Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Knock it off

A recent post at Apartment Therapy kicked up the old "licensed vs. knock-offs" debate again, and it got me thinking.

I'm honestly quite torn on this. To a large extent, I agree with one of the commenters on the original post about IP being a less important consideration than issues of sustainability and fair working conditions. If a licensed reproduction is produced in a way that is closer to my principles than an unlicensed reproduction, that's certainly a mark in its favor.

On the other hand, how can Herman Miller justify charging $829 for a 15" walnut stool? The original creator (as well as her estate) has long since been adequately remunerated for her intellectual property.

I've also been at a loss to find any information on the Herman Miller or Vitra websites about where the walnut for this piece comes from or under what conditions it's made. Does it come from an FSC-certified forest? Is the laminate or glue low-VOC? Is it made in the US or other developed country where workers are paid a living wage? Is it made in a union shop?

These are the issues that are important to me, but none of the online retailers I've found provide any information about them. What this tells me is that the appeal of licensed reproductions has less to do with what I consider to be the real value of an object, and more to do with the label.

That said, I still love that stool. I love the lines and the richness of the wood. My M.O. is to haunt Craigslist and other resources until I find one, used. This also prevents the waste and resource use inherent in buying anything new, licensed or not. And if the seller wants to give me a certificate of authenticity, I'll take it and put it in a file folder somewhere, on the off chance I'll need to sell it in the future to some other brand-whore.

Many argue that intellectual property is inviolate, and that if you can't afford the real thing, you should refrain altogether. Leaving aside the fact that it's impractical to ask people to sit or sleep on the floor rather than buy a knock-off (yes, I slept on a blanket in our college apartment for three weeks because I didn't have enough money for a bed), I'm accustomed to doing without until I can afford to pay cash (not credit) for quality. I didn't own a car until a few years after college because I could take the bus to work, and I was raised to believe that car payments are stupid. When I had $7,000 saved up, I bought a used Subaru and drove it with virtually no problems for years.

That's an example of my individual priorities, though, and I'm a terrible hypocrite when it comes to certain things. Like those acrylic tables I ordered last week that were probably made in China. And the Ikea wool rug I bought when I decorated my first house many years ago, which was probably made by child labor, or at least in some third-world hellhole of poverty and abuse. I try to keep my consumption of such things to a minimum, but sometimes my needs, my wants, and my cheapitude get the better of my intentions.

The older I get, the more I try to bring my actions in line with my ideals. Of course, the older I get the more money I have to pay for those ideals, so I can't condemn the choices of those without the resources I have.

In the end, any douchebag with $5,000 to burn can afford a Barcelona lounge chair. It's high-end mass produced, but it's still mass produced. I honestly don't see value in it equal to the cost, especially if there are no guarantees that $5,000 pays for the qualities that truly matter to me, and not just a sticker underneath where I park my ass.

No comments: