The word "artisanal" gets a lot of play these days — code for the recent explosion of hipster-created small-batch specialty foods, craft whiskey, hand-forged earrings and repurposed wood furniture.
For many, it’s a delightful trend harkening back to a simpler time when woodworkers, silversmiths and other artisans made a good living crafting one-of-a-kind items by hand, people shopped locally and food came from the farmer next door or your own garden. It was a time before big-box stores, mass-produced cookie-cutter goods and labyrinthine global supply chains.
But what if today’s artisanal movement is something more than just a charming retro fad? What if people could actually make a decent living by embracing old ways? What if the rise of 21st century artisans is the start of a new economy?
That’s what Harvard economist Lawrence Katz believes may be happening. He calls it the "artisan economy," and suggests in a "PBS NewsHour" interview that this new take on old careers is allowing people, particularly those with liberal arts educations, to carve out a secure middle-class life.
Crafting new careers
Artisanal occupations aren’t all about creating uniquely imagined sweet sriracha pickles, raw organic kombucha and hand-dyed merino wool socks, though that’s certainly a big piece of the movement. Artisanal jobs also can fall into traditional career sectors like childcare and financial services. What makes them artisanal is that they’re imbued with what Katz calls “personal flair” and creative thinking.
“There’s no reason that a home health aide needs to be a low-wage generic job where you’re just essentially doing babysitting,” Katz notes in a Roosevelt Institute video. More people are now taking control of their own financial destinies and upward mobility by using their education, ingenuity and entrepreneurial sweat to offer innovative new products and services, or reimagine old ones. Thus, a well-educated, creative home-health aide might find a new way of understanding clients and add a novel touch that catapults what’s often considered a drudge job into a well-paying, high-demand calling.
Hear more about Katz’s vision for transforming low-wage work into lucrative artisanal businesses and careers.
The following artisan economy professions represent just a handful of the unique small businesses and entrepreneurs charting a new economic path. They haven’t taken over the world … yet. But they may well reflect the future of work.
Food waste entrepreneur
Spinning food waste into treasure may well be the next gold rush. According to a report in The New York Times, dozens of new companies are looking to transform the estimated 40 percent of food that gets tossed in this country into useful new products. Business ideas include creating mushroom growing kits that use organic waste like old coffee grounds (see video), collecting food waste from grocery stores and restaurants to create compost for sale to nurseries and gardeners, an online service that links farms and wholesalers who have unwanted or slightly damaged produce to charities, recyclers that convert food waste to energy such as biodiesel and electricity, and eateries that serve only rescued food.
There was a time when the town butcher, general store and cobbler all had a personalized hand-painted sign in the window or on the side of their building. In the days before social media and digital signs, designing and painting these creative advertisements was a respected art form. For some, like Kelly Golden and Jordan Zielke, it still is. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 2009, they studied with master sign painter Doc Guthrie at Los Angeles Trade Tech College and opened the Golden Sign Co. Inspired by the economic renewal taking place in Detroit, they headed back to Michigan and began offering their artistic hand-painted window signs, building murals, truck logos and other old-school creations to up-and-coming Motor City businesses looking for a distinctive artisanal edge.
As the number of bike-friendly cities grows — think Detroit, Portland and even Moab, Utah — demand for unique, custom-built bicycles has also exploded. Artisan bicycle builders have popped up wherever bike culture is flourishing. Their mission: to fulfill the yearning for non-mass-produced cycles handcrafted with artistry and soul — bikes tailored to each cyclist’s frame and riding style. The industry, which is actually a collection of mostly solo bike artisans and small shops, even has its own trade shows, including the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, launched in 2005.
You might not automatically link artisanal with finance, but that doesn’t mean a craftsman-like attention to detail and design can’t take hold in the world of money. As CBS’s "60 Minutes" recently reported, a brewing financial tech revolution aims to remake stodgy banking into a faster, less expensive, more personalized digital experience. New upstart ideas include an app that allows entrepreneurs anywhere to accept online payments in minutes without all the bank paperwork, and Simple, an online Portland, Oregon bank that has repurposed the impersonal, fee-hungry big-bank model to fit the digital age. It offers all the services most banks do but without fees and with plenty of tailored, customer-focused mobile tools for budgeting and saving.
Most of us assume our college degrees will lead to professional jobs, but not everyone is suited for sitting behind a desk all day or hassling with clients. Even with a B.A. in hand, some people find they just want to make an honest living providing a useful (though not necessarily glamorous) service — like pest management. At least, that's how it was for biology major Colin Hickey and business major Todd McNamara who started Green Planet Pest Control, a Boston-based, ecologically responsible exterminating business. Fighting pests in homes and businesses using natural and non-toxic methods may not sound like a college grad’s dream, but the duo credit their education with helping them successfully conceptualize and market their green approach.
Kerry Mills studied business at Arizona State University, but after graduating she felt called to work with older people in nursing homes who were suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. She was disappointed, though, that elderly residents weren’t encouraged to continue living their lives and following their passions. In the artisan tradition, she carved out a new profession for herself: dementia coach. Today, through her company Engaging Alzheimer’s, she trains nursing-home staff and private caretakers to work creatively with Alzheimer’s patients to ensure their individuality and interests are respected and encouraged.
With the hectic pace of life, laundry is often the first to hit the bottom of our to-do list. In recent years, artisanal-minded champions of clean have donned their entrepreneurial hats to help us all keep our clothes smelling fresh. There are now several locally based, on-demand, eco-friendly laundry and dry cleaning services that let you drop off and pick up clothes at your building concierge desk, in special lockers around the city, at work, at store locations and even at home. Many offer a quick 24-hour turnaround. Philadelphia’s Wash Cycle Laundry, launched in 2010 by social entrepreneur Gabriel Mandujano, even delivers clean-and-green laundry by bike, employing former drug addicts, inmates and homeless people looking to restart their lives.
Everyone wants sustainable, locally grown produce, but for city and suburban dwellers, it’s often hard to find food that’s not shipped from faraway farms. Enter urban agriculture, an exploding area of food production with a $9 billion potential, according to a white paper by the Indoor Agriculture Conference. Urban farmers are plying their age-old trade in numerous creative new ways — from growing crops outside in empty city lots and on rooftops to launching high-tech indoor farms using aquaponics and other non-soil methods. One example is Gotham Greens, started in 2009 by Viraj Puri and Eric Haley. The company supplies hydroponically grown, pesticide-free local produce year-round to restaurants, retail stores and food-service customers via four commercial-scale sustainable rooftop greenhouses in New York City and Chicago.
No, this isn’t a throwback to bygone days when ice was cut from frozen ponds and rivers and stored in ice houses for year-round delivery. Today’s ice artisans are jumping on the craft cocktail bandwagon and offering specially frozen, hand-cut ice cubes for mixed-drink connoisseurs who want the full artisanal experience. As reported in Mother Jones, there are now at least 20 artisanal ice makers in the U.S., specializing in large-size, crystal-clear cubes that are carved by hand with band saws and other specialized tools of the trade.
Specialty food and beverage manufacturer
Homemade food and beverage devotees have perhaps benefited most from the artisanal movement with its abundance of edible and drinkable creations. In fact, these craft concoctions have become nearly synonymous with the artisan movement. There’s a reason the above video picked a couple of fictional hipster artisanal water makers to spoof. All ribbing aside, though, specialty eats and drinks are on fire. Just witness the list of startup food and beverage tenants in the old Pfizer building in Brooklyn (an artisanal hotspot). Also there is Brooklyn Food Works, a new culinary incubator offering commercial cooking space and business mentoring.
Sustainable flower grower/florist
The farm-to-table mentality has moved beyond food to encompass all things agricultural. That includes flowers. This new farm-to-vase movement has grown by 20 percent in last five years with at least 6,000 flower farms now operating in the U.S., according to a Modern Farmer article. That means more local sustainably grown blooms for consumers seeking an alternative to flowers imported from industrial farms (which represent 80 percent of the market). It also means plenty of business opportunities not just for floriculture farmers but also for florists, like Farmgirl Flowers. Launched in San Francisco in 2010 by Christina Stembel, the artisan florist uses locally grown flowers, wraps bouquets in reused burlap coffee bags, and in addition to shipping nationwide delivers locally by bicycle or energy-efficient car.