If there’s one thing people from the Western world love, it’s being trendy. Sites everywhere from TMZ to the Huffington Post report on the “Top 20 Best and Worst Dressed” and solicit opinions from the public about “that blah blah blah designer dress that one actress wore to that one awards show.”
Three bandwagons Westerners, particularly Americans, love to jump on are Internet-viral philanthropies, cheap, healthy foods and “world” fashions – especially if all they require are a few bucks or metaphorical shouting via social media. However, many people don’t consider their bigger-picture implications on their countries of origin. We can see this tendency in KONY 2012, TOMs shoes, quinoa sales and the retail company Urban Outfitters.
Flashing back to 2012, one of the most relevant examples of this was the KONY 2012 movement. For those who have put this out of their mind, Invisible Children attempted to raise awareness of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, in hopes the world would seek a way to end his reign of terror. The video promoting the cause blew up all over Facebook news feeds. Americans everywhere expressed their outrage.
You may have noticed this is no longer on anyone’s radar. This may be due in part to Invisible Children creator Jason Russell’s very public meltdown. Regardless, it’s probably for the best.
For one, Ugandans on the ground weren’t at all appreciative of this campaign. Victor Ochen of the African Youth Initiative Network called the video “offensive” and explained how victims of the LRA didn’t want Kony promoted; they just wanted to move on. Invisible Children also failed to note the LRA was no longer considered a legitimate threat to Ugandans.
One thing I noticed before the KONY 2012 trend started was who was posting about it on my Facebook. I knew most of them pretty well; I went to high school with a few of them. Never in my life had I heard them mention a thing about Uganda or even Africa in the past, save for maybe something school-related. Suddenly, this American organization pointed out this “crisis,” and they went into SAVE AFRICA! mode.
I call it a trend because these media promotions, etc., of non-Western cultures are usually only viral for a while. KONY 2012 has now dropped out of the news completely.
One trend related to Africa in particular that has withstood is TOMS shoes. I’ve only had the privilege of trying the shoes on because I can’t justify playing more than $40 for slip-ons.
The political left was up in arms when it discovered a possible alliance between TOMS and Focus on the Family, one of marriage equality’s biggest enemies. The rumor turned out to be completely false. However, you’re still contributing to something problematic if you choose to buy these shoes.
TOMS shoes exists under an incorrect assumption that there are no shoemakers in the communities where they’re being sent. There are, in fact, local workers – TOMs just doesn’t associate with them. Instead TOMS steals their agency.
The creator of SoleRebels, an Ethiopian shoe company, put it well: “If you give a kid shoes, they wear out or they grow out of them, and then what do they have? If you give the kid’s parents a job, the whole family will always have shoes.”
SoleRebels has about 100 employees who receive payment three times the typical Ethiopian’s salary. The company also covers the cost of healthcare for its workers and school for their children. I highly recommend you consider buying from SoleRebels instead of TOMS next time you need a new pair of shoes.
Another hot topic in the media is quinoa. If you’re not familiar, it’s a slightly bitter edible seed packed with protein. Since its “discovery” by vegetarian and vegan westerners as a suitable replacement for meat, the demand for it in the United States and Great Britain has gone up considerably. The United Nations went so far as to dub 2013 “The Year of Quinoa.”
Perhaps this might seem like something to celebrate, but this surge in sales has caused a major problem for the countries who harvest quinoa. Now poorer folk in nations like Bolivia and Peru can barely afford the grain-like plant that was once a staple. In Lima, Peru, it costs more than chicken.
Peru is also a major player in the world market for asparagus. Consequently, Peru has had to expand its cultivation, which has depleted a large chunk of water supply.
Others have encouraged that we not blame vegans. One writer for Guardian News claimed it’s the meat industry to blame for widespread hunger and global warming. Although some points in this argument have merit, this doesn’t make the blows against local farming economies any less important.
Quinoa isn’t the only cheap source of protein vegans have – leafy greens like spinach, for example. Instead of a quinoa burger, make a nut burger.
A non-economic example of the exploitation is seen in various examples of cultural appropriation – defined as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission” by Fordham University Law professor Susan Scafidi.
Urban Outfitters has been found guilty on multiple occasions of blatantly racist or anti-Semitic products. The company also uses white models to show off Native American headdresses and clothing, etc. Offending products include a board game called “Ghettopoly,” shirts adorned with the Star of David (reminiscent of the Holocaust), “face gems” (which are actually just cheap bindis) and white models wearing Native American headdresses because they’re “cute.”
Not to mention not only does UO use sweatshop labor, it is public about it.
One of UO’s other gimmicks is selling “hipster”-esque clothing but at a price that is, in my opinion, really unreasonable. Instead of looking for quirky fashion at UO, try actually going to a thrift shop. You know, like Macklemore.
Now, I’m not suggesting that liking any of these above-mentioned things makes you a horrible person – (1) you may have not even been aware of these realities, and (2) everyone is guilty of liking something problematic, except say maybe Mother Teresa. But you need to have a real understanding of what lies behind these trends.
Privilege is laughing at “Ghettopoly” while simultaneously having no idea what life in the ghetto is actually like. Privilege is having budget that allows you to buy $40+ slip-ons – the same kind that will fall apart on a child from the other side of the world’s feet. And privilege is sticking a plastic bindi on your head and having it seen as “adorable” rather than as a sign of your “otherness.”
Remember what is now trendy or amusing to you may be linked to an everyday, sometimes painful, reality to someone else.
Ruth Boettner is a senior French and global studies major. Reach her at