Even if you have spent the last 10 months hiding under a rock – and let’s face it, that is where many of us would like to have been during the Great Unpleasantness – you may be aware there have been many calls for consumers to show their support for local businesses by shopping closer to home in the run-up to Christmas.
The arguments are hard to refute, we would go as far as to say they are impossible to refute.
To recap, shopping locally rather than on websites based overseas will keep Irish businesses open, save jobs, allow more money to circulate in the economy and lessen the environmental damage done by an endless stream of parcels and presents flying across the world.
But sometimes it can be hard to determine what is actually local and what is actually Irish. Does an website that ends with the letters .ie mean it is an Irish website? No. Does a Tricolour draped over a brand’s masthead guarantee it is Irish? No.
We have come across many sites and shops – both online and off – claiming to sell "traditional" and handmade artisan products that you'd think Ireland's retail space was entirely populated by comely maidens and sean-nós singers in flat caps packing boxes full of Christmas treats while the Walls of Limerick played to a bodhrán beat driven by Peig Sayers booms over our hand-hewn speakers from the Wild Atlantic Way.
Labelling laws in this country – and indeed in most countries – continue to be woollier than an Aran jumper, which means unscrupulous manufacturers and retailers can, if they so choose, get away with the most outrageously tall tales.
Does natural mean anything? Or homemade? Or handmade? Or farm fresh? Or even local? Is there a definition for local? Not really. You might think it means within 20 or 30km of you home or even on the island of Ireland – and that is what it should mean – but it is not defined in law which means it can be abused which is why you need to have your wits about you.
Luckily, there are people who can help us to navigate the maze of marketing to ensure that if we do want to shop local we can.
Ann Chapman is a jewellery designer and owner of Stonechat Jewellers and has been making handmade, contemporary jewellery from a base in Dublin since 2012. She has been doing her homework in recent weeks and got in touch with Pricewatch with a plea for people to look behind the labels to ensure that they are buying products which are "authentically Irish made or handmade in Ireland".
She says that “clarity on the origin and make up of some products continues to be an issue. Standards are vague and labelling is often misleading. By understanding the terms involved and knowing what labels to search for, you can buy 100 per cent Irish-made or 100 per cent handmade or both”.
She says that “just because a product has an Irish flag sticker does not mean it is made in Ireland. These stickers are actually not regulated, so many companies use them as a ‘feel-good’ tactic”.
She advises people to always check out a company’s website. “Try to find the country of origin on their website, product packaging, or other materials. Check their ‘about us’ or ‘company story’ pages. For companies who truly source and manufacture their products in Ireland, they will most likely talk about this,” she says.
If the information is not sufficiently clear then she encourages consumers to simply ask the question. “If brands are not clear anywhere online or in other materials about where their products are made, ask them. Not only if it’s made in Ireland, but is it 100 per cent made in Ireland.”
She also has advice on how to establish when and if a product is actually handmade and stresses the importance of making the right checks.
“When we buy handmade we are helping to ensure traditional making skills are kept alive and, in the long term, creating a demand for education in these skills. Handmade is a celebration of our living culture and our craft skills. Each handmade item is about people and the time and effort that goes into each piece of work. It’s about the design talent as well as the technical skills of the craft maker.”
Based on Unesco’s definition, handmade means that the “manual contribution of the artisan” must be “the most substantial component of the finished product”. Lots of items are incorrectly labelled handmade though and here are some tips to tell the difference.
Chapman says that for something to be handmade it has to be made by hand – obviously – or by a hand process, using a machine by hand, for example, a sewing machine by hand but not a factory-level sewing machine . “It involves a degree of craftsmanship and implies that a handmade item is typically of higher quality than one mass produced on a production line.”
She suggests people check a brand’s social media and website and says: “If it’s handmade you will see the creative and making process shown. And read the fine print – does it say handmade or assembled or designed in Ireland – all three mean different things.”
She adds that if a product has no label “look for the story of the artisan who made the product. Online shopping has made this easier than ever as it has become a point of pride for brands if it’s handmade and don’t get confused by long stories on social about it being made with love or other generalities – this can obscure the truth. If it’s handmade, the make up and workshop images will be there on their wall”.
She says there are multiple benefits of shopping with local artisans including the well-established economic benefits. “You get high-quality items that are built to last – handmade items have longevity. Artisans have pride in their work and want it to last. Even the materials are hand-picked by an individual with pride in their craft and the finished product.”
And of course there is customisation. “Since each and every item is made by hand, and you are usually talking directly to the person making it, you can tweak the colour or size of something you are interested in, or even get a fully commissioned custom order made up to your own specification. You gain a unique connection with an artisan. You can be in direct contact with the person who made the item with their own hands,” she says.
There is also the environment. “Handmade items aren’t made in a waste-producing factory and shipped halfway around the world using fuel and energy. Buying handmade – especially really locally – can greatly reduce your carbon footprint on the world.”
And who wouldn’t want to do that?