Thursday, October 18, 2012

Making Ethical Choices Even When It’s Not Cheap

Our Family Standards
            When the economy turned south, my family’s meager budget suddenly seemed a lot smaller. I had already cut most of the meat from our diet, and we developed an indoor garden to help us grow vegetables year round.
            Even before money was tight, we always grew our own vegetables, prepared, and froze or dried them to get us through the winter. We used cloth diapers and had our own well. With the fireplace in our kitchen and living room, we heat the house with wood during the cold months, and in the spring, we tend the trees on our back acreage to make sure that we are not overtapping our supply. Whatever can be recycled, we do. In fact, we even just recently learned how to make sandals out of recycled tires. Buying natural and fresh is not an option, and with this constant work, it has not been that much more expensive. 

Beginning a Business
            But things started to change once I started my own business. I’m an artist. I specialize in conceptual paintings and images that seek to capture the soul and heart of a person or a scene rather than what is just there. My business, though small, is in sketching pictures and combining photos to make gorgeous custom blankets. For the actual printing, I use Vision Bedding. I chose them because they complete their entire business within the United States, and the quality is excellent. Working with all American businesses and buying organic and American is very important to my husband and me.
            I wish I could say though that our conviction did not waver. But as prices continued to rise and I started finding it more difficult to earn with my blankets, I started looking for places that I could cut costs with my business. Was there a way that we could cut the costs? 

Looking to Cut Costs
            At first, I looked at printing stores aside from Vision Bedding. But, as I clicked through each one, I found either ethical or financial reasons not to change. My oldest daughter came to place financial accountant with me. As she sat next to me at the kitchen table, poring over the printed and handwritten receipts, she tilted her head. “It’s not the bedding store, Mommy,” she said. “It’s the paints. You can get these at Wal-Mart for $2.”
            Off the top of my head, I didn’t remember how much I spent on paints. But I knew she was right. You see, my work is highly personal. I don’t just pick up the phone, gather the pictures, and arrange them on the quilt template like a novice scrapbooker. When I receive an order, I sit down with my customer, and I talk in depth. I learn about the person the blanket is for. I come to understand who they are. We are all more than faces. We are souls and minds with memories, hopes, and dreams, concepts which make us far more than the mere sum of our parts. My goal is to reveal a little bit of the soul with each blanket I design.
            With that in mind, I always sketch out the initial portraits by hand before I scan them in along with the photographs. Sometimes I paint with watercolors. Other times I sketch with charcoals. A nine image quilt easily has six different pictures plus drafts. Often times, I include hand drawn and painted pictures with the blanket as a thank you to my customers. And for all this work, I use homemade paints and charcoals.

The Watercolor Lady
            No, I don’t make them. I buy them from the Watercolor Lady, a sweet woman who visits her customers in person, bringing their orders in her little black basket. She rides a green bicycle with the basket mounted on the front and a turquoise and amethyst paisley cloth over the top. When the weather turns cold like it is now, she wears a large purple scarf over her head and a long wool coat, looking for all the world like a babushka. Compared to pens, pencils, and paints made in China or Mexico, her prices are extremely high.
            The Watercolor Lady makes her own dyes for her paints. She oversees every step of the process. And she relies on this side business of hers to supplement her own income. Whenever she comes to the house, I pick up an order of two to five different paint colors and perhaps a bit of charcoal. True, sometimes I don’t just buy what I need. I like to think of it as a luxury.
            But now at that kitchen table, the table where we seem to have so many conversations, my little Jenevieve and I were talking about perhaps changing our paint source. Source makes it sound far more impersonal. It’s all business. Not a big deal. But when you see the Watercolor Lady, you suddenly realize that nothing is just business.
            “Why do you think we should cut the paints?” I asked Jenevieve.
            “It would save us money.”
            “Is saving money the most important thing?” I asked.
            “No…” Jenevieve answered slowly, studying my face as if she was not sure which one was the right answer. “But it is a good thing.”
            That was true. I smiled and picked up the receipt. The Watercolor Lady always did calligraphic letters for her receipts, using her own ink and quill. “It’s good sometimes, but not if you give up something else you value.” 

Not Worth the Money
            When we choose to go into business, we have to make many decisions. A side or a hobby business is no different. I am raising my children to understand that we bear a certain responsibility for the money that we spend and where it goes. In some cases, we may not have a choice but to buy something manufactured overseas
            I could certainly save money by not purchasing my art supplies from the Watercolor Lady. But I choose to give my business to her. We are interconnected. Purchasing handmade or homemade goods does not come with the cheapness of mass manufactured, but it does come with connections. A human connection. When I buy from her, I am contributing to the economy on a level where I can actually make a difference and see it.  
            And I guess in a way, that I am treating the Watercolor Lady as I hope my customers will treat me. Any of them could go and buy a soft blanket from Singapore at half the cost. But I offer something in addition to the physical product.
            My father always used to tell me that our money shows us what our values are. It’s a small way to live by example. So I am still buying paints from the Watercolor Lady. It’s important, even in times of economic crisis, to not stop pursuing those things that matter. The bottom line and overall cost are important factors to consider, but it’s not worth it if we give up something far more valuable.


  1. Wow, good for you! you are so right, money is _not_ the most important thing. I hope you have a long and wonderful relationship with the Watercolour Lady, and that she will keep making her soul-inspiring artist supplies! My guess is that her paints infuse something in your work that the $2 paints will not? So cool.

  2. Good for you for finding a way to follow your convictions in your business venture! I'm sure your quilts are absolutely beautiful and I know your customers are thankful for your dedication!

  3. Thank you so much, CelloMom! Yes, the Watercolor Lady's paints are incredible. The color variations are never quite the same, which creates some beautiful images.

    Thank you, Crunchyfarmbaby! I hope that soon my sweetheart and I can agree to let me post pictures, lol.

  4. Sounds like you are putting good vibes out into the world that will be brought back to you and your business. Relationships are their own form of currency and are amazingly valuable.