By EconomyRoland on May 30, 2012
A case study shows things done well, things done not so well and things left undone. It can be read as inspiring and encouraging at the cost of unrealistic pompous arrogance or as an honest account at the cost of being thought stupid. At the risk of both these readings, I offer my tale.
When I started my first business I was determined that it should be both Quaker and ethical and if I could not run the business ethically I did not want to be in business. The journey of those two businesses is another story. I started my furniture restoration business for various personal and career reasons but having arrived here I found huge scope for ethical behaviour, and I found myself in a modern version of Bunyan’s Slough of Despond.
Restoring furniture is inherently about recycling and reuse. The life of a piece of furniture is extended by repair, refurbishment and reconstruction. Furniture is one of the first methods that early humans used to make life more comfortable. Most furniture at least from ancient times was made of wood; assembled with animal glue or leather and padded with wool; covered with textiles of rush, linen, jute, cotton and silk; carved and decorated with inlays of rare materials. All these are natural materials and almost all of them are renewable and from sustainable sources (if farmed appropriately). Traditional furniture is repairable, and maintainable whereas furniture of chipboard and plastic is not.
Traditional furniture was made by hand using tools available locally or made by the craftsman himself. Hand work is highly efficient in energy. The trade-off is that it takes longer and requires both knowledge and skill but less technology and machinery.
I use electric and gas-powered tools for best effect on rough and heavy work. My most carbon-hungry tool is the van I use for collecting and delivering furniture and visiting suppliers. It runs on LPG as well as petrol so its carbon footprint is low but maintenance is high. The money cost per mile is much the same as a petrol or diesel vehicle, so there is no economic advantage.
I have no credit cards or loans. I use an ethical bank. My local meeting supports my business by allowing me to use the meeting house as a workshop and reluctantly tolerates the clutter of broken furniture, tools and materials. Without their support the business would not have been possible.
I have no leverage over my supply chains since many of the materials that I use are unusual or rare or the work requires high-quality or old materials. Often there are only one or two possible suppliers and in cases like traditional slot-head screws, they are dwindling.
Not only is maintenance much less glamorous than the drama of new, creative products, it is also much more difficult. One is constrained by the existing design, the existing craftsmanship and is affected by the deterioration and ageing of the materials. Restoration demands study and creativity but in the invisible treatments. Indeed a good restoration is itself almost in visible. It is certainly a long way from the routine of mass production. As I entered the furniture restoration trade I was told my work showed no evidence of creativity. It rankles. Unknown to the guilty academic, in previous lives I had conducted successful research projects and created many IT solutions.
Before concluding that the high price of an ethical restoration is good value for money, remember that a business, whether ethical or not, must balance its books and make a living profit. There can be no charity without profit. The cost of restoration is as much or more than the price of new and is comparable to the commercial value at auction.
On learning that I am a furniture restorer most friends say “Oh, how interesting. That must be very satisfying!”. This harks back to the Arts and Crafts movement in which the Quaker Stanley Webb Davies was a major player. The movement tried to ennoble hand work and highlighted the spiritual value of ‘craft’ work in reaction to the dehumanising of Victorian industrialisation.
Returning to University and leaving my previous career behind I was diagnosed as not only dyslexic (trouble with reading and language) which I suspected, but dyspraxic (problems with motor control). On hearing this, my doctor told me I was doing the wrong thing. He was right, but I was committed and could not see any easy way out. Hand work is hard work. But for other gifts, I would have failed the degree.
Entering a world of art and handwork was a culture shock. Its culture, values, practices, expectations and understandings were utterly different from those of science, business and psychology. I was deeply disturbed by taking so long to do what others did easily and elegantly. With each task come the fear of getting it wrong, doing damage, failing, being blamed, being vilified, being rejected by customers and restorers and the fear of not making a success of the business. Stopping was not an option: the only way was forward. I began to recognise signs of tiredness, escape and depression. It was devastating to realise that I would never be good at my chosen trade and probably could not even achieve competence.
Some of the stepping-stones back were to bring science, art, psychology and practice into harmony. The Friends Quarterly essay competition stimulated me to review my Quakerism and so find a way forward. My problem was not stress but the burn-out of a candle denied oxygen: I had too little intellectual and social stimulation.
Slowly things improved. I worked faster, with more confidence. More challenging tasks came my way. The failures were mostly in my head, not with my hands. The customers were satisfied, even if I was not.
Was it worth it, economically, socially, ethically, and so on? Probably not: only time will tell: I am too close to see clearly. I feel a very different person from ten years ago. I am better equipped for ministry than ever before.
My tale of aspiration, failure, success and depression holds cautions and perhaps inspiration or comfort for anyone who follows a route of lifestyle change, commitment to ethical behaviour or putting a principle into practice. I am encouraged by ministry at BM 2011 to share my tale. Take heed, dear Friends.
Roland Carn, Finchley local meeting, in BYM at Canterbury