Cotton calculations


One indicator for assessing the relative resource constraint a given context faces is the relative availability of raw materials and the means through which they are sold throughout the context. This picture, taken at the start of winter, depicts a not-uncommon scene in metropolitan Chongqing as the mercury began to drop.

Related to raw material availability within a context are 1) a sufficient baseline of knowledge required to manipulate that raw material, 2) a sufficient amount of free time to manipulate said material, and 3) the alternatives to purchasing and working with said raw material are too-costly in terms of either time or other resources (such as purchasing manufactured/pre-made versions of the product, for example).

Consider an example: this vendor sells cotton that he’s bought from farmers in the countryside and condensed into thick sheets. He walks through Chongqing’s neighborhoods on foot, searching for people interested in purchasing his condensed cotton, which they in turn use for re-stuffing their winter blankets if, upon removing them from storage the owners judge them to be a bit on the anemic side. Consider the required investment of resources in the form of skills, time, and effort involved in repairing a blanket in this way, compared to the costs of purchasing a new blanket. Each individual performs their own calculations to determine their ideal option. Individuals experiencing a shortage of one of these resources will naturally have their calculations influenced in differing ways than those experiencing a surplus of another of these resources. Note the relative ages of individuals in this picture, and try to envision where each fall on the spectrum of scarcity to abundance – who do you believe is time-rich and money-poor, and vice versa (and why)? Using that information, consider which of these individuals would seem most likely to invest in the act of repairing their own blanket, and who would choose to invest in a new one. By your assumption, who is the vendor in this picture?

As a context develops/modernizes, it becomes ever more interconnected with global market forces as it progresses down a path of specialization. One manifestation of this specialization is (I believe) a decrease in both the cost-effectiveness and ability for a context’s inhabitants to repair things like household appliances, apparel, vehicles, etc., and an increasing propensity to purchase new versions instead. This stems from the increasing availability and variety of products leading to greater competition between sellers of those products, in turn driving down prices (along with people’s incentives to repair).


On a semi-related note: I feel privileged to live in a place with a seasonally changing cast of mobile vendors, with each month bringing opportunities to unpack and explore unfamiliar business models, risks and motivations, and carrying kits of the members of the street economy. Highly recommended.

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