"Wait a minute... where are you?" — It's the day before my 31st birthday, and my brother is calling me to wish me well and to catch up. It's been a few weeks, maybe months, since we've talked this time, and though we have a vague notion of what's going on in each other's lives, the daily specifics are often unknown—or more interestingly, filtered through our parents. So it's not surprising that he doesn't know friends and I have taken a long weekend to drive from Brooklyn to a dairy farm in Poughkeepsie. This isn't what amazes him, though—he is aware I've been taking a lot of these weekend excursions lately. But a farm? Doing farm chores, milking goats, shoveling cow manure, collecting eggs, getting disgustingly dirty and smelly? Well, this starts to fluster him. And I guess that's reasonable. As a father of two kids not yet in kindergarten, a lawyer with a house on a suburban cul-de-sac, a two-dog and two-SUV kind of guy, this stuff is pretty foreign to my brother, and up until a couple years ago, pretty foreign to me as well. He's driving home from the law office, and I'm collecting firewood in some very muddy boots. As we talk, the disparity between our current lives becomes remarkably clear.
Though to be fair, I get a similar reaction from a lot of people these days. It's not just the goat smell, either. It's that I'm really here on Sprout Creek Farm for a few odd reasons. First off, I was invited here to give a presentation to farmers and locals about my research and graphic design practice. Second, I'm here to meet people who make cheese. And third, I'm celebrating the one-year anniversary of my vow to meet the people who make everything that I buy. It's this third piece that surprisingly baffles, amazes, and, I've been told, inspires people who hear about it.
Though we grew up in a rural area, going back didn't always seem likely. In my early twenties, I would shop at every chance I had. It didn't matter that it meant I was living paycheck to paycheck. If I had money in my pocket, or in my bank account, I would be in a store on Newbury Street in Boston looking for new gadgets, clothes, shoes—stuff. Somehow I always felt like I was playing catch-up to all the shoppers around me. When I moved to New York a few years later, I felt a little more like a grown-up and my shopper's glare turned towards furniture and housewares, kitchen wares, and higher-priced gadgets. I was still living paycheck to paycheck, but I had much better looking stuff. As a designer myself, it's true that I took pride in finding unique items: refurbished antiques or pieces made by an independent little furniture maker. I had an interest in being non-traditional, and taking care in my purchases. But to be honest? The end goal was really just to have cooler stuff.
So what was it that made me launch into this experiment on my 30th birthday? Today it seems hard to understand, given the priorities in my life just a few years ago, but in the process it all seemed to make sense. My work had begun to encourage others to learn more about the businesses they were dealing with when they went shopping, to pay attention to where things were made, and what processes and materials went into them. I started to press for information about how workers were treated, and how corporations influenced other businesses they worked with—and I began to get quite critical of processes that I disagreed with. I designed a magazine intended to "overthrow the mass-produced lifestyle", and claimed there had to be another way. And it occurred to me that I needed to see if this lifestyle I was advocating was attainable: could someone be conscious and deliberate with every single transaction? Is it even feasible given our capitalist commercial culture, to live in a major urban area and think about consumption in a different way? I wanted to take the ideas of Where and How things are made one step further to consider Who it was that was making them. I wanted to know who my money was helping to support, what kind of conditions they labored in and what skills they had, to know what hands had assembled the things in my shopping bag.
As a designer and a writer whose work now encourages community building and raising awareness around consumerism, I finally realized that this critical inquiry was necessary, but did not go far enough. It had to be a starting point for proactive engagement. So instead of ignoring them completely, or only looking at their environmental impact, what if I saw in the lines of production I connected with through my purchases an opportunity to create a sense of community as well? I decided to see. For one year and counting, I have traveled to meet the folks that contributed to the creation of every product I bought, before I bought it, to see what I found. Along the way, I met a whiskey-barrel roller in Kentucky, factory workers in Maine, Massachusetts and California, farmers in rural Vermont and New York, and many entrepreneurs and food workers in surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods. More than just an education in where and how things were made, the value added to each item by my personal connection to other individuals whose hands created it has been priceless. It changes each transaction from merely a way for me to acquire more stuff—or more food—into an opportunity for me to support Gordon the local coffeeshop owner, Harold the bean roaster, and Mausi the organic coffee farmer in Nicaragua. I understand the long-term intentions of vegan restaurateur Deborah, and the personal history that lead eco-chemist Martin to develop and design environmentally-sustainable cleaning products. And I have a taste, and smell, for what Rebecca and Bonnie and their coworkers do each day to care for dozens of animals on a dairy farm. Free markets and an international economy mean that most of us no longer walk to a town square and talk to our butcher, cobbler, and blacksmith, but this doesn't necessarily render a human interaction impossible. The project has become an attempt to reveal the possibility and the reward of recognizing and engaging with the human chain alongside the production chain.
I didn't know what I would find when I embarked on this endeavor. I thought that I was a pretty conscious consumer, and I might not learn too much new. But in the self-imposed limitations, I quickly learned that I bought a lot more than I even realized. And I found that my inevitable consumer life tied me to communities of all sorts around the world. I even discovered an emotional attachment to particular cleaning products, foods, and beers because I had an understanding of what it was like to make them. And so it was on this journey that found myself on my birthday two hours outside New York milking goats, and at an even greater distance from my old understanding of how I was connected to the world.