When a startup design company from Buenos Aires launched a Kickstarter campaign, they decided to test a new experiment in transparency: Through a live stream, anyone who backs the campaign can watch their bookshelf or coat rack being made in real time.
"I think the live stream is the starting point of true transparency," says Mariquel Waingarten, co-founder of Sudacas, the startup. Waingarten was struck by how brands with a social impact often sounded the same, telling similar stories about how they farmed their ingredients or how they treat workers.
"It sort of became hard to believe everybody, and uninteresting to read a story or watch a video about a product like that," she says. "Even ketchup has a story now. So when we talked about this, we were saying, we don't want to tell you a story, we want you to live a story. You make your own assumptions."
The live stream shows a view of a dusty workshop, in a quiet, working-class neighborhood. Designer and carpenter Alejandro Sticotti and 15 craftsmen finish the pieces by hand, using local wood and Japanese joinery techniques. "This is slow furniture," says Sticotti.
The project includes two pieces, a modular bookshelf that can be reconfigured to fit in different spaces and a beautiful coat rack that assembles without screws or nails. Both are made from wood from sustainably managed forests in Argentina. Unlike typical flat-packed furniture, the pieces are meant to be kept as heirlooms.
They're also made in small batches, limited by the supply of wood that can be sustainably harvested and by the small size of the workshop. "It started with Alejandro saying this is my workshop, this is how much I can produce," says Waingarten. "And then it became more of a statement to the world about the kind of business we want to be. It's a business that can live integrated with the environment, and with respect to the environment."
"There are also a limited number of things you can produce while maintaining the same quality, and I don't want to negotiate on quality," says Sticotti.
At first, Sticotti didn't want to run the live stream. "The workshop is always a dirty place," he says. But Waingarten, who has been visiting his workshop for years, convinced him that backers would want to see how the furniture was made and that experience would change how they relate to it.
"It will give you an emotional connection with the object," she says. "This will be an object with a story that you don't want to get rid of . . . you know it from the beginning."
A slickly edited video of the workshop, she says, wouldn't accomplish the same thing. "The world needs more transparency and it needs to be more integrated. It needs to access the backstage of companies and how they make things. It's not enough that a company tells me how they make things. I need to see to believe. I need you to show me reality, not the embellishments to sell."
Kickstarter is now experimenting with a live-stream feature that it may roll out to let others do the same thing. "A big part of the Kickstarter experience has always been about narrowing the distance between creators and audiences," says Justin Kazmark, VP of communications at Kickstarter. "Part of the value of backing a Kickstarter project is getting a behind the scenes look at the creative process. Missing from much of mainstream consumer culture is a sense of authorship."
The idea raises questions about what a live stream might mean in a standard factory: If you saw workers in a sweatshop sewing the T-shirt you're considering, would you still want to buy it? Would the presence of a public stream change how factories are managed? If people see more craftsmanship like this in real time, will they be less interested in buying the mass-produced knock-off at Target?
"I think the supply chain is so opaque that it's easy for people to ignore the conditions that things are made," says Neeru Paharia, a professor at Georgetown University who has studied what makes consumers choose sweatshop-produced good. "But making that more transparent could be helpful."
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