What would be the benefit if we could replace one thing we buy that is mass produced with something we make? What if you had the ability to weave your own rug easily, throw or design or your own mug, make your own cutting board and eliminate the need to buy it at the store?
I thought it would be beneficial to compare a mass produced item to a handmade item through its life cycle. These observations, by no means, are backed by specific data, but should serve as a base point for conversation.
Material extraction: Basic materials may be extracted the same, depending on choice. However, a maker has the ability to choose local, better quality, recycled, or less toxic materials that something mass-produced may give you limited choices. For handmade products, materials will be the largest cost burden.
Processing: The material processing will depend on the choices above. Any purchased unfinished materials will give the maker the ability to control this process, such as the milling of wood. Both material extraction and processing are usually too high up on the supply chain to really know full transparency of environmental effects and labor conditions. For instance, sourcing fibers can be extremely difficult to track since they can be sourced from many different suppliers then combined during processing. A knitter interested in her fibers source, could purchase wool from local farms and know exactly how the sheep were raised, how the sheep were sheered, and if any dyeing or other processes took place.
Design: Handmade items allow for the greatest level of customization. Mass produced items have a predetermined design that can be minimally or not changed by the user. On the other hand, there are many products that benefit from having a design and engineering team that can focus on this process.
Manufacturing/Labor: One of the most controversial social aspects to product manufacturing is labor conditions. The majority of products that we purchase are manufactured in other countries whose standards vary greatly from what we have determined safe in the US. As consumers, we lack the access to information regarding labor conditions, how waste is being handled, what toxins are employees and the products exposed to, what type of energy is being consumed (etc) in the manufacturing of products. Buying handmade or making it oneself removes the guesswork.
Transportation: Transporting materials/products from overseas usually occurs by freighter or airfreight. Products are then distributed and sent by train or truck and further distributed till it reaches the retail destination (and ultimately the home.) Products travel a long way to reach us. Patagonia has even admitted this is their bold Footprint Chronicles which tracks where a few of their products are made.
Use: The use life will differ on the behavior of the user. However, if we contain the knowledge to make something, then we are more likely to know how to fix it as well. The use life can also be argued a few different ways. It is possible that something handmade doesn't hold the high quality that something manufactured does...or that statement could be said the exact other way.
Disposal: We all know it is all much harder to dispose of a gift that someone else has made us. The meaning behind the gift is far greater than any store bought item can produce. It is the reason that my Mom still has horrible ugly art pieces I made when I was little. Planned obsolescence, on the other hand, are products that are designed to have a limited use is what is leading us to trash the majority of things we buy. Booooo.
While we can't make everything ourselves, we can make small changes to bring more handmade items into our lives. Making one item ourselves can reduce the negative environmental and social affects of the mass produced version of it. Its worth a shot.