealand there are hundreds of talented artisans creating beautiful and sustainable products in their workshops, garages and living rooms. They are working in the evenings and weekends on products that are imbued with passion and desire for, not just the product, but the personal, environmental or social meaning behind it.
These are individual items - not just more soulless plastic stuff for our homes, but something we can fall in love with and gift to our friends and family. Fast fashion and mass production has given us high expectations when we shop online and we need to be aware that for one-of-a-kind, NZ-made, sustainable products these expectations might be unrealistic.
Every craftsperson wants to make a living from their art and to do this the process needs to be scalable, but there are a number of challenges associated with scaling up a handmade product like our huia feather earrings.
The first challenge is time; before being ‘discovered’ I was making 20 pairs of earrings a month, fitting it around other work and family commitments. I made earrings on the dining room table and quickly packed them away at meal times. But when sales increased 142,000% overnight I suddenly had a full time job which could no longer only take up a small space on the dining table. New staff needed somewhere to work so an extra desk was set up in my living room and 3000 shipping boxes take up a LOT of room! Finding staff and figuring out how to set up operations in my home-based business takes time, and I had to finish up my other work commitments at the same time as orders were flooding in.
Time also needs to be taken into account to actually make the earrings. Laser cutting means that manufacturing is semi-automatic but all the detail and construction work is still done by hand, and there’s not a factory full of workers! Just a few people who also need lunch breaks and time to pick kids up from school.
The handmade process means that every earring is individual and this really is the charm of buying products from small NZ creators - no matter how many people are wearing them, no two huia feathers will be the same. Mass production has meant we have come to expect everything to be perfectly uniform but when products are made from salvaged materials, be it wood or recycled plastic, imperfections in the source material will carry over into the finished product and tell a story of the piece’s unique history.
Another problem in making the huia feather earrings is sourcing the specific type of plastic needed. Remix Plastic will never make products from virgin plastic - no matter how high the demand, which means the supply chain is dependent on waste from other projects. Sometimes this means the earrings will be out of stock while we source more plastic.
One person businesses rely on the emotional and mental capacity of the creator, a capacity that can be stretched to breaking point when required to scale quickly. A big run on products is exciting but all consuming, and artists and entrepreneurs put enormous pressure on themselves to fulfil orders as quickly as possible - to not let anyone down. Every waking moment becomes devoted to making earrings, every empty space in the house is filled with packing boxes and every surface is covered with jewellery making equipment. Internally and externally I become completely surrounded by huia feather earrings increasing the risk of burning out.
If we want a country and community where local artists and entrepreneurs can make a living by creating beautiful, ethical and sustainable products, then it’s not enough to just make a purchase. We also need to consciously change our expectations, and provide the emotional support needed by the small business owner and craftsperson. They love their work and they love providing us with products. Let’s send them our aroha as they send us a unique and beautiful treasure.