Clint Eastwood’s teenage daughter Francesca and her photography boyfriend Tyler Shields (who seems to have a thing for images of beaten-up looking women like this one of a blooded Lindsay Lohan and this one of a bruised up Heather Morris) have made news with their latest art project in which they “demolish a $100,000 crocodile Hermès Birkin bag by setting it on fire before taking a chainsaw to it.”
There is a lot to criticize about this art project. Most egregious for me is its utter tone deafness with regard to fashion’s impact on the environment and the exploitative and dangerous conditions in which such luxury items are manufactured.
To begin, leather products (produced from greenhouse gas-emitting cows that are a leading cause of global warming) must be treated with a toxic chemical cocktail of sodium sulfide, sodium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulfite, arsenic sulfide, calcium hydrosulfide, dimethyl amine, sodium sulphydrate, and sulphuric acid. The tanning process is so harmful to the environment that “many old tannery sites cannot be used for agriculture. Tanneries not only often poison the land they are situated on, but also the waterways into which they discharge effluent.”
Moreover, industrial tanning is seriously harmful to the health of workers who have to oversee the poisonous process. By and large, these workers are low-wage and highly concentrated in the Global South (mostly in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India, but also in Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa). Most tannery workers suffer from back pain, asthma, dermatitis, and chronic bronchitis; all workers are at elevated risks for developing cancer of the bladder, the respiratory system, and the reproductive system. Studies have also found that greater numbers of tannery workers develop premature dementia. As compensation, workers get paid about US$100 per month. In other words, the very people who are making and literally dying for these products, cannot afford to own them. Meanwhile, elites like Eastwood and Shields benefit from the high symbolic value of luxury products without suffering any of the costs. (Neither of their lungs nor their drinking water is contaminated by the cancer-inducing toxins that went into making the Birkin they so gleefully and publicly destroy.)
Yet given the inarguably damaging conditions and effects of tanneries that produce luxury products like this $100,000 Birkin bag, I’m reluctant to judge people for buying them. Let me explain why. Most products in the mass and luxury markets are manufactured in harmful conditions that have deleterious effects on the environment and the people who work and live near the facilities. Fashion is not the only or even worse contributor to environmental racism, labor exploitation, and global warming. Commodities and services that pack a larger eco-punch, for example, are air travel, bottled water, and disposable razors. Yet fashion consumers are easy scapegoats. They’re already perceived as frivolous, wasteful, and stupid conspicuous consumers whose feminine vanity leads them to participate in irrational and irresponsible consumer practices that are the cause of All Of The World’s Problems. The gendered subtext that always lurks behind this finger wagging is why I’m turned off by fashion-shaming of all stripes and sizes. (While Shields is as responsible for this art project as Eastwood, because it’s her body that we see in the photographs and because fashion is almost automatically associated with women, she’s received a disproportionate amount of the criticism. Commenters have used a myriad of sexist epithets to deride Eastwood.) Seldom is this kind of moralizing and shaming lodged at consumers of luxury cars, personal technologies, homes, and vacation packages even as all these luxury items have adverse effects on the local environments and economies in which they’re produced.
It’s less relevant here but one more reason I find fashion-shaming an uncompelling critical approach is the ways in which conspicuous consumption ideology has been unevenly and asymmetrically applied to people of color across the class and gender spectrums. (I discuss this a bit more here.)
None of this is meant to excuse the awful conditions in which leather is processed and manufactured. Just so that my position is clear: I believe all workers should be paid a living wage, that protective clothing (HAZMAT-level, if necessary) is part of the job-related equipment for which employers are solely responsible, that adequate and affordable healthcare is a human right, and that companies should be legally and financially obligated to make sure that the land, air, and water that these workers and their families depend on – to live – is safe. My aunt worked in a computer chip plant in southern California where, as we found out after her death to lung cancer, she had no access to fresh air or ventilation during the 10-12 hours she spent there each working day. (She never smoked a day in her life.) My position on improving labor conditions for all low wage workers, a predominantly ethnic labor force, is both political and personal.
But I have no truck with fashion-policing or morality-policing. I’m more interested in critiquing the structures of wealth and wage inequality and the systemic practices of financial companies that have resulted in the racial disparity in credit card debt that give shape to the differential meanings, possibilities, and relations to consumption for marginalized people.
So rather than moralizing about conspicuous consumption, I think a more compelling critique of Eastwood and Shield’s art project is one that focuses on their obnoxious glorification of conspicuous wastefulness. For me, their wanton destruction of this luxury handbag demonstrates their total apathy, ignorance, and disrespect for the human and environmental costs that went into its manufacture. Certainly, “the post-consumption life” of this bag (h/t Jessamyn Hatcher) might have been extended in numerous other useful or at least less insulting ways. For example, if they no longer wanted the handbag, why not sell it and donate the proceeds to their favorite sweat-free labor organization or cancer-research charity? What bothers me about this art project is not the flaunting of wealth via conspicuous consumption but rather the flouting of “the possessive investment in whiteness” (George Lipsitz’s eminently useful term for the privileged relationship between whiteness and asset accumulation, attitudes and material interests).
I have no idea what the intended message of their art project is – I could probably Google it but honestly, I don’t care. The message received, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that in the midst of one the worst global economic recessions in which, according to a 2012 report by the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland ”one in three workers in the labour force is currently either unemployed or poor [and] that out of a global labour force of 3.3 billion, 200 million are unemployed and a further 900 million are living with their families below the US$2 a day poverty line” these two young people are flaunting their social privileges. These structural privileges are not only unearned but apparently in excess since they obviously have money to burn. Talk about tastelessness.
Just added (10:17AM EDT)
Almost immediately following the publication of this post, my favorite Jezebel writer Jenna Sauers and I engaged in some late night behind the blog bandying about this post, her post, and a bunch of other thoughts we had about the authenticity of the story and its larger implications. I’m posting it here because (a) I think back screen chatter like this one is part and parcel of social media dialogue and (b) I just discovered Storify and I wanted an opportunity to use it.
Edited to add (10:32AM EDT):
And the story continues: US Weekly is now reporting that Shields “has made a pledge that should appease those who are quick to remind him of the starving population across the globe.” (Ahem)
So sayeth he:
The Birkin photos are for sale. If somebody were to buy…all right, let’s do this. If somebody wants to buy one of the Birkin photos, I will donate $100,000 — not to a charity — but to a family. I will give one family in need $100,000 cash.