Ethics and Globalization as seen through your backpack

These are two more spy shots of my North Fork Pack (which I’ll be doing a video about next week).

I post them because this pack is by far the most sophisticated and successful piece of gear I’ve ever made.  It carries far better than I could have hoped.

Eric’s link to this Cilogear blog post prompted me to organize thoughts I’ve had for a while about outdoor gear design, construction, and cost.  While the aforementioned post is primarily about distinctions between hand crafted (made by hand without machines) and craft made (made in little shops), I see the larger point as making a distinction between grassroots, sustainable shops and bigger companies using (to be blunt) slave labor.

Take the North Fork pack as an example.  I spent around $100 dollars on materials for it, though with plenty of fabric, straps, and grommets left over, call it $80 bucks in materials (fabric bought at cost, $20 spent on the pack straps on ebay, webbing and buckles from REI).  I spent around 6-7 hours actually cutting and sewing it together, about 2 hours making to-scale drawings before I laid rotary cutter to fabric, and an unquantifiable number of hours prior (spread over the last 18 months) designing it in my head. 

I am not fast at any of these things.  As you can see in the pictures, precision and detail are not my strong suits.  With the proto made and tested, I could probably make some templates, refine a few details, and make another one start to finish in 2-3 hours (if nothing got fucked up, which absent a real industrial bartacker is far from guaranteed when sewing at the limits of my machines capabilities).  My point is, designing and making gear the doesn’t suck takes a ton of time, even if you’re way better at efficiency than me.

Compare a small commercial pack with a small cottage gear pack to further the point.  Many of you own an Osprey Talon 22.  Go get it (seriously).  While there are a few things I’d improve, on the whole the Talon 22 is a brilliantly designed pack.  The harness system interacts with the sculpted side panels to make it amazingly stable.  It’s a complex design with a bunch of funky curved panels and seams that require serious exactness to work.  And it still costs $99.  To be frank, there’s no way Osprey can sell that pack at that price without someone along the production chain getting short changed.  I presume whomever sews these packs makes peanuts.

Now look at the Mountain Laurel Designs Newt, their newest and simplest pack, just introduced and selling for $77.  The Newt looks like a nifty little pack, and I use MLD both because I like most of their designs and because I consider them to be at the pinnacle of US cottage outdoor gear.  No one else comes close in regards to the range of products or fabrics they work with.  MLD has a reputation for good customer service and fairly prompt delivery.  I take it as a given that they have the daily details of their business dialed.

The Newt is a bit cheaper than the Talon 22, around the same size, and the Newt is probably made with more expensive fabric.  The design of the Newt is also massively less complex a piece of gear (it appears to made of 4 pieces of fabric, exclusive of the shoulder straps).  If Osprey made the Newt they’d have to charge half what MLD does to avoid cognitive dissonance.  REI does make a pack, the Flash 18, which from a design and construction standpoint is comparable to the Newt (again, with much cheaper fabric), and charged $29.50 for it. 

I think the conclusion that the difference in price goes towards paying employees living wages is inevitable (even given the differences in economy of scale between Osprey and MLD).  All of which amounts to my recent MYOG habit (make ya own gee-ah) having made me much more willing to pay more for good cottage gear.  My conscience rests easier when I do.  I, like so many of us, am so used to paying what I pay for things that it took a very personal, tactile engagment with the issue to shake loose my thoughts. 

I’m glad I eventually got there.

4 responses to “Ethics and Globalization as seen through your backpack”

  1. Interesting topic Dave. You saw this on the Osprey site?:….. I have traveled to Taiwan and Thailand on business, seeking to establish manufacturing *alliance* with vendors there. I went to the Cobra International factory north of Bangkok It was an amazing experience. The ONE thing that really blew my mind was the massive amount of handcrafted labor underlying most of their product line. SKILLED handcraft labor. Of course when average production line labor wages are $10 per day…you can afford to throw lots of it at a product. But if you live in shanty along a rice paddy it doesn't take much either. But most of the people that were involved in design, R&D and management were Thai. Expert upper level management was European or Australian and ownership were very wealthy Thai. Super nice, super professional from top to bottom. A first world manufacturing company by any standard.The Graham Williams from Cilogear guys "Handcrafted or craft manufactured, what’s the difference?" post is pretty much BS in my mind. This stuff is all contextual. What are we using for raw materials? I have some arrow heads in my collection that were definetly hand crafted by an native Californian many hundreds of years ago. Of course he or she didn't have a half million dollar Moore Jig Grinder to hew the chirt. But I bet you he or she had a very favorite and prized chipping TOOL rock. How could you handcraft a pencil? A pencil is a modern writing device. I suppose you could whittle the wood part with a chip of flint or bone but how would you make the graphite?. Why bother when a piece of charcoal from the fire worked just fine in the cave? I guess what I'm getting at is that so much of who *WE* are is a result of the way we came. Technology is us. A sewing machine is a legitimate handcrafting tool in my mind… much as a chip of flint. What I think you are getting at is the 'global wage arbitrage' dilemma. That's a big one and if there is *blood* from that then it is on EVERYONES hands.Sorry for the rant if it made any sense at all… but we seem to be affected by many of the same things…go figure!Buzz

  2. "That's a big one and if there is *blood* from that then it is on EVERYONES hands."Agree 100%, and well said.One thing this is not is simple.

  3. Even though I'm "involved" I think it's an interesting question. With the limited knowledge I've gained I know that there are some contract sewing mfg's overseas that provide well for their employees, and some that exploit- working 14hr days for peanuts, sharing dorms & meals for which they pay for – all to do it over again. Which are which? Don't expect the label to tell you.I think the Cilo Gear post has lots of merit – It's basically taking a stab at describing the difference from a one of a kind wood carving, and more of a small but successfull pottery studio – where they'd have molds for common shapes but are still made in small qtys with lots of attention to detail. The direct comparison would be Dan Mchale vs. Cilo.The pencil thing is just making fun of what people call hand crafted. Any idiot can sharpen a pencil…Sure grandma's quilt was made on a sewing machine and is "hand made", but when do you jump from "hand made" to "manufactured"? making 10 quilts at a time? go granny… it's a bit nebulous and that's what this is about.

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