What Is a Cottage Industry?
A cottage industry is a small manufacturing business that is owned and operated by an individual or a family, typically operating out of a home rather than a purpose-built facility.
Cottage industries are defined by the small amount of investment that is required to start one. They often focus on producing labor-intensive goods but face a significant disadvantage when competing with factory-based manufacturers of mass-produced goods.
- A cottage industry is a small manufacturing operation and is often run out of a home by a single individual or family.
- Cottage industries can be an important source of income in rural areas where jobs are scarce.
- In developing countries, cottage industries are playing a significant role in lifting people out of poverty.
- In advanced economies, cottage industries produce handmade goods that are prized for their traditional craftsmanship.
How Cottage Industries Work
The first cottage industries in the U.S. and Europe were light manufacturing operations engaged in subcontracted work including garment-making, textiles, or sewing, as well as shoemaking and small metal machine parts.
In many cases, these cottage industries produced finished goods using raw materials supplied by the contract provider. In the developed world, many contemporary industries that currently operate in factories replaced cottage industries that thrived before the Industrial Revolution.
Modern cottage industries serve a consumer market that seeks out original, handcrafted products as an alternative to mass-produced, name-brand products. These can include anything from clothing items to crafts to decorative home furnishings.
Cottage Industries in Developing Countries
Cottage industries play a significant role in the economies of developing countries. They require very small investments to get off the ground.
Developing nations have comparative advantages in creating successful cottage industries. Their lower cost of living makes it feasible to produce labor-intensive goods at competitive prices, allowing a small business to make a sufficient profit.
Some cottage industries grow over time and employ others in the community. Because their products tend to be handcrafted using traditional tools and machinery, their productivity is unlikely to rival in sheer volume the products of mass manufacturing.
Cottage industries also are an important source of supplemental income in rural areas. When the growing season ends, some farmers turn to their cottage industries to produce income. In villages, a cottage industry can grow over time as local residents come together to produce crafts for sale in local markets or even for export abroad.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Cottage Industries
Cottage industries can thrive if their operators are content to remain small producers in a niche market, working for the benefit of a single family. Business growth is possible but there are significant barries.
A cottage industry can be created by a single individual with a skill that is valued. There are minimal startup costs.
Only basic infrastructure is needed. The business operator needs a way to receive orders, get supplies delivered, and get the end products to the buyers. Mobile technology has greatly improved the ability of cottage industries to operate.
Even in modern times, cottage industries are creating opportunities for people in remote rural areas to improve their living standards.
When cottage industries remain small, they have to compete with larger producers with deeper pockets. This may require them to adopt new technologies that improve productivity.
If they grow, they also have to compete for labor. This can be increasingly difficult as a country becomes more developed and wages increase.
Cottage Industries in Modern Times
Minimal startup costs
Opportunity for rural dwellers
Reliant on basic infrastructure to get products to market
Inability to ramp up production to meet demand
Competition from larger producers
In the U.S. and Europe, products created by cottage industries can often be found at flea markets and farmers' markets.
Example of a Cottage Industry
Niche markets that don't appeal to big producers can be an ideal fit for cottage industries.
Competitive dancers, figure skaters, and other performers often wear original, handmade costumes. At the lowest levels of youth competition, parents might make costumes for their children. As performers rise to higher levels of competition, the demand for costumes of higher quality grows, creating opportunities for the most highly skilled costume designers to fill the demand.
Designers who began by creating costumes for their own children and maybe a few others can end up creating a cottage industry for themselves.
Why Are They Called 'Cottage Industries?'
Cottage industries may be the original remote work system. Before the Industrial Revolution, they opened a way for people living in rural areas to make a living doing labor-intensive jobs like spinning wool, tanning leather, and sewing clothing. In modern terminology, they were often subcontractors, finishing goods and sending them on to businesses that packaged them for shipment to suppliers and retailers.
In Europe and America, this work really was mostly done in cottages, primarily by women who did not have access to other trades and professions.
What Are Some Modern Cottage Industries?
Take a look at Etsy or Amazon Handmade for a comprehensive overview of the thousands of handmade products being created by skilled artisans working independently. Most are modern cottage industries.
This is, of course, going on all over the world, with many artisans focusing on traditional local skills. In India, the top cottage industries are silk weaving, carpet making, leatherworking, metalworking, and specialty food processing.
Are Cottage Industries Scalable?
Cottage industries are generally not scalable by definition. That is, if they scale up, they are no longer cottage industries.
The definition of success is different. Most cottage industries are intended to provide a decent income for a single individual or family.
There is the occasional breakout star, like Burt's Bees, which got its start when a fed-up photojournalist decided to move to rural Maine and become a beekeeper. But even Burt needed a partner with bigger ambitions.
The Bottom Line
Cottage industries thrived in the pre-Industrial ages when people in remote areas were able to make a living, though hardly an easy one, by creating labor-intensive products for larger businesses.
They appear to be thriving in modern times as well as niche businesses pop up in homes all over the world to serve the demand for high-quality hand craftsmanship.