Recently I was in a shoe factory. Well, it used to be a shoe factory. Now it is a coffee shop and gallery.
We needed to meet with our partners in our book publishing business, Bill and Lorraine. We meet in Perth, which is a midpoint between our two homes. Perth is a quaint small town in Eastern Ontario that used to be a very busy manufacturing town, located on the Tay River, which feeds into the Rideau Canal. Sometimes we meet at the Code Mill, which is a restored cotton mill, which now houses a coffee shop. On this particular day we met at the Factory Grind coffee shop. It’s located in the Old Perth Shoe Factory building. They used to make, yes, you guessed it, shoes at this factory.
We sat on these nice big couches in front of a fireplace. OK, it was an electric fireplace. The walls are decorated with art from local artists and are available for purchase. While Michelle was getting her coffee and I was guarding her laptop, I was looking at one of the big paintings that were for sale. And I was thinking about the reality of the former Perth Shoe Factory. (https://sites.google.com/site/theoldperthshoefactory/history)
I had recently been looking through our old photo album and looking at pictures of myself in public school. And I was thinking about how everyone in the photo was wearing leather shoes. And how the shoes would probably have been made in Canada. And they were well made. They would have been passed down from one kid to another in a family. I don’t believe this is the case very often anymore with our petroleum-based shoes. And I was thinking about how 50 years ago our clothes were also probably made in North America. And some of our parents might have been employed in the manufacture of the stuff we were wearing.
And there I was in a coffee shop, in a factory that used to make shoes, that now serves coffee. And sells art. And I was thinking, what is it we do today? What do we make? How do we earn all this income that allows us to outsource all of our manufacturing to other countries?
Now don’t me wrong. I understand capitalism. I have worked in business since I was 15, so 35+ years. I’ve owned my own business for more than 25 years. I get it. I understand specializing and economies of scale. I guess I also understand about moving production to where costs are the lowest, although I’m not sure I accept this as a sound principle anymore. There is something about all this “free trade” that I find deeply unsettling. I’m sure it has a lot to do with my profound belief that we have passed peak oil, and that there is a fundamental flaw on relying on someone 10,000 miles away to keep you clothed. Especially with stuff that’s made of the stuff we’re running out of.
And now, we sit around, and drink coffee. Perth is close to Canada’s capital city of Ottawa and there seems to be a lot of retired people living there. Many worked for the government. And now we have a service-based economy. People provide services. We write code. We push paper around. We work in retail complexes that amalgamate stuff made a long way away, from the cheapest source they can find. And everyone spends his or her time in pursuit of this stuff. And coffee. In Ontario, our manufacturing sector has been hit really hard since the economic collapse in 2008. It was having a hard time prior to that. Michelle’s Dad spent his working life at Stelco – The Steel Company of Canada, which once had 12,000 employees. Now, when they’re not closed, they have about 700.
I am not an economist. Economists seem to think this new service-based economy is great. We add value. We process information. Moving pixels on a computer is the new shoe manufacturing. Only there’s no glue and nails required! It’s so much more glamorous. Now I’m sure you can get custom designed shoes, made just for you, in the color you like. And there’s an “app” to order them. And we wrote that app!
I don’t think this is a good thing though. I think it’s better to make “stuff.” Canadians are notorious for shipping our raw materials like trees to other places to have them made into “stuff” like furniture.
ABC News has been running “Made in America” segments for a while. They started by going into peoples’ homes and taking out everything that wasn’t made in America. Basically the people were left with an empty house. Then they began highlighting an American manufacturer that still makes things people can buy.
I am not suggesting that I am not part of the problem. I like cheap stuff. I am amazed at how cheap stuff has become. Sometimes I don’t even bother to pay attention to where stuff is made. I think this started about a decade ago when I decided to treat myself to new skates. I had been using used ones forever and decided at my age and skating on crappy pond ice I should finally get some proper ankle support. This is when I discovered that you couldn’t buy Canadian made skates. You can buy skates from a Canadian company, but they are made in places like Malaysia, or Indonesia. Do people in those countries spend a lot of time skating? I’ll bet not. And yet, they make our skates. I’m sure the manufacturer claimed that competition forced them to seek out the lowest cost place to make skates.
And yet, I’ll bet if you put a “Made in Canada” or “Made in America” sticker on the box, Canadians would be willing to pay a premium. We have nothing against people in other countries, but just want to buy skates from our neighbors who make them. Whenever my car needs new tires, I make a point of buying “Goodyear” brand tires because we have a Goodyear plant nearby that employs many of my neighbours.
I think many things could transpire to move more of our manufacturing back to North America. I think it will be a good thing.
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