“But it is so expensive!”
“I can’t afford handmade!”
These are some of the things you often hear about products that are handmade by artisans like those you’ll find at Etsy.com.
I’d like to take you on a journey of two products to look at the real cost of each item.
Before I get started I want to point out that the choice between the bottom-dollar plastic toy and the much more expensive handmade, quality item is not a choice we all have the luxury to make. This post is intended for those of us that are privileged enough to make that choice and I acknowledge that it is in fact a privilege that not everyone enjoys. For more on this idea of classism in goods read Arwyn’s awesome post Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and the discomfit of classism. Also I don’t want my post to sound anti-welfare. I’m very pro-social programs but I’m even more pro programs that prevent rather than treat the problem.
So here we have two Baby Dolls. Baby dolls are, of course, wonderful imaginative play items for both boys and girls because they help kids emulate Mom and Dad and develop nurturance habits that ensure the continuation of humanity.
Doll #1 is available at any Big Box store and on Amazon. She is called Little Mommy and she retails for $17.99.
That is a price difference of $97.01 before shipping.
Little Mommy is manufactured by Mattel – the world’s largest toy maker and home to Barbie. Mattel’s products are made in China. Wallie is made by hand by Rebecca in her home in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, USA.
Little Mommy is made of plastic. Good luck finding out what kind of stuffing her soft body has or what her clothes are made out of. The company doesn’t supply any of this information, and toy makers are not required to list their components as clothing manufacturers are. From the feel, I think a good guess would be a polyester blend.
Wallie is made entirely of wool and cotton and Rebecca lists the source of each (Pennsylvania and Netherlands, respectively). She specifically tells us, “no need to worry about plastics, petrochemicals, or toxins in your special doll.”
Comments: Materials are important especially when it is a toy for our children that might be (er, probably will be) chewed on. Regardless of the materials, though, it is sad that finding material information is so difficult on mass produced items. In general all the information for this article was hard to find! Big Companies do not make it easy to find out the details of their manufacturing process.
If you’ve heard the news at all in the past six years you know that Mattel has had several recalls for excessive lead in their children’s toys and had to pay out millions in damages. Accidents happen right? Well, even more alarming to me is that Mattel has been fined for intentionally withholding information that their toys were dangerous. In 2001 Mattel “failed to report 116 fires and 1,800 incidents involving failures of the electrical system in the toy cars that children ride. The fine is the largest fine (1.1 million) the agency has ever leveled against a toymaker.”2
Now I have to include a lot of guesstimating. I can find out about wages in the Chinese plants that make Little Mommy. According to Responsible Shopper, workers make approximately $.17 per hour. But maybe that is just the cost of living in China? Further review finds that this is 59% of the legal minimum wage in China. The single person (usually a young woman, sometimes a child) that made your doll made approximately $.0125 for their work. Workers work 14.5 hour days on average and get one day off a week, have no overtime, no health insurance, live in unsanitary dorms, and are fired if they are injured.3
Never fear!, it isn’t all Ramen noodles for Mattel. Mattel CEO, Robert A. Eckert, made $7,278,178 in 2006.
To estimate the cost of Wallie’s construction I found this article by Germandolls about how long it takes to make a Waldorf doll, which I thought gave a very accurate 8 hours. Not including materials, this would mean Rebecca is making $14.38 per hour. That’s somewhere between Ramen and whatever it is Mr. Eckert eats. I’m assuming Rebecca does not employ slave labor.
Comments: When you buy cheap someone pays. Sometimes it doesn’t affect you directly. Like when it encourages the sweatshop labor of someone else’s daughter thousands of miles away. Sometimes it does affect you and you may not realize it. Like paying higher insurance premiums for your insurance because so many Walmart workers (where the toys are sold) can’t afford healthcare. That doll that costs $17.99 somehow simultaneously makes top executives insanely rich and gives factory workers just enough money to upgrade from starving to hungry. It just doesn’t add up. The real costs of that doll exceed the retail price. Who is paying the difference?
Buying from Rebecca costs you more, but the retail price includes the real cost of production. Cost of a living wage, safe, sanitary working conditions and overhead. (And there is much question about how much a skilled artisan like Rebecca should be making. Is $14 an hour fair?). You are also paying for a doll instead of later paying for welfare, insurance premiums, unemployment, and other costs to society of the unemployed and working poor.
Labor actually covered much of the social impact of the purchases, but I wanted to point out another avenue. Mattel is rated a 2.6 out of 10 on a “Company rating on whether it has activities or involvement in countries that have oppressive regimes.”4
San Francisco is not known for its oppressive regime.
The best information on the environmental impact is from a site called Good Guide. This site gathers and analyzes environmental and social data on leading companies and compares them with other companies in their sector. Here are some of the key findings for Mattel. You can see the whole report at Good Guide.
Particulate Matter and VOCs
Company rating on its public reports about plans to reduce, substitute, or phase out volatile organic compounds or particulate matter measuring less than ten microns in diameter. Rating is relative to other companies in the same industry.
Mattel Rating: 3.0/10
SOx and NOx
Company rating on its public reports about plans to reduce, reuse, recycle, substitute, or phase out sulphur oxide or nitrogen oxide emissions. Rating is relative to other companies in the same industry.
Mattel Rating: 3.4/10
Liabilities for Hazardous Waste
Company rating on whether it has liabilities for hazardous waste sites or fines/penalties for waste management violations. Rating is relative to other companies in the same industry.
Extended Description: The company’s liabilities for hazardous waste sites exceed $50 million, or the company has recently paid substantial fines or civil penalties for waste management violations. Before 1996 the threshold for liabilities was $30 million.
Mattel Rating: 3.7/10
Company rating on whether it monitors its own emission reduction efforts, publicly shares the results, and conducts regular audits of its programs. Rating is relative to other companies in the same industry.
Mattel Rating: 0/10< None of this takes into account the environmental damage of shipping finished product overseas for sale. Most of the toxic emissions are because of the toxic materials being used in the products (duh.). Rebecca tells us her materials are natural and non-toxic so her footprint is much smaller. She doesn't talk about her own 3Rs but many artisans do have statements on their recycling/reuse/reduction plans.
Buying something is kind of like voting. When you take out your money and put it into someone else’s hands, you are saying “I support you and this thing you do.”
When you buy a $17.99 doll, you are voting for outsourced jobs, sweatshop (and sometimes child) labor with untenable working conditions. You are voting for vague and questionable materials at best and known and dangerous materials at worst. You are deferring your payment of health insurance and livable wages to welfare programs and insurance premiums. You are paying for a product that is depleting our environment – a cost that you will pay for in higher fuel costs, higher health costs due to increased cancers and other diseases, and other damages. That doll actually “costs” you a lot of unsavory things on top of your cash.
On the flip side, buying from an artisan like Rebecca is voting for quality over quantity. A living wage with healthy work conditions. Knowing the source of your goods and the materials they are comprised of. The doll includes these costs and these benefits. Your cash goes toward more than a beautiful, quality, long-lasting doll. It goes toward a better world.
Paige Lucas-Stannard is a former NASA research librarian happy to be home raising her 3 IVF babies after nearly a decade of infertility. She blogs about infertility, parenting, and women’s issues at Baby Dust Diaries as well as being the founder of the gentle discipline site ParentingGently.com and co-founder of the breastfeeding rights site NursingFreedom.org. She likes to cook and sew and has, in general, become her mother. Happily. Follow her on Twitter @babydust.
This post has been edited from a version previously published at Baby Dust Diaries.
Photo Credit: Author
- Neither Paige nor NPN have an affiliation with FaerieRebecca, Paige simply chose a doll at random when she wrote this post. The shop is not currently stocked. There are Waldorf dolls for both more and less in the handmade market. ↩
- Responsible Shopper ↩
- China Labor Watch, September 1, 2005 ↩
- Good Guide ↩