BP Oil Spill, “Conspicuous Conservation,” and Brownie Points

Debbie says:

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the BP oil spill as a source of fashion photography, working from a post by Lisa at Sociological Images. Now, Lisa is back with a very different disturbing take on the greater subject.

a display of three different brown leather loafers, all "finished" to look as if they were oil-stained

These shoes are the Bed Stu “Cleanup Collection,” designed to look as though their wearers have been getting dirty on the shores of the Gulf Coast, presumably washing off waterbirds and turtles.

Bed Stu is a shoe company named to make us think of Bedford Stuyvesant (generally known as “BedStuy”), an extremely poor neighborhood of New York City. From their website (where I couldn’t find these shoes), they seem to make high-quality men’s and women’s shoes, not cheap but not priced in the skyrocket range either. 100% of profits from the “Cleanup Collection” will, they say, go to clean-up efforts in the Gulf.

As Lisa says:

This looks to me like an example of “conspicuous conservation.” The term was originally derived from the phrase “conspicuous consumption,” defined by Wikipedia as “lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth.” Conspicuous conservation, then, is the (often lavish) spending on “green” products designed mainly to advertise one’s environmentally-moral righteousness.

If you wear regular shoes and donate to the gulf spill clean up, your altruism is entirely invisible. But if you buy these hideous things, everyone gets to know what a nice guy you are.

I agree completely with Lisa about the conservation angle, and the conspicuousness, and I think it goes a little deeper. These shoes don’t only say “I gave money to the BP oil spill” (and how much did the wearer really “give” by purchasing a pair of shoes for the price he would pay anyway?). They also say, if not, “I personally worked to help clean up the BP oil spill,” at least, “I am willing to represent myself as having personally worked to clean up the BP oil spill.” They convey an ethic of personal involvement and actual labor. And they convey that ethic by a clothing choice: How do I want to look in the world? I want to look like a person who would go to the Gulf and get dirty.

I didn’t personally work to clean up the BP oil spill, or the devastation left by the Haitian earthquake, or for that matter, the results of any other natural or manmade disaster. Walking off the trail in the park to pick up litter is about my speed. And thus, I would be embarrassed to wear those shoes, because I don’t want to claim experience, or virtue, or even curiosity, that I don’t have. Since all clothing makes statements, when articles of clothing are politicized, wearing or not wearing them becomes a matter of integrity. The shoes feel to me a little bit like a Disneyland ride, not the roller-coaster kind but the ones that have a flavor of simulation in perfect safety: I took a trip on a jungle boat; I voyaged through the inside of the human bloodstream.

As a group, in the U.S. and first world middle class, most of us live very clean and comfortable, and fairly sedentary lives without much adventure and without much hard labor. And we crave the rewards and kudos we would get for adventure and hard labor without the actual heat and bugs, hard beds and dirty shoes. This has been true for many decades. In fact, significant numbers of people pay for expensive adventure vacations, with or without hard work: anything from inexperienced crewing on a sailing ship to being guided up Mount Everest. Clothing choices with the “adventurous” flavor is hardly new: Banana Republic clothing and contemporary cowboy hats are two examples.

But the Cleanup Collection shoes are the first thing I’ve personally seen that add the spice of “ethical person/volunteer/donated time and sweat” to the mix. Buying and wearing these shoes is using your clothing choices to take subtle credit for other people’s hard work and lived experience. At the same time, if the money actually goes to good work in the Gulf (something that always has to be examined), I’m sure the organizations whose volunteers have their feet in the oil are glad to cash the check.