17 March 2008

More "Ethical" Fashion Nonsense

Natalie Portman for Te Casan, Photograph: PR
Hollywood star - and lifelong vegetarian - Natalie Portman has collaborated with the New York shoe boutique Casan to create a gorgeous limited edition collection, entirely free from leather or any other animal products. The range includes ballet flats and faux-patent Mary Janes. Rumours have also reached our ears that Casan might be opening in the UK soon, for which we have crossed our fingers. In the meantime, they do ship internationally, though beware customs charges. It used to be easy to spot ethical fashion from its mass-produced counterpart, but no longer - collections like this are desirable and will sell on their own merits regardless of their ethical credentials. If only more celebrities or fashion designers would follow suit and produce ethical collections for fashion-led stores … “As a vegan, it’s been challenging finding designer shoes made of alternative materials”, says Portman herself. “This collection offers a great selection without compromising quality or style.” Portman is also donating 100% of her pay cheque to a charity dedicated to environmental preservation. ~ Kate Carter
Are you kidding? I came across this image and blurb in The Guardian today in the "Life & Style" section. I actually arrived there following a link promising to explain to me why it is that Hilary Clinton dresses like, well, ... like a 60 year old woman. That is another matter. But this little tidbit, which actually reads as though it were co-written by Portman's publicist and the shoe company's advert department, is meant as news?!? Poor Natalie. "As a vegan," she just can't find a pair of $250 pumps that don't include any animal products.

The real story ought to be why anyone ought to care about Natalie's dire predicament. I didn't know who Natalie Portman is so I looked her up. Apparently she is just another rich, vapid actress, selling bad films and, now, expensive shoes that make her feel better. So these shoes contain no animal products. Great. What sort of chemical footprint is created in manufacturing them just so as to accommodate Natalie's moralistic sensibilities? And how many people can afford these shoes anyway? How is this "ethical living"?

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Blogger ravigv said...

You know I'm not quite sure you could squeeze anymore assumptions into this post. Perhaps somewhere beyond the vaguely sexist, definitely speciesist prose you have a serious point about the inefficacy and depoliticising effects of consumer ethics. Or at least that's the interpretation I can garner from your label "Political Not Ethical". But right now you may have well have just written "consumer ethics its teh stupid! heh."

17 March, 2008 16:20  
Anonymous daweifrombeijing said...

Sorry to say this but all these bourgeoisie concerns for the ethical treatment of animals, the environment, and global warming are really hurting the poor. When the price of a bag of flour doubles in a month, it's no sweat off of Natalie Portman's back. On the other hand, a family of four or five living on 40K a year, or the small, independent pizza shop owner, well, they're fucked. I wonder what low and middle income people would rather have: a five degree increase of temperature over the next century, or stable prices?

17 March, 2008 17:31  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

ravigv - Thanks for the reply. You object to my "vaguely sexist, definitely speciesist prose." I don't see what is sexist about calling celebrities like Portman out for their shallow, self-serving "ethics." Nor do I see why wondering about the environmental impact of products - the manufacture of which might actually have a negative impact on many species - is problematic.

I find celebs like Portman self-absorbed - more concerned with their own sensibilities and the availability of luxuries than with the state of the world. If not caring about the difficulty of finding "ethical" $250 pumps makes me sexist and speciest, I guess I plead guilty. (I am hardly poor, but $250 easily buys a couple wweeks groceries in my house.) There are many, many, many more pressing problems in the world than the one Portman is "solving" here. There are many, many, many more producitve ways of having an actual impact on other species or the environment too. When Natalie pursues something more imporatnt in a more productive way, I will happily call attention to her efforts. In the meantime she deserves all the ridicule she gets on this score. (And, by the way, it hardly is "sexist" to call her Natalie in this context when her fans address her with equal familiarity while heaping praise on her.) JJ

17 March, 2008 18:26  
Blogger ravigv said...

Look, I am suggesting that perhaps automatically assuming that someone's ethics are purely a matter of sensibilities and a result of their own vapidity, merely plays into the usual divisions between serious and masculine politics, and the vacuous frivolity of the feminine domain (hence vaguely).

The logic of consumerist ethics is a little more complicated, and already addresses some of your concerns. In that objects of consumer value are often construed as being intrinsically products of exploitation and that any attempt to make them environmentally-friendly, vegan, fair-trade involves a cost in some ephemeral category such as style or taste. In this respect there is a point to trying to create "ethical" luxury items, in so far as it attempts to make concern for these issues not ones that must be sacrificed in order to succeed in mainstream culture.

On the other hand, the way consumer ethics reduces political change to a decision over which commodity to buy does depoliticise, limit the critical rigor, and imagination of what ever grounds the individual's desire for a vegan world. But surely this kind of critique requires a little more care than calling Portman vapid for wanting vegan shoes, even if you outrage the $250 price tag. If you wanna attack the existence of $250 shoes, by all means, but seriously why pick the vegan ones? If you want to critique the depoliticisation of ethics why setup the strawfigure of portman?

I think your question about the environmental impact of the "limited edition"ing of the shoes is a good one, to which could be added the usual suspect of fair-trade. The way "ethical" products tend to often rely on only one-axis ethics does add weight to your idea that these concerns are about simplistic moral sensibilities. Or about assuaging white (bourgie) guilt as it has been put elsewhere:
But that critique is either implying that environmentalism/veganism etc is no more than guilt assuaging, or just calling for a more consistent better version of consumer ethics.

17 March, 2008 19:38  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

ragiva - Thanks for writing back. You said:

"Look, I am suggesting that perhaps automatically assuming that someone's ethics are purely a matter of sensibilities and a result of their own vapidity, merely plays into the usual divisions between serious and masculine politics, and the vacuous frivolity of the feminine domain (hence vaguely)."

What indication is there from The Guardian piece that Portman is doing anything other than assuage her sensibilities? None that I can see.

Moreover, moralism is not gendered. There are plenty of moralistic males. (Even if they might typically tend to be moralistic in a libertarian way.) I think the vapidity comes with celebrity. Worrying about your expensive shoes (or other acceeories) regardless of whether you are male or female seems shallow to me. I don't see anything I wrote as suggesting otherwise.

Compare Portman here with, say, Vanessa Redgrave. This designer move costs Portman nothing. It is risk-free. Redgrave took forthright political stands that arguably cost her in her career. You might take Susan Saradon instead of Redgrave if you wanted a somewhat less stark example. The contrast, I think, still holds.

I think Portman and other young celebs engage in "ethical" displays like this because it is useful to their careers and makes them feel good about themselves. Maybe I am wrong; as I said in the initial post I didn't know who Portman was until this afternoon. But it would take some evidence to the contrary to persuade me.

I agree when you say "consumer ethics reduces political change to a decision over which commodity to buy does depoliticise, limit the critical rigor, and imagination of what ever grounds the individual's desire for a vegan world". So there is little dissagreement there.

That said, to my mind, there is nothing that can make designing and marketing $259 red faux patent leather pumps - vegan or otherwise - into a political statement. What I find outrageously onoxious is that Portman is out there claiming some sort of moral high ground for having ollaborated in the design. Why make a big deal about the veganism? Why not just say that she is designing fancy shoes? because she wants moral credit. This story did not make it into The Guardian by accident. It clearly is part of a publicist's campaign.

As for your final point, I think that environmentalism (including food politics) is a political not an ethical issue. Consumer choice is not going to change things. Political campaigns and changed policies might have an effect (if anything does). I have written on this theme here before. (Criticizing Al Gore - a man - by the way.) I think portraying consumer choices as "ethical" or otherwise invites moralism of the sort I see at work in this instance. And it depoliticizes matters in ways that you suggest above.

I appreciate your engagement. You ar emaking me think. Thanks. JJ

17 March, 2008 21:15  

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