Category Archives: Art & Illustration

The China Question (Ethics, Manufacturing, and Making a Living as an Artist)

This is going to be a messy stream of thoughts more than anything else, but it’s a question that’s been rattling around in my head for some time now.

I’ve been in the process of packing up my entire house in preparation for a move that was supposed to happen last year. Life and financial circumstances have thrown a wrench in my moving plans, as they have a habit of doing, but I should be on track to move some time in the late summer or fall.

But, as a result, my online store has been on haitus for some time now. All of my prints, stickers, journals and other merchandise have been packed away in storage, where they will likely stay until I get settled into my new place. In the meantime, I’ve been spending time not only making new art, but researching new merch that I might be able to sell once I re-open my online sales.

This has led me to a disheartening realization.

There are plenty of artists whom I follow online that have shops of their own. And I’ve purchased prints and other goods from these shops myself. I want to support my fellow artists after all, and the things that they create are far and above anything that I can find in mass-production.

However, I’ve come to learn that while the enamel pins, cute handbags and flower-covered skirts that I adore may have been designed by an independent artist, they were more than likely manufactured overseas in a Chinese factory, just like the items produced for large retailers.

I understand why artists would be tempted to do this. China has more manufacturing capabilities than any other country in the world. If you can dream it up, there’s a company in China that can manufacture it for you. Not only that, but they can do so for prices that make it possible for you to turn a profit on your merchandise. For an independent artist who may rely on merch sales for a large part of their income, it’s important to have profit margins of at least thirty percent on the items that you sell, with fifty percent or more being the ideal.

It sounds like a good deal. But in 2023, you would be hard-pressed to find a person who isn’t at least somewhat aware of the unsafe working conditions in Chinese factories, the poverty wages and inhumane hours that citizens are required to work, as well as the environmental impacts of China’s unregulated manufacturing practices.

Unethical business practices and human rights violations aside, there’s also the high probability of intellectual property theft when doing business with Chinese manufacturers. Many an artist has produced their enamel pins, jewelry and other items using a Chinese factory, only to see their original designs pop up on Ali Express, Wish, and other marketplaces months later, usually at a fraction of the price of buying it from the artist’s own store.

Clothing manufacturing workers in Guangzhou, China. (Source: Fashion Magazine)

None of this is uncommon knowledge. Human rights groups and consumers alike have known for decades that there is a human and environmental cost to the cheap manufacturing services that China can offer. Large corporations like Wal-Mart and Amazon continue to do business with them, because their main concern is to produce a product as cheaply as possible for a market of people who want to buy it as cheaply as possible. That kind of business model has come to be expected from them.

But, as independent creators and artists, I thought we were supposed to do better.

And yet, take a look on Etsy or take a stroll down the artist’s alley of any popular convention, and your eyes are sure to be graced with acrylic charms, enamel pins, plushies, clothing, novelty handbags and other items that had a Chinese manufacturer to thank for their existence.

I have continued to sit and ponder this dilemma, and there’s really no easy answer to be found here. Many popular items, such as enamel pins, can’t be manufactured anywhere else but China due to regulations that are designed to keep our air, water, and soil uncontaminated. And while an artist may be able to find a factory in the United States, United Kingdom, or other country with higher labor standards, they may not be able to make enough profit off of the items to make a living selling them.

So what is there left to do?

There are some signs pointing to improving conditions in the Chinese labor market. But, so far, these cases seem to be the exception. Unless things improve in a more permanent, widespread way, are artists just supposed to turn a blind eye to the labor practices that their money is supporting?

We need to make a living. But the idea of making a living as an artist at the cost of human suffering makes me feel ill.

I’ve done my best to make sure all of my merchandise is manufactured stateside – my prints come from New York, my journals are printed in Schaumburg, Illinois, and my wooden charms were handmade by Arcanic Artistry – a company who, at the time, was run out of a garage three miles from my home in Orlando, Florida. But it’s become clear to me that this stance is greatly hindering both my profit margins, as well as the variety of merchandise that I will be able to offer.

There’s an irony to being able to make a living selling products that you designed yourself, but relied on cheap overseas manufacturing to produce. Being a full-time artist means that you don’t have to rely on low-paying, back-breaking labor to make ends meet. You are able to use the skills you’ve cultivated to do work that makes you happy. It’s just a shame if you are only able to do so because someone else, whom you will ever meet or see, is shouldering the burden of the low-paying, back-breaking labor that you managed to avoid.

I’m going to continue digging deep in my search for more ethical, local manufacturing options. If that means that there will never be a single enamel pin in my store, so be it. I feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface of what might be available out there, but I’m willing to keep doing the work.

(If any artists out there have any tips and tricks for finding ethical manufacturers who are willing and able to work with small, independent companies, then feel free to share them below.)

We can do better. We need to do better.