Choose Between Consumerism + Self Esteem
It is not news to most of you that the Fashion Industry is problematic. The more I observe, almost every industry where one prioritizes profit, particularly when shareholders or investors are involved, creates potential ethical conundrum.
The challenge in having conversations about these topics arises as we start to pull the threads of what “ethical” what“sustainable” mean; as we unravel this question within fashion, we slowly realize the thread unravels to the core of our being on a level so deep that it can feel paralyzing. It begins to ask why it is we consume, what it is we consume, and how we define success. (Is your vision board full of high end brands? Are those brands concerned with your wellbeing?)
Last night I was watching Brené Brown’s A Call to Courage, in which she famously talks about “those in the arena” and “those in the cheap seats.”
Those of us in the arena are doing things on a daily basis that necessitate showing others who we really are, even in real-time as we are figuring out what that means. The decision to show oneself, makes us vulnerable to rejection, failure, judgment, and criticism.
Those of us who are in the cheap seats have a lot of opinions about the people in the world who show up as themselves. We troll their comments section. Send them a critical email about formatting or spelling. Maybe we even argue with their viewpoints anonymously or without citing our sources.
The whole point Brené makes about courageous people is that they will fail. That is something they have to accept if they want to show up every single day to face their fears. She goes on to explain in so many words, that “Without failure, there is no innovation. Without vulnerability, there is no creativity.”
Dr. John Demartini, author of The Values Factor, calls these “failures” events that are “on the way” rather than “in the way” to living our most fulfilling lives. Framing “failure” this way allows us to understand that failure might mean we are on the right path. Failure might mean we have discovered who we really are by trying out the life of who we thought we were.
“We make the road by walking.” (Jennifer Armbrust, adaptation of Horton + Friere book title)
Running a business has taught me so much about how Brené’s notion of being brave including its consequent failures and fulfillments play out in real life. I am as airy as they come (Aquarius rising + Gemini Moon), but I really find that nothing truly sinks in until it manifests narratively in real life. (Mercury in Taurus : )
I was very safely asking myself questions about business and ethics until one day, I was faced with a question that challenged me to see if I could embody my values more wholeheartedly.
Spawned from a conversation with Mallory Lance, Editor in Chief of Ravenous Zine the question was:
How much am I willing to dig into the fashion industry, the product industry, the industry that encourages folks to buy and sell and make and experience “luxury” or “boutique experiences”? And what are the implications of this question for the business I am running and my ability to operate it on a shoe string budget?
Am I prepared to sacrifice my profitability for my ethics and in doing so can I survive as a retail store?
One of my new favorite writers and thinkers on the economy is Jennifer Armbrust of Sister who studied critical theory, has experiences running 5 different businesses as a self-taught entrepreneur. She integrates a critical mind with her intuition and heart-led values, what results is a clearly-defined ethical framework to create a model for a new economy, a feminine economy.
She has authored 12 Principles for a Feminine Economy and the 12th is the one below: (We are now proudly carrying her book Proposals for a Feminine Economy, in which she fleshes this out.)
In the spirit of seeing how these principles play out in real life, I am sharing what I have learned while running Myths of Creation since 2013.
Let’s start with the environment.
“The fashion industry produces 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions -more than all international flights and maritime shipping. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally and it takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans.” (Linda Greer for the National Resource Defense Council).
Last year, my friend Lirra and I sat in the audience listening to Linda Greer, the brilliant scientist who wrote the above, and she turned to me and said, “Is this a rich person problem?”
While none of us are immune to using our power in order to make choices that reflect our values, maybe this is a “rich person problem” at it’s core.
Just as systemic racism is not something for people of color to do all the free labor to dismantle, toxicity in consumer culture, lack of enforcement in ethical manufacturing laws, and the bottom-line first nature of the apparel industry is not just for tiny companies or concerned citizens to tackle. The folks with the most power and the most resources need to take the lead on this.
Here are some meditations on how we can think about the American mixed economy, laws that govern it, and how it could operate if we reimagined it.
What is the government’s responsibility to consumers? Since consumers = all of us.
How do we look at the individual’s responsibility versus institutional responsibility?
Here’s a coffee-fueled channeled list of what questions we might ask in order to have an open mind about our values, the world we live in, and how each system we participate in is inherently connected.
Education: Is our education system preparing people to understand the cultures and systems they are participating in? Does it teach them to make informed decisions about financial opportunities, home-owning or how to navigate smaller economic choices, like buying baby formula that won’t be potentially harmful to their child. Does our education system prime us to be informed consumers?
What should be allowed in the marketplace?
There needs to be a government framework of ethics that is understandable and unentwined from lobbyists and big money. Why are there so many more chemicals that are considered carcinogenic in the beauty industry in Europe than there are in the United States? Is it the consumer’s job to make sure that what they are consuming doesn’t contain an ingredient that is known to the scientific research community to cause cancer? Can the consumer have good faith that products on the shelf are safe? Whose responsibility is it to make sure there are no TOXIC choices?
Digital spaces are spaces & all spaces need to be designed with the public’s wellbeing in mind:The metrics for a product’s success in the world of digital platforms and apps are their ability to keep us “engaged” for as long as possible; in other words, they are considered successful if they are addictive. If you watch the Frontline episodes about Facebook, you will see that not only is Facebook addictive, but since it’s algorithm is designed to keep a user on the internet for as long as possible, it encourages content that provokes emotional reactions.
Often this content is provocative because it’s hateful, one-sided OR at worst, it’s actually been manufactured by a malignant force who wants to manipulate the user. On top of this, these publicly-traded platforms are under enormous pressure to deliver profitability, so they don’t have a vetting process for advertisers or even for users. As a result, they’ve sold ads to Russian propagandists, because the need for profit doesn’t prioritize ethics. Tristan Harris talks about all digital spaces being spaces people spend time in. Just like cities, the design of these spaces need to have our wellbeing in mind.
When we are parsing out ethics, we need to start by defining our terms. We throw around words like “ethical” or sustainable all the time, but for one person, their assumption is that ethical means made in the US. Well guess what? There are sweatshops in Los Angeles.
Or perhaps someone thinks of “sustainable” as natural fabrics, but they don’t know that conventional cotton is one of the dirtiest crops on the planet.
Or perhaps something isn’t organic cotton because the maker couldn't afford the certification even though they grew their cotton the same exact way that a “certified organic” farmer did. Without a definition of terms, we are talking in a vacuum…
I have often thought the language on products should be framed to highlight potential harm. So, instead of saying something is all natural or “made in the USA” perhaps whatever is produced with potential harm should be labeled as such.
“Made by school-aged children.”
“Made with chemicals banned in most other countries.”
Perhaps in the top right corner of your screen, an app can say “Designed for addiction.” Or “We sell your data.” Or “Currently tracking your behavior.” (Don’t try to be cute and call it cookies, ok?) Consumers shouldn’t have to become part-time researchers to avoid harmful goods. Producers should have the onus of labeling what they are making particularly if they are a multinational corporation.
Our culture has to stop valuing convenience, entertainment and easy-to-understandability over everything. The most important problems of our day require patience, hearing many sides to an argument, trial and error. They involve institutions that we give authority to: scientists, federal agencies, huge companies, to be transparent about their processes and have more interaction with the public. Which then requires the public to learn some pretty boring but important stuff.
It requires us to become more patient and comfortable with ambiguity. The cultural problems around addictive social media, consuming to prove one’s worth and status, the oppression of people so that we can have cheap goods, or the destruction of the planet for profit, these problems aren’t going to be solved by attending rallies and gasping at documentaries.
Part of how they are going to be solved by pretty boring incremental changes. Researching how to look at the labels on your food and your clothing is pretty boring. But we all have to do some ditch-digging into these problems.
An ability to deal with complex problems with patience and compassion requires those with the most power and resources be at the table, and for the rest of us to withstand ambiguity, difficulty and pragmatic solutions that aren’t sexy, easy or fun. Usually in that mildly boring zone, truly impactful solutions are being entertained.
Having said the above, without cultural shift, there is no shift. You can tell kids to stay in school and stop eating unhealthy foods, but if you don’ have a cultural icons or interesting spaces to create empowering alternatives for how they should spend their time or what they should eat, you won’t inspire behavioral change. If you don’t create a conversation in popular culture, if you can’t make it feel relevant or exciting (or for lack of a better word, “cool”) for people, particularly young people, then your cause is relegated to your social bubble or organization.
To make movements out of moments, there needs to be an infrastructure for influential people, whether they are celebrities, prominent musicians or actors, powerful artists or cultural institutions to create embodied experimental spaces for new behaviors to solidify. What if there were spaces where advertising was illegal? What if there were entire months of the year in which we were encouraged to not buy a single thing we didn’t need or if there were days of the year that we were encouraged to talk to someone who didn’t look like us, who didn’t think like us? We need to change the energy of our collective space by studying how culture truly shifts. Is it viral videos? Is it partnering with fast-food chains to make it uncool to carry one-use cups? We need to start where we are. To meet people where they are. We need to be creating change where the impact will be felt instead of arguing about what is ideal or what is perfect.
Emotional health and awareness is required to navigate these spaces. What I mean by this is, if we are taught emotional intelligence exercises in school, from being the author of our own values, to how to communicate with our loved ones when we have different values, to how to identify a bully or when you are making yourself small, we will not be so quick to insult, react, or retaliate when we are having an uncomfortable conversation. We will be able to understand the motivations and triggers of everyone in the room, including ourselves and be able to respect the diversity without being threatened by differences of opinion.
Talking about money, politics, systemic racism, post-colonialism’s effects on how we subjugate colonized countries in order to get cheap goods, all of it, is going to be uncomfortable. If we want to mobilize our most intelligent, sensitive and well-meaning minds, they need to be clear on what they are bringing to the table in terms of their own biases and projections. Do we need to expect every politically-talented or scientifically-gifted person to also be emotionally intelligent on their own? Or can we build a base of emotional intelligence through teaching behavioral science, philosophy and wellness practices in public schools, so that the baseline of our country’s “normal” is to know how to take deep breaths and identify how we are feeling? Isn’t that a skill every potential leader, teacher or parent should have?
News outlets should be accountable. The “news” landscape needs an enforceable code of ethics. I was watching one of the documentary series on the recent decades - from the 70s to the early 2000s and one of the episodes was about how the quality of our “news” broadcasts changed when CNN was created. When CNN was created, all of a sudden there had to be “news'“ 24-hours a day. In the 90s, cable had just come to market, and pressure for ratings to make advertisement more appealing drove the normalization of sensationalized news.
I will repeat that. Sensationalizing the NEWS became the norm. This is when the live daily feeds of the OJ trial, and other dramatic decade-defining events became televised 24/7 because delivering information in an addictive, narrative way made money. For years investigative and nightly reporters delivered the news as objectively as possible, albeit through the lens of white men, the intention was to deliver the news, rather than create a “sensation.”At the time, it was an unspoken rule of journalism. It was the culture of the professional space.
There is room for diversity of opinions and free speech; but if your outlet is delivering “news” you are on-the-hook for accountability, fact-checking, truth-telling and ought to prioritize the education and informing of your audience over your profitability. (Much like the latest president has shown us, we cannot simply assume that something won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened before and our legislators need to take things from unspoken to written rule when the ethics of an industry or nation is at stake.)
Art changes culture. Artists need resources. When we need culture to shift, it’s the creatives that make that happen. From painters to musicians entrepreneurs creating a lifestyle that prioritizes beauty in one’s life over productivity, massive changes in our history were caused by artists.
Imagine the influence of John Lennon, of Buffy St. Marie, NWA. The people who looked up to them learned their politics, read their writing, listened to their lyrics. These were often people who were disenchanted with their history books or nightly news. If artists serve society, then we need to give artists resources. Art should not be something we starve for, or get to make because of our privilege. Art shouldn’t be something we do after working 40-hour work weeks. Art-making should be encouraged, rather than something we do instead of making income. Look at what draws people to our cities. Who it is that magnetizes viewers on Youtube. It’s artists. Can we cultivate some incentive for young children to explore their artistic vision that goes beyond being a technically-trained painter? Art is a way of thinking.
You need to use your own mind and if you’re not, that’s a choice, too. Let’s look at how we use social media. I do it all the time. I repost from an authority figure who I love. Then I become so trusting of their opinion, they become my go-to when I am interested in what they have to say, about sustainability, politics etc.
Or I begin to notice I am part of a hive- that similar themes and accounts are being shared on my Instagram feed. It begins to feel like we are all making these decisions as a collective. At every moment when something is at stake, it is easy to trust + internalize the thoughts of others on autopilot and forget about your own authority. It’s yet another form of passive consumption. If we aren’t careful we will forget to use our own minds. We will forget to see that someone who we love and trust said something we actually disagree with. We will forget what it feels like in our body to have cognitive dissonance because we will be so used to simply agreeing with whatever we give authority to.
Don’t blame digital media.
Always challenge the medium you are working in. We use our phones and apparently have less of an attention span than a goldfish. So that’s true now but it doesn’t have to be true forever. Use your phone to make a 10 video lecture about something you learned. FIND a way to fit in complexity, contradiction and space for creativity even in digital space. Tell your story in ten memes. Write long ass essays in the captions and insert emojis. Work with the beauty and plasticity and potential of your peers’ minds at heart. Don’t dumb down. Don’t assume it’s all bad because it’s digital. Chisel out a way to tell your truth, even on a tiny addictive screen. Frontline does it with television. Countless artists tell complex narratives on Netflix. Let’s not blame the medium or the metrics. Let’s reimagine it.
We need to understand the economy! Our economy is built on optics and optics encourage lies.
This economy is always dealing the realm of “perceived” values and ideas. Which is why news cycles affect our stock market -still something I admittedly cannot wrap my head around though I have done some digging. With most of our economy being in an opaque, confusing, reputation and rumor-based market where only college-educated or already wealthy folks have the tools to understand and play, opaqueness is rewarded. Unprofitable truths are quieted. Models that encourage slow and sustainable growth or investment-heavy behaviors that are better in the long run are discouraged. The market as we know it is all about people’s perceptions and behavioral reactions, rather than about facts and figures that reflect reality.
This is why I think we should start with addressing perception, behavior and ethics before anything else. How can we make choices without being manipulated by our media, by the market, by our government or our culture? We start with understanding our own minds and our behaviors as a group, and we do so with the use of our own minds rather than deferring our understanding to a bunch of prestigious academics or publications that are largely working in a system that prizes protocol over truth, and profits over bettering humanity.