This week I heard a story on NPR about barn wood. The Midwest is losing their scenic, falling-apart barns because the wood is a hot commodity for people who would like to add that weathered look to their restaurant wall, bar counter, or expensive home. The barns in question have already lived out their useful agricultural lives, but are worth more when taken apart and reassembled elsewhere to create an illusion of homeyness and warm, fuzzy feelings in people who have a nostalgia for what they may have never personally known, or maybe what never was. That folksy look is a bit of a con job, though, as the honest work that the appearance represents is merely a purchased veneer that sells for big money. It reminded me of a string of ways in which liberalism as a fashion statement provides a wholesome front and booming industry on the back.
The shoe company Nike began promoting its “Girl Effect” campaign in 2008. The message they’re trying to convey is that the empowerment of girls around the world, by providing them with educational opportunities, health care, and fighting tired patriarchal ideas about the proper place of girls and women in society, is the key to lifting people out of poverty. They’re not incorrect, either. Women who earn money are likelier to spend it on what their children and families need, rather than what they want for themselves. Education makes people less likely to accept the expectation of a life of ignorance, and educated girls are likelier to grow into women that are more prepared to assume leadership roles in their communities.
The girl effect: The clock is ticking – video courtesy of The Girl Effect.
Peeking behind Nike’s sweatshop doors, however, reveals a different set of goals: keeping workers, especially poor women from places like Vietnam, desperate and in constant fear. Employees at the Nike factory have been physically abused, face insane demands, and make a pittance in wages. Even their concessions are a cruel hoax; for example, pregnant women are allowed a shorter work day of only seven hours, yet the quota of shoes that they’re expected to make is not reduced, meaning that they must work faster and harder than women who aren’t pregnant.
Empowering people (women are people, of course) also makes for uppity employees, and empowered, educated employees end up wanting considerations like wages that let them support a family, health care when they’re sick, a safe place to drop off their kids when they go to work, and a host of other demands that end up making shoes more expensive for Western consumers, to put it bluntly. If the empty air of the “Girl Effect” ad campaign has influenced consumers to wear Nike’s shoes, this is quite literally liberalism as a fashion statement.
Nike Sweatshops: Behind the Swoosh, video courtesy of TeamSweat. Do these conditions seem conducive to empowering girls or anyone else?
Meanwhile, back in the United States, couple years back, Whole Foods faced a PR scandal when Fortune magazine reported that the green-haloed grocery chain used prison labor to produce some of their fancy cheeses and other expensive foods. Customers had been led, willingly, to believe that the grocer’s practices and products were as saintly as the store’s holy image, carefully crafted and conveyed through soft lighting, quirky handmade signage, stories of farmers and other small-time producers shared throughout the store, and impromptu-yet-coached interactions with mandatorily cheerful employees. Whole Foods is the very picture of liberalism as a fashion statement, though, because even the apologies for the prison labor dustup took the form of assurances that the incarcerated laborers were being taught useful skills that they could use to get jobs once they were free and able to choose how to spend their life’s energy. I wonder which outcome is more likely: that our shopping habits have enabled a movement of ex-cons going into cheesemongering, or that corporate America (including for-profit prisons) have warmed themselves by fleecing shoppers who were more well-meaning than consciously capitalizing. Whole Foods has pledged to stop using prison labor, since it wasn’t quite as big of a fashion statement once people realized what was going on, but it makes me wonder what else they’ll get into next.
Food and clothing aren’t the only ways to engage in liberalism as a fashion statement, though, and in Part 2, I’ll discuss other areas where good intentions and unfortunate reality combine in ways that render some worthwhile and progressive goals useless or harmful in effect.