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Is it economic heresy to suggest that sustainable businesses are as vital to a healthy economy as scalable businesses?

As the national development agency for craft, the Crafts Council works with a high number of microbusinesses, including international brands such as Tom Dixon and Wright & Teague as well as sole traders like Rebecca Gouldson and Elaine Bolt. Craft businesses range from the traditional (those working with familiar tools and materials such as metal, ceramic, wood) to the fused economy of makers using their skills to innovate across the economy.

Our new set of Craft in Industry cards illustrate how craft skills are integral to product development in industries across the economy. The cards tell the story of nine businesses, each representing one of the many disciplines within:

  • Manufacturing; 1882 Ltd, Benchmark, Harris Tweed

  • Technology; Unmade, Vanessa Cutler/OMAX, Smile Plastics

  • Other creative industries where craft mindsets are applied to add economic, cultural and social value; Phoebe English, Cod Steaks, Bentley Motors

The craft economy, like the wider creative industries, comprises of mainly sole traders, a growth sector in UK employment, as the RSA’s Future Work Centre has highlighted in The Second Age of Small and subsequent research on the self-employed sector. The government’s Industrial Strategy white paper and the Creative Industries Sector Deal offer an opportunity to look afresh at how we support such businesses. The Crafts Council has analysed the needs of craft micros and the challenges they face in contributing to future UK growth. To unlock the full potential of craft skills in industry, we found such businesses need the following (reflected in our Craft in Industry cards):

  • Better access to investment in facilities and equipment

  • Skills support to grow their effectiveness

  • Improved regulation to assist in employing freelancers flexibly when needed

  • Structured opportunities to identify complementary skills and to collaborate on product development

  • Business mentoring advice on approaches to scaling up and exporting

Too often, the language and level of detail of available advice and support is targeted at SMEs with more employees, and at ideas that are immediately scalable. Yet this ability to work independently and on their own terms is often a driver for self-employed makers and other creatives. James Kennedy, of Kennedy City Bicycles, says “I get to meet my customers, discuss the design of their bicycle, build it, take them on test rides, teach them how to maintain and service it. I feel really privileged to do that for so many people” (Makers of East London, May 2015, Hoxton Mini Press). He pushes this idea further, in ways that aren’t always welcomed by those promoting business growth; “People criticise us for being an ‘idea that doesn’t scale’, but I bloody love being an idea that doesn’t scale”. At this time of passionate reactions to the perceived powerlessness created by globalisation, the desire to take control of one’s own skills and outputs is strong.

The desire to establish a business such as Kennedy City Bicycles is likely to be motivated by the need to generate an income. But the creation of a sustainable business that creates personal satisfaction, as well as an income, over a longer period is clearly a factor in the business choices of many makers. As we seek to implement the Creative Industries Sector Deal with the Government, how can we ensure that support is tailored to recognise that sustainability is a legitimate business goal? And, in the process, do we need to redefine the ‘growth’ agenda to facilitate the healthier economy that this implies?

Julia is a Fellow, and the Crafts Council’s Head of Research and Policy. As an experienced researcher, policy specialist and strategist, Julia leads socio-economic research into the craft sector and undertakes advocacy campaigns, writing, speaking and publishing on craft and making.

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