Why Do Artisans Undercharge?

I am a custom designer. I also provide mentorship and design services for ethical artpreneurships.

I am in dozens of hobbyist groups online where you inevitably see a regular trickle of questions like, “How much do you sell your __ for?” There’s no shortage of advice given – in fact, usually there’s a pile on in the comments, all kinds of conflicting advice espoused by people who have never run a business, who are helming one that is soon to fail, or who briefly tried before bailing.

(Pro-tip: get advice from people who succeed, who are happy while succeeding, and who are succeeding without grossly exploiting themselves and/or others!)

Let’s focus for a minute on my particular field. I’m going to do a tiny bit of a deep dive, and I hope you stick with me. I promise: it’s relevant.

Garment-making is interesting because it is such an exploitive industry. In America, consumers have a vested interest in waving off clothing as somehow “frivolous” – fashion is frivolous – or even a “want” and not a need. Everyone needs and wants clothes, but somehow garment makers deserve to work for pennies. Because after all: garments are fashion, and fashion is “frivolous”.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. Why do we position clothing in this way? Short answer: to shirk our responsibility; to attempt to avoid being overwhelmed by the grim facts.

We studiously ignore the fact that all clothes are handmade – human beings sit at these machines, and they often sit for hours, and they often endure a horrible work day, zero employment rights, and no health coverage. 98% of our clothes are made abroad; those manufactured domestically are often made in non-ideal or even deplorable conditions (“Made in the USA” is no guarantee of ethical production or fair worker conditions). Several of the garments you are wearing right now might have been made by a Latina factory worker in LA earning three dollars an hour, or a Bangladesh woman making 30 cents an hour.

We pretend clothes just kind of magically show up on racks at astonishingly cheap prices and poor construction – and that this isn’t a massive, engineered system exploiting (surprise!) mostly women of color, and the global south – and benefitting Capitalist billionaires and their middlemen.

We position the closet clean-out thrift store run as virtuous and we like to imagine that these clothes make it to someone in need; however, over 80% of the garments dumped at the thrift shop are next-stop landfill, as secondhand stores are overwhelmed by poor-quality clothes. Those that aren’t immediately landfilled are baled up and shipped to the global south (such as Pakistan and Malaysia) where they are picked over by children working for pennies a day.

We’re just using our thrift store “donation” as a free landfill. We don’t have to see what happens next; we don’t have to take responsibility for our fast fashion choices.

Amazingly, we simultaneously pretend that small ethical shops or custom creators like myself are beneath notice – we are “luxury” rather than “true cost”. Supposed ethical fashion influencers mostly ignore us – praising our quality perhaps, then in the next breath making sure to say we are “too expensive”, rather than a sound financial investment. If we truly want to look at the cost of a garment, we should look at the cost per-wear: and we should look at the cost to the planet, and the ecosystems and sentient beings involved in producing the garment.

We pretend small-batch, well-made (and often near-zero waste) clothes are helplessly out of our reach – rather than committing to buying a piece a year or a piece a month or whatever, and taking advantage of the many zero-interest payment plans on offer.

Worst of all, we fail to support these businesses in any way at all. We don’t Like their page, we don’t thank these small shops for what they do. In social media spaces we don’t defend their price point as closer to the true cost of a garment. We brag about the $10 hoodie we “scored” on sale.

All of the above – and more – are our attempts to benefit as Westerners and to ignore the aggregate cost of our retail choices.

We get what we need – clothes, tons of cheap, often poorly-made clothes – while ignoring the exploitation (planet, human, animal) entities tortured and sacrificed in this highly-commoditized industry. We have the luxury of choice and a rapid fashion cycle and a new IG outfit every week; we inflict poverty on marginalized workers and devastation on their ecosystems.

This is as short a summation on our clothing industry – 368 billion dollars in the U.S. alone – as I can write.

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Now, if you feel overwhelmed and sad – I get it.

If you feel guilty – don’t bother – not on my account at least. I am not here to assuage your guilt, I am here to offer solutions of a kind. (In fact, I am very busy helping with solutions!) I promise, I have hope to offer. (And: thank you for reading this far!)

So let’s shift gears.

Let’s get back to the would-be artisan, an artisan of any stripe (not just a garment-maker), who wants to start (or improve) their small business.

After reading what I’ve written here – just touching on the garment industry – is anyone wondering, at all, why an artisan or maker might at first undercharge?

Most makers, artisans, and tradespeople undercharge as they get started and sometimes for months or years. To shame them for doing so or lecture them seems incredibly bad-faith when you consider what they are up against (and that isn’t even touching the inner monologue an artisan might have about their worth or self-esteem or career path!).

Artisans undercharge in large part because American culture is so commoditized and because capitalism is built upon some very dark tenets: it hides who it exploits, and it is selective about who it exploits most.

So you, the artisan, you are a tiny boat in this dark and monstrous sea. You are the person I want to reach and to encourage (and I also want to educate your friends, so they encourage you as well)! You want to charge a rate that allows you to simply survive, to create. You want to charge a rate that means you can practice your trade/art/craft, and still feed your children or pay your rent. You want to charge a rate that that means you can do things that are important to you: maybe so you can zero-waste your production, or buy source materials with an ethical provenance. You want to charge a rate that means you can continue to expand your own artistic or business acumen. You want to charge a rate that means you can afford healthcare – or hey, even days off!

For a business to be truly self-supporting, our rate not only needs to include materials and time and equipment maintenance and supplies – but all other business expenses which are myriad (and often overwhelm a Creative, who rarely enjoys thinking about all of these things). Shipping and handling, cameras and laptops, subscriptions (to Zoom Pro or Canva or trade associations or whatever), business insurance (yes you need it!), any marketing materials or advertisements, professional services (pay your artists and graphic designers and collaborators!), and pro-rated studio space/rent, utilities, phone and internet.

Many would-be professional artisans look at that list and feel discouraged. They quickly come to believe what they hear in hobbyist groups: that it’s not possible. That they will have to charge their customers “so much that no one will buy”. They either give up – or just offer their wares as gifts/cost of materials (I did the latter for a long while). Their artistic development slows down to a fraction of what it could be; their access to the amazing materials and equipment that could help them flourish, is choked off immediately. Their ability to financially support other artisans is, naturally, very limited.

This is what happens to far too many. A lucrative and ethical artpreneurship seems like “it’s just not possible” –

but this is not how it is.

Or rather, that’s not how it has to be, if you’re open-minded to solving this problem.

Some thoughts:

Someone will buy your quality work. And there will be enough Someones. There will always be people out there who want quality; and there will always be people out there who don’t want to exploit others, who want to pay a fair wage. There are also, incredibly, many people out there willing to take a risk, willing to support you, who do not require perfection of you but who want to build something with you. They want to pay you for your art or your craft, yes. But more than that, they want to be a part of you building a successful, joyful, ethical business. They can’t do what you can do. But they can pay you! That is their participation in building your craft. They want to see you succeed. And it’s up to you to help them participate in the way that best suits you. (I can help you do this!)

Your clients won’t know how to build your business for you. But they are ready to support you.

Finding those people, and finding how to market and present what you offer them, is key.

Many would-be professional artisans never get started – at all. And that’s a damn shame. (I always add here: no Creative need feel they are less legit if she is not earning money and/or doesn’t want to. I have never said you need to professionalize nor do I believe that. Moving on:)

It is not easy to start a cottage or artisan business but I have to say, my entire life changed when I committed to professionalizing. I have been able to donate to more philanthropic efforts. I’ve been able to create with better materials and equipment. I’ve been able to help other artisans (and pay them!), and I’ve met the most amazing clients and friends. I paid off our family debt. I began to play – all day, every day! – and I’m paid to play.

My skills as a talented hobbyist were pretty solid. My skills as a professional have taken off exponentially.

And trust me, I undercharged – quite a lot – at first. Eventually, I started sorting out the right price point(s).

There is one more thing I want to say to close this piece out.

I started mentoring for ethical Creative business in large part because I want to improve the health of our planet. I can improve the health of our planet one well-made garment at a time, and that’s pretty fantastic. But a while ago I realized that if I could help the would-be Creative or would-be ethical professional, that would be potentially a greater positive effect than making a perfect pair of long-lasting jeans. That is my primary reason I started creative mentorship and instruction. I want to make a bigger difference.

For those who are ready, I want to help change their lives the way that my life was changed.

Thank you for reading.

And thank you for all your support – in the one hundred billion ways you support me.