When conscious consumerism is bullshit

Blake Lively is pulling a Gwyneth Paltrow. I’m not talking about the so-called conscious uncoupling (although let’s hope that if Blake and Ryan do break up, they’ll call it what it is and spare us all the unbearable pretension). No, I’m talking about a “lifestyle” website newly launched by Lively; one she no doubt hopes will do better than the slumping goop.

Preserve is the newest digital playground designed for those who can afford to ooh and aah over things that are vintage, gourmet, rustic, artisan, repurposed, handcrafted (because ‘handmade’ isn’t authentic enough anymore), or whatever other adjective presumably justifies an exorbitant price tag. The geniuses of Portlandia do a fantastic job of parodying modern fads. Their Put a Bird on It skit reminds me of how it’s not uncommon for people to exploit trends in order to charge more for something than it’s worth.

 

 

Preserve is basically a mercantile Pinterest for affluent hipsters. Now, materialism is nothing new. We live in a capitalist system, after all. Marketing and advertizing are everywhere. They’ve colonized our culture and our minds. They follow us around in our daily lives, beaming their subliminal messages from every surface and medium possible; in captchas, on sewers, on people’s foreheads. We can’t even urinate in peace. And that snappy Michael Kors bag perched conspicuously on the lap of the woman opposite you on the subway – how many women do you figure have yearned for the privilege of being a real life mannequin so they too can feel important?

Instead of acknowledging how invasive and insidious all of this is, people frequently applaud its ingenuity. Forget about what we might be able to accomplish if such resourcefulness and creativity weren’t squandered by private interests. Money and cleverness win over ethics, hands down. The cult of consumerism brands those of us who refuse to kneel in the temple of materialism as heretics. No, this is nothing new.

What enrages me more than anything else, though, is the use of philanthropy to justify greed, which Preserve embarrassingly tries to pussyfoot around:

“Doing good” is often looked at with a cynical eye. For good reason. Much of it is a selfish act— it feels good, it sounds good, it can be quite self-congratulatory. While it is personally rewarding, there is an impact to be made when we can step back and acknowledge the truths in the motivation— not only the selfish ones, but the ones bred of a genuine desire to be there for others, others who don’t regularly have the fortunate opportunities that we do each day.

Let us be clear. We are a for-profit business.

We celebrate and indulge in the treasures both high and low that we feature on Preserve. We are aware that a lot of what we are selling is outlandish in a world where people are starving and have nowhere to sleep. This is a real problem. One that even on our high horse we can’t ignore. This is our community. Each of ours.

We have set our first goal of giving 5,000 children a meal, 2,000 children a blanket, and 2,700 children a warm hoodie, all within the U.S.

We’re a small, but growing company. Our giving reflects our age. As we mature so will our contribution both fiscally and physically.

We acknowledge that we are human and are flawed. But please accept, our intention is to do something pure. So we ask you, let this be a conversation. Help us grow. Help us give. Please critique us, teach us and be patient with us in the process, as ultimately we are all in this, this spinning sphere, together.

How douchey and patronizing is this?

Many of us are onto the ways in which businesses exploit our desire to purchase good quality, socially and environmentally sound products, only to justify doing so because they’re not 100% greedy. I’d say I’m reasonably suspicious that they’re tricking us into spending more money while they reap a fatter profit margin. Because really, how much of our money is going toward overhead, especially when it comes to web-based businesses, many of which are featured on Preserve? Consider the $70 High Tide Classic Bow Tie. Or for $132, perhaps you prefer a “hand painted” t-shirt that has been “distressed” and “destroyed” so you can walk around looking like you just fixed your Harley Davidson – without having to smell like it.

Twombly Crew

This accoutrement is the brainchild of The Squad, who design clothing that’s “comfortable for one’s own wandering” and “colored by hues from their travels and washed specifically for comfort and ease; it’s essential knitwear built for the long road ahead.” Is this what people are doing with their English degrees?

In the event that you’re into Native appropriation, they also offer a holey t-shirt with a dreamcatcher on it for $80. Is the cotton even organic? Seriously, in a recession, who has the money for this shit?

Corporations like Starbucks really love to pat themselves on the back. Take the Ethos Water Fund, for example:

So far more than $7.38 million has been granted to help support water, sanitation and hygiene education programs in water-stressed countries.

I have a better idea. How about they pay their fair share of taxes? And how about instead of charging us $2 for water, from which a measly 10¢ is devoted to these unfortunate people, they give a little more and charge us a little less for something we can get out of a tap? If these campaigns are truly a form of social responsibility in action, I’d like to see them do these good deeds without attaching their logo to them. Otherwise, the line that separates philanthropy from self-promotion becomes awfully blurry.

I do what I can. I’m the sort of shopper who keeps health food stores in business; I don’t even use normal toilet bowl cleaner, for Christ’s sake. But I saw a jar of what I’m sure are delicious pickles at my local butcher the other day that cost a cool $14.99. If anyone has any doubt that Toronto’s Roncesvalles Village has been gentrified, wonder no more. That’s the official stamp right there (yup, Portlandia did a parody of the pickling fad too!). My family had a huge garden when I was growing up and we canned pretty much everything that can be canned. Beets, mushrooms, pickles, borscht, tomatoes, sauerkraut – you name it. I can tell you it’s not that expensive to do. Look, I’ll gladly pay more for locally, naturally raised meat any day. I’ve even cut my meat consumption so I can afford it. I get why it costs so much more than the standard grocery store fare. But fucking pickles?

It’s getting hard to find businesses that don’t take advantage of their throwback appeal and ethical bent to squeeze more money out of customers. Why should I have to declare war on myself for wanting to swing by that shop that introduced me to terrine because I feel like I’ve been seduced by Satan himself? I hate who I’ve become!

So I ask you: where do we draw the line? It seems that the cheapest and most authentic way to do things ethically and naturally is to do it your damn self.

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Fueling division

I came across a celebrity-studded video by the NRDC Action Fund that advocates for a clean energy bill. The organization’s mission is to “achieve the passage of legislation that jump-starts the clean energy economy, reduces pollution, and sustains vibrant communities for all Americans”. Seems like they’re doing good work, right? Well, I’m wondering if anyone else picked up on some troubling language:

Here’s the phrase that raised my eyebrows:

“Oil we buy from countries that don’t share our values and kill our soldiers.”

Interesting. You’d think that all of the protests in the Middle East would make it clear that the will of the people in that region is characterized by a democratic fervor. Yet this video parrots the propagandistic narrative about relative cultural values. Would this have anything to do with mainstream America’s obsession with associating Muslims to terrorism while turning a blind eye to the terror its own country propagates? If we are to assume that all Iraqis and Afghanis are represented by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, then how do we think the rest of the world should view American citizens? Making such statements perpetuates the concept of the ‘Other’ – more of this Us versus Them bullshit. Labeling nations that challenge imperialists who steal their natural resources and slaughter their people as inherently morally flawed is a deep expression of racism which only moves us further away from peace.

Now, even if the video refers to foreign leaders who don’t share American ‘values’, this betrays the fact that the U.S. administration has systematically colluded with dictators to establish free trade, which generates unthinkable corporate wealth and requires unabated, unconscious consumption. The fact that the NRDC Action Fund (and the celebrities we mindlessly idolize) are pressuring their own government on clean energy exposes their lack of faith that their own leaders reflect their values. So what are American values anyway and how do they differ from those of citizens anywhere else in the world? Do we not all share the goals of having viable livelihoods, a healthy environment, a just society and world peace? Also troubling is the fact that the video places paramount importance on American lives. They’re worried about American jobs and soldiers – but no mention goes to the horrific carnage and destruction perpetrated internationally in our names, and for our comfort. Yet another question: precisely what prosperity is there to defend? With 44 million Americans ‘living’ below the poverty line, high unemployment rates and a country sick enough to generate record profits for the health insurance and pharmaceutical corporations, the American Dream is proving not only to be an ever elusive illusion but also one predicated on inequality and instability.

I’m all for clean[er] energy. But there’s something very strange here. If developing markets for clean energy would fuel economic growth, why aren’t corporations seizing the opportunity? And why do groups even have to lobby the government to enact what appears to be win/win legislation for all stakeholders? Very strange indeed. And even if we do develop viable energy alternatives, it won’t address other issues such as access to clean water, waste management, the procurement of resources (e.g. minerals mined in politically unstable countries) or reliance on imported food staples. While a sustainable energy policy is crucial, the ‘This is Our Moment’ campaign, in addition to employing racist rhetoric, completely fails to address the fact that our ‘civilization’ is fundamentally wasteful and unjust. The assumption is that we don’t need a paradigm shift; we just need to get our energy from a better source. There’s nothing wrong with our governments, corporations, or the economic system they work so hard to protect – in fact, it’s precisely a market incentive that will save us. The reality is that the source of all of these problems is a mindset characterized by the following fallacies:

  1. Our belief that human beings (a single species on this planet) are somehow above and separate from nature and therefore have the right and ability to control it;
  2. Our belief that all resources (living and non-living) exist for our exploitation in order to support an economic system which assumes infinite growth and is based on a false sense of value (i.e. one which externalizes environmental and social costs);
  3. Our belief in the concept of a ‘nation’. Nationalism perpetuates division and isolation, effectively creating a citizenry that has no empathy for a perceived ‘Other’, when in fact all peoples have the same needs and rights.

It’s perfectly natural for interest groups to focus on specific causes with a particular geography in mind. I wouldn’t suggest that only international organizations are legitimate or respect the rights of all peoples. But the NRDC Action Fund is a good example of an organization whose work can do significant harm in perpetuating ignorance as it advocates for a good cause (even if for the wrong reasons). To mobilize for real change, grassroots movements need to re-imagine the place of our species within this world. And we can’t fix our relationship to the Earth without first honouring our intrinsic connection to each other. There’s no room for bigotry in this movement.