News & Features

Has "Artisanal" Gone the Way of "Green" and "Natural"?

April 30 2012 - 10:40 AM

Tostitos-artisan-baked-three-cheese-quesoThe terms “green” and “natural” have failed to mean much to me for some time now, especially in terms of packaging and advertising. If I’m in the aisles of a grocery store or market, I know to look for words that are actually regulated; terms like “USDA-certified organic” or “vegetarian-fed.” Of course, even these terms are slippery (see the USDA’s website for a brief explanation of how they’re used), but at least they have some set of criteria that should ideally regulate their usage.

Just when I thought I had that problem solved, a recent post by GOOD’s assistant editor Zak Stone gave me another term to fret about: artisanal. A word that once meant hand-made, or, as Stone defines it— “thoughtfully crafted”—is now slapped on Tostitos’ bags and Domino’s pizza boxes. As Stone sees it, consumers seek out artisanal products for two main reasons: out of a moral/ethical/political conviction that small producers matter, or out of conspicuous consumption, the desire to have the trendiest products available. To that I would add a third category: People who care about quality and craftmanship, and believe that hand-crafted, small-batch goods are inherently better made than mass manufactured counterparts. So if “artisanal” as a term has been rendered meaningless, what’s the solution?

As a result of the corporate co-opting of “green” and “natural,” consumers had to learn to seek out labels with actual definitions and regulations (however imperfect). In the search for authentically artisanal products, this means doing some detective work. It means finding out where foods and goods are produced and where their raw ingredients come from, either by reading labels very carefully or by doing a little Internet research. Hopefully, new terms come to fill the gap left by the now relative insignificance of “artisan.” Maybe “locally-sourced” can be defined and monitored. Maybe “small batch” and “hand-crafted” will retain their meaning.

And more likely, I fear, we all just need to resign ourselves to more investigative work. To truly find artisanal goods, we may need to give up Saturday mornings to attend local markets, to spend time researching vendors online and learning about their practices, to actually speaking with the farmers and cheesemongers and candle-makers who sell their goods at local shops. Unfortunately, this places additional burden on conscious consumers. We’re all busy people, and thanks to the corporate appropriation of a once-meaningful word, the onus is now on us to seek out products we care about. Conspicuous consumers can tote around their “artisanal” Tostitos fire-roasted chipotle tortilla chips. The rest of us have some homework to do.

–Kate Bernot