Monday, January 17, 2011

Homemade or Handcrafted?

Jenn the Greenmom wonders who first sighted the wild longhaired dilemma to confirm that it actually has horns...

I find myself struggling with a little bit of an ethical dilemma lately.

It’s about the divide between “patronize small ethical businesses” and “make it yourself.”

Let me ‘splain.

A couple of weeks ago I visited a nearby spa for a blissful morning of lounging in an enormous whirlpool with waterfalls, sipping tea in a robe on a comfy chaise, and having my hands and feet smoothed and buffed and polished into lovely feminine softness. (This place is amazing—one can stretch a simple mani-pedi into a full-blown Day Of Beauty. All in a LEED-certified building.) I was chatting with my technician about natural beauty products, and she mentioned that these ladies who sell stuff through the spa were up in front working on their display.

And that’s how I met the Duggan Sisters.

First of all, let me just say that these are a couple of amazing women. They have built this business in the basement of their house on the South Side, deeply committed to hydrotherapy as a route toward purifying our bodies of the various and sundry toxins, poisons, irritants, and general ickies we are almost unable to avoid in our daily existence in our chemically nasty world. They have an online store and are teaming up with Whole Foods to sell their products, which look fabulous. (They also hold regular “Raw Food Cooking Classes,” a cool if somewhat oxymoronic concept.)

You can check out their online site and store—their “life stinks” line of all-natural deodorants, free of any aluminum compounds (the “crystal” deodorants contain potassium alum, an aluminum compound which, while it would certainly be toxic to the system if it could be absorbed through the cell wall like the aluminum chlorohydrate molecules employed in mainstream anti-perspirants which clog the system and prevent toxins from being released especially from breast tissue, is less of a problem for most people but still not ideal.) (Mary Duggan and I got into a slight debate on the topic, and while I’m not convinced she’s up on the chemistry of how it all works, her point about “if it’s at all toxic, why even bother figuring out exactly how it works” makes a certain degree of sense…still, alum is one of those compounds that’s been around and in use for hundreds of years, you can find references to it in colonial cookbooks and stuff, so at the very least it’s not some weird chemical cocktail that’s been cooked up in recent years in some lab to make someone a lot of money…) (I’m digressing again, aren’t I?)

Anyway. Life stinks deodorant powder. Good for underarms, stinky feet, all kinds of things. It contains exactly three ingredients: sodium bicarbonate, Australian tea tree oil, and either lavender or cedarwood essential oils. Bicarbonate is basically baking soda, a known odor absorber. Tea tree oil is one of the best anti-bacterial/anti-fungal oils around, and lavender and cedarwood have similar properties but also just plain smell nice. They source their oils directly from the growers and know they’re getting the Good Stuff, and they know their Sodium Bicarbonate contains no aluminum, unlike most of what’s on the market.

I really wanted to buy some. I really wanted to support this small local business, and do my bit to help along these awesome women on a wonderful journey of passion to heal and help other women.

But…I just could not bring myself to spend $27 on any product, however awesome it might be, when I knew it had exactly three ingredients and I had those ingredients sitting in my kitchen. Not just random stuff, either, good oils, aluminum-free soda, the whole nine yards.

So…that's where I start wrestling with my ethical dilemma thing.

A few months ago I reviewed Motherlove Herbal Company’s Green Salve, which is a truly awesome product I will likewise probably not ever buy for myself, because I know how to make something that will serve my needs very nearly as well, and I’ve told my readers how I do it, and it’s really appallingly easy. (Well, except that the Motherlove people actually infuse their oils with the fresh herbs, which is dicey and messy to do on one’s own, and I can't be bothered.) The little pump bottle of Little Twig Baby Oil I bought a few years ago has been emptied and refilled with my own version of that incredibly delightful concoction several times. The primary raison d’etre for my blogging existence is to figure out how, in my own home, to make my own version of practically anything I might otherwise have to go out and buy, and in so doing to have complete control over the ingredients that go into it. (I am, of course, only partially successful at this.) Now, when the things I’m learning how to make are items like healthier chicken nuggets or nontoxic skin care products, I feel no qualms whatsoever about scooping the corporations. Or when it’s how to make quantity versions of staples like cooked beans or yogurt or applesauce, which I would otherwise need to buy in multiple little containers with God-knows what kinds of processing and preserving (and BPA can linings!) rather than with one or two simple ingredients in my own kitchen.

But with things like these deodorants and salves, I begin to sometimes feel a little squirmy about telling everyone how to make the products themselves, when I know some small business I completely support is trying to earn a living selling that exact thing.

Some folks “in business” are very open and out there about their content—Stephanie O’Dea, the Crockpot Lady, blogged for 365 days about using her crockpot every day—and despite having published two books now of recipes from that year, she has removed none of her content from the original site. Jan Andrea of Sleeping Baby Productions, who sews absolutely gorgeous baby slings, hosts the single most comprehensive sling-sewing site I’ve ever encountered, with beautiful tutorials for how to make anything she sells as well as any other kinds of slings you could think of. She’s fairly firm about people not taking her patterns to make slings they will sell, but her attitude seems to be “if you want to make your own sling, awesome, go for it, here’s how—but if you don’t feel like it, I’m happy to sell you one.”

Crunchy Betty (my absolute heroine) has a site full of recipes that honestly kick the butt of any purchased cosmetic product I’ve ever encountered, and that honestly includes lovely ethically produced natural products as well. (This morning I even skipped recipe all together, and mixed up a spoonful each of almond meal, yogurt, and honey and washed my face with this yummy scrub). I’m not sure what her business-life investment in her recipes is, or whether she sells products anywhere…

So, I don’t know…not even sure what I’m asking, really. And honestly, with any of the products someone else makes and for which I know and share my version of the recipe, there are tons of versions of same all over the internet (including deodorant made from baking soda and essential oils), so it’s not like I’m really spilling deep trade secrets or anything…

Anyone have any insights on this? Or even better, do any Booth readers actually have small in-home businesses where they make natural products in the vein I’m describing? Or have friends who do? How do you feel about those of us whose corner of the blogosphere is all about “you don’ hafta buy nothin’ from nobody, here’s how you make it yourself!”

I’m just curious. Because I think those small businesses absolutely rock.

(And in the meantime…the Duggan Sisters also have some very lovely looking bath soaks –the kind which take chlorinated tap water into account--that I do not know how to make nor do I have the ingredients in my kitchen…if any of y’all try them out, I’d love to hear how they do!)

--Jenn the Greenmom

(UPDATE: Please make sure you read down the comments; Mary Duggan apparently found the above post to be full of "damaging misinformation." I honestly thought I presented it all as my opinions with links to the reputable sources of information, i.e. her site, and was fairly clear about that, but...anyway, she links to her 15,000+ words worth of dissection of my less-than-500-words about her and her company below in the comments, and she has asked me in the interest of "ethics and integrity" to make sure our readers see it. So...there it is.)


brendie said...

id have to give up work to find all the time to make all the things that i have the skills too make, so have to buy somethings, but theres no way id spend $27 on deoderant, let someone else "support" them. someone who doesnt know how to make items and has no desire to(and theres plenty that fall into that catagory).

Anonymous said...

I'm firmly in the DIY camp, but I also completely support and celebrate small businesses such as the ones you describe. First of all, everything has been done before, and for those of us trying to be green and natural, most of everything has been done for thousands of years (salve etc.)So I'm really not that worried about replicating some super secret recipe that people have been figuring out how to make for years. I also truly believe that there are about 3 kinds of people when it comes to this stuff. Those who will DIY all the time. Those who will DIY once in awhile when they have the time, and those who love this stuff but absolutely won't DIY. As Brendie said, no way am I dropping $27 dollars on something I have at home. But I'd drop money on a good lotion because I suck at making them! LOVE Crunchy Betty, in fact, I think I learned about her from you.

crstn85 said...

Quite simply, I don't want to make my own lotion/deodorant etc. If you enjoy and have time to do so, then go for it! I assume there is some other category that you'd rather buy than make your own. I read about growing your own food and think, yes! Then I read about baking my own bread and think, no way! Then I share about crocheting my own hats/scarves/presents. We all have different strengths and interests. So long as we continue trying to be sustainable there will always be categories where we want to purchase from someone else, and they will get the support they deserve.

Anonymous said...

1. I think it's the business's job to find the market and sell things that people want to buy.

2. Everything is toxic in the right dose. Water is toxic. Salt is toxic. So, of course you have to understand how something is "a little bit toxic" if you are making a personal health product.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what everyone's saying, and it helps...the impulse that led to this post was something like, "Oh, cool the Duggan Sisters make deodorant out of nothing but baking soda, tea tree oil, and lavender oil! I could tell people how to do that on my blog!" --That's when I sort of went, whoa, must examine this a bit.

But you're all right--and the fact is that the DS's main clientele will be the very affluent women who patronize this spa regularly, and to whom it would never occur to make anything like this on their own.

dbilberry said...

I say buy one of their products at least as a thankyou for getting the recipe and then make them yourself after that.

mek said...

Like crnst85, I find that there are some things I love to do myself all the time, some things I will do myself once in a while or as a gift, and some things I *could* do myself, but I don't really want to (time, mess, materials, etc. an issue). And sometimes, maybe I could do it myself and usually do, but I might still want to support an independent business that is starting out or that inspires me.

Green Bean said...

I go back and forth on this depending with what is going on in my life. When I had more time on my hands, I did a lot more DIY. When I am swamped, I have to cut stuff and mixing personal up deodorant or dishwasher detergent is usually the first to go.

This year, we moved and I had a lot of stuff going on so I didn't have time to can at all. I invested in the "preserve" option through our CSA which means I get two jars a week of canned goods. They are not cheap but they are delicious and I do feel better eating them than store bought.

One more thing about the $27 deodorant, I wonder how long it lasts. I buy mine from Lush. I cannot remember how much it cost - mostly because I bought it so long ago but it lasts 5x longer than what you buy in the stores.

ruchi said...

Um, the boycott american woman comment is kinda hilarious.

I mostly fall into the buy handcrafted camp ... I'll happily cough up $8 to buy some jam or what have you. I'm a sucker for the beautiful soaps you get at the farmers market. But I gotta be honest, $27 for deodorant even makes ME cringe. And I am one of the least DIY-people ever.

But c'mon. I spend $8 on jam because I've tried making jam from farmers market strawberries before and I think I dumped more than $8 of strawberries into my pot and still ended up with half a jar. Plus I'm scared of canning (ahem, GB next time you give a tutorial, can I come?!) Even I know how to buy some baking soda, buy a make-up brush and apply it to your body. I know the cost of baking soda, tea tree oil, and lavender because I've used them before, and it isn't $30 for what I assume is a little bottle.

I'm all for supporting small, local businesses and for supporting ethical practices. But I'm not entirely sure it's ETHICAL to charge people $30 for baking soda. Even if your clientele is mostly well-to-do.

On the other hand, there are people out there who are willing to pay good money for tap water in a cardboard box, so maybe the Duggans just know what the market will bear.

Julia (Color Me Green) said...

there are people like you and me who aren't generally willing to shell out for things we know we can make at home...but then there are also people like ruchi who don't like to DIY and are willing to spend the money to buy quality handcrafted things. so i say don't worry too much. you don't have to personally support every small business. just every now and then when you feel like splurging.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the $27 deodorant is the "starter" can, with 6-9 months of product in it. After that time you buy refills, which cost much less. I'm skeptical of how long the eo's in the powder will last over that much time, but I haven't in any way verified that. Also, the sisters claim a very proprietary blend of tea tree oils with particular constituents which they test very specifically, which I'm sure is part of the cost involved there...

Yeah, I still feel like that's a little high for three-ingredient deodorant...but clearly they are doing okay, because the business is growing. So someone is buying it...

Condo Blues said...

While I'm usually in the DIY camp it really depends on if I have or interested in learning the skills or not. Sometimes I can buy it cheaper and better made from someone because I'd have to buy all of the equipment and materials.

Truffula said...

Great topic! I cringe, too, when I come across products it seems I could fairly easily make myself. It's partly a money thing, and partly my satisfaction in making an item with my own two hands.

Because my list of things I could make but haven't (yet) is growing in only one direction (longer), I've started to become a little more particular. If I factor in my time, is it really worth it to do it myself? If the ingredients are simple, but I don't have them all, and I'd end up using a pinch and having the rest stand around for the next time I got around to making the same thing, how worth it is the DIY version now? And so on...

Anonymous said...

I sometimes try the DIY route-but more often than not I am in the support local, small business camp. Jenn-I don't think your sharing recipes and ideas for DIY green products will take anything away from those small businesses. The market is still there and the Duggan Sisters will still sell their $27 deodorant. So keep sharing your great tips and recipes for all that DIY stuff.

Mary Duggan said...

Dear Jenn,

Guess what popped up on a Google search of bloggers talking about lifestinks® deodorant? You! Hey, I remember meeting you at one of our retail spa partners. You were getting a manicure while I was there working and I took quite a bit of time with you, explaining how our deodorant works. You identified yourself as a blogger and you promised me that if you decided to write about the Duggan Sisters you would let me know. Hey, you didn’t. No problem. I guess. I have read what you had to say and despite the compliments and links to our site you have given us a not quite fair shake. So, here’s some setting the record straight for your readers. Please visit my full response at:

Melissa @ Rapt in Maille said...

Jenn - as a woman in business, as a hand-crafter, as a proud Lifestinks user and lover, and as a friend to the Duggans - shame on you.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Okay, wow.

First, to address Mary Duggan--I actually did drop you an email the day I put in this post; perhaps it went into a spam folder, or perhaps I got the email address wrong, but clearly you did not receive it.

I find it sort of bewildering that I wrote a fairly complimentary post about your business, with plenty of good links so that anyone interested in what you do can go there and learn more, and you have responded as though I offered a huge misrepresentative critical diatribe. I stated my own areas of ambiguity, areas where I am not sure I agree with you (note that I never said "you're wrong," just "I'm not sure I agree"--to say that I presented you as "uninformed" is a very strong overstatement), and offered readers the invitation and opportunity to do their own research and come to their own conclusions. Which is what I always try to do. I said that I admire what you do and stand for, I linked to other areas of your business than the deodorant, and I suspect you got a good number of interested and open-minded hits based on my post.

If I misrepresented your commitment to hydrotherapy, I apologize. That was the impression I came away with after our conversation.

Since you linked to your very long post here, I do not feel the need to create an entirely new blog post reprinting all of it, though I will edit the post to alert first-time readers that it is there. I leave it to the reader to discern if they think anyone is offering damaging attacks on anyone else, and if so, who they believe is attacking whom.

I will save my response to your condescending dismissal of "Little House" efforts, those of us who seek to create our own uncomplicated natural products, for another blog post. I will send you an email when it appears; in case you do not receive that one either, look for it Monday morning.

Melissa--I honestly do not know how to respond to you. Shame? For what?

Melissa @ Rapt in Maille said...

I take big issue with the "I can do that" attitude when it comes to businesses built on handmade products. Sometimes, it is true, you might be able to do that. But the question is, ARE you doing it? And are you making a living doing it? And can you do it as WELL as the original? Whether you intended for it to be or not, it is very insulting to those of us who work our asses off to do what we are passionate about for a living.
I believe you should have also been very clear on the pricing structure, and since you were not, many people who commented were under a false impression, and continued with the unfair bashing (unbeknownst to them). To your credit, you did mention the pricing structure after those comments, but that could have been avoided altogether, and I simply don't see why it wasn't.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Melissa, the entire blog post was ABOUT the dilemma we DIY people--those of us who do it to save money or to have more control over our bodies or just because we love it--face when we are learning to make something resembling a product that someone else creates and sells for their livelihood. And it INVITED input and discussion with and from those who do have passionate feelings on the subject. (Admittedly, I had hoped for something more substantive than "shame on you," but at least we're engaging now.)

Are you honestly saying that those of us who a) have limited disposable income, b) are as passionate about having control over our lifestyles and the contents thereof as you seem to be about what you create, and c) take great joy in knowing how to produce products that help us care for our families and homes, should NOT MAKE these things in order to patronize those who do make them to sell?

Like I said, I'll address this further on Monday in my regular weekly post here, so you can reply here or wait and talk more then.

ErinT3 said...

I have read both posts. The Duggan Sisters do put the "mean" in business. Sheesh. I do not have the time and energy of making my own. I do support local and have been known to opt to pay more willingly. But I won't ever buy their products. As a marketing and PR professional, imho, this kind of diatribe seems to be a symptom of something else. They protest too much and rather than offer to dialog in a meaningful way to correct real or imagined errors about their product, they make it a personal attack. Maybe business is not so good. If this is the way they are trying to win customers, no wonder.
What really struck me was how they tried to belittle Greenmom for being at a spa, yet they were hawking their wares at the same place. Hmm, smells a bit like hypocrisy to me. Wonder if anyone has a homemade recipe for that stink?

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Yeah, I was trying not to engage the more personal attacks in the DS post, but...for the record, and not that it's anyone's concern, I was at that spa because my lovely delightful choir had bought me a gift card for Christmas, knowing that I would never in a thousand years set aside the time and money to do something like that for myself on my own. One of many reasons I love them.


Spanish prof said...

I heard of the story through Clarissa's blog. Their response was completely out of place. But when they start talking about "lovely dying mommies," it's just creepy.

Brandislee said...

I completely agree with you- your post is in no way out of line, you simply give your opinion on a product... and not even a negative one.

And Melissa- seriously???? You have absolutely no argument for your "shaming" the author of this blog. Many of us would have come to the exact same conclusion when presented with the prospect of buying a $27 container of sodium bicarbonate- Thanks, but no thanks. She is in no way undercutting their business. If their product works well, if it is something people want/need, is reasonably priced, and if they do good business, they will thrive regardless of "attacks" like this (read- this wasn't an attack). If not, they won't. Shame on you, Melissa, for implying this post was out of line. Shame on you.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

I also find it interesting that Mary Duggan felt the need to post HER link to her website and insist, in the name of integrity, that I post hers on my blog, but has still over a week after I submitted it not allowed my comment to even APPEAR on her site, linking to my response post on my personal blog (

All the same, in a way I'm this can just rest and be done.

Jennifer Feeney said...

Wow. I can't believe any business person would come back with the remarks Mary did. Certainly solidifies my desire NOT to buy her product.

Aside from that, it is absolutely ridiculous to say that one should not make something themselves because there is a small business out there selling it. Great. Small business, you are there for those that don't want to DIY. But, just because you are out there, I am not ethically compelled to buy your product. I make it myself, thank you very much. If life gets too busy, then I just might start buying it. This is not an ethical dilemma. This is business. Maybe Small Business needs to step up their marketing.


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