Last night I went to hear Naomi Klein and Raj Patel speak at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. I was interested in their books, particularly Klein’s No Logo (originally published 10 years ago) and Patel’s The Value of Nothing, which just hit the bestseller list, and, of course, how their ideas might apply to clothing.
As soon as I sat down, I was reminded of this great cultural moment in conscious consumerism, when I heard this unmistakeable voice over my shoulder.
Wallace Shawn, who plays the wily Sicilian from The Princess Bride, and also happens to be a writer, was sitting behind me. But as you might imagine, the lightheartedness pretty much ended there.
Amy Goodman moderated the discussion, much of which hinged on the devastating earthquake in Haiti. and how we’re likely to see the theories set forth in Patel and Klein’s books (particularly Klein’s Shock Doctrine) at work in the coming months.
Patel is a smooth talker who uses simple metaphors to explain his ideas, many of which hinge on debt as a means of subjugation, and also on hunger. “I always come back to food,” he said.
To explain the basis for The Value of Nothing, he talked about the real value of a $4 hamburger, as he did on the Colbert Report, lamenting that the price of a burger does not account for what’s lost in creating it (ie: the environmental cost of losing biodiversity and carbon sucking trees for the pasture could be worth $200 alone, and one fifth of American’s health care dollars go to treating diabetes.) Patel said lots of the same things last night as he did when he appeared on the Colbert Report (and was also wearing the same eggplant-colored velvet jacket) but honestly, I’m still trying to figure out the solution he proposes to the flawed free market, as it seems Colbert was too, when he ran out of time (see here.)
Is it Socialism? I’m not sure, but the first chapter of the book is available online for further investigation. I like that Colbert steered the consumption model toward clothing on his segment, using his own tie as an example, instead of that same old food analog. He doesn’t talk so much about the “real cost” of clothing as he does the vicious cycle of what Klein called the part-time economy in No Logo, using Wal-Mart as an example of a company that remains uncommitted to their employees, paying them so little they can barely afford to shop there–what Colbert jokingly calls the free market “Circle of Life.”
Klein, ahead of the curve, used clothing ten years ago in No Logo to explain what we’ve now come to know as our service economy, where we don’t manufacture tangible things so much as we build brands. (And what, I wonder, would Mr. Patel say, is the value of a brand?)
image from Gen XYZ: Who Are We?
I noticed when Ms. Klein stood up, that there was actually a logo on the stage. It was small, dark red, sewn onto the back of her jeans and I am pretty sure it said, “Citizens of Humanity.” I’m not referring to a political patch, but rather to an identifying marker of ironically-named designer denim.
As I said, I can’t be sure that they were Citizens (their resemblance to Seven for All Mankind jeans might be seen as a weakness of the brand), but it would be interesting to learn what someone like Ms. Klein, an activist who knows so incredibly much about all the economic and social forces at play in clothing marketing and manufacturing, but also looks pretty and polished, decides what to wear.