Joshua Katcher is an adjunct professor at Parsons The New School for Design and has taught Sustainable Fashion at the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising. He is currently writing his first book, Fashion & Animals, and has lectured on that topic at Princeton, The American University of Paris, Parsons, Brown, UPenn, and FIT among others. Katcher started the men’s ethical lifestyle website, The Discerning Brute in 2008 and launched the Brave GentleMan label and eCommerce platform in 2010.
Caryn Hartglass: Hi everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. How are you today? I’m glad to be back. I missed last Tuesday because I was planning my big event and I’ll tell you about one more time. I know I talked about it quite a bit but now that it’s over, I want to tell you how great it was. So we had the Happy B’Eathday Reveu last week on Earth Day, yes, it was my birthday, I know you know. It was really a lovely, lovely celebration of all good things about food, even though I did get to share some not so nice stories about food but the bottom line is, we had the answers for a healthy, delicious, sustainable world if we can all move towards eating plants, plants that are grown free from toxic residues, pesticides and herbicides. But you know what, the answers are there, it’s not rocket science. We have the answers but the action, we all need to take action and this is where you come in. We all need to do our part and we all need to do something. The first step I believe in is eating a plant based diet because not only is it nutritious and delicious, it’s fun and it’s easy! I think it’s easy and I try and help other people see how really easy it is when you stop resisting. I’m part of the Food Revolution Summit this week which is so empowering and it’s also exhausting because it’s 3 hours every day. I don’t know how many of you are taking part in this but if you go to www.responsibleeatingandliving.com and scroll down a bit to the Food Revolution Summit, it’s going on April 25th to May 3rd so we’re half way through. There are 3 experts that are interviewed every day by John Robbins and then his son, Ocean Robbins, gives really lovely commentary and sums everything up. And I participated giving the recipe and tip for the day, helping people along in their plant-strong food journey. I’m so inspired by this event because there are like 150,000 people that have signed up and are listening and that is inspiring to know that so many people are taking the time to learn. In the forum for this event, I am continually surprised and amazed but also happy. I read all these people who are stunned to find out all of the things that we already know about but they’re stunned to find out what’s going on with our food system and they want to make a difference and help so this is really exciting. We’ve been talking about genetically modified food and the politics of food and the exploitation of animals and people when it comes to food and then of course nutrition. There are so many things that are being covered in such a short amount of time so I want you to check that out when you have a chance. So let’s bring on our first guest for today, shall we? Joshua Katcher, the Discerning Brute, is an adjunct professor at Parsons the New School for Design and has taught sustainable fashion at the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising. He’s currently writing his first book, Fashion & Animals, and has lectured on that topic at Princeton, The American University of Paris, Parsons, Brown, UPenn and FIT among others. Katcher started the men’s ethical lifestyle website The Discerning Brute (www.thediscerningbrute.com) in 2008 and launched the Brave GentleMan label and eCommerce platform in 2010. Joshua, how are you today?
Joshua Katcher: Great. Thank you so much for having me on the air.
Caryn Hartglass: You’re very welcome. People may not realize it but I talk about food all the time and there’s so many crazy things going on with food, the exploitation, the poisoning of the food, the poisoning of our planet, the cruelty to animals and I’m out of breath listing all the horrible things that are going on with our food today.
Joshua Katcher: I know.
Caryn Hartglass: But when we allow what’s going on with our food system to occur and allow animals to be exploited, it’s that much easier to allow the same exploitation to go on with our clothing.
Joshua Katcher: You know, it is a parallel industry and what a lot of people don’t realize is that the fashion industry has global implications, the same way that the food industry does.
Caryn Hartglass: Yup.
Joshua Katcher: The fashion industry has a very interesting way of being able to be perceived as benign or frivolous or harmless. We look at clothes and we see it as just something fun to do. Go find a deal and pick out a nice outfit but the thing that we don’t see about fashion is that it is a global industrial complex where it affects millions and millions of workers, billions of animals and ecosystems everywhere. It’s considered one of the top polluters in the world and one of the top causes of waste when it comes to textile waste. When you look at and when you combine the issue that affects workers, the issues that affect animals and the issues that affect the environment, you’re talking about a really serious, serious industry.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. So what do we do about it Joshua? Are you here to save the day?
Joshua Katcher: Well I would like to, that would be fun.
Caryn Hartglass: Put on a cape, a fashionable cape.
Joshua Katcher: An ethically made cape. You know, there are a lot of small independent designers that are popping up everywhere that are really going against the grain and they’re pushing back against this fast fashion system. And when I say fast fashion, it’s similar to how we look at fast food. It’s a very similar concept. It’s really cheap, high volume production to make the greatest amount of profits for the industry and the minimal amount of expense and considerations provided to those that are wrapped up in the production process. Just the other day was a new holiday that we started celebrating just a couple years ago called Fashion Revolution Day and this year, Fashion Revolution Day asked everyone to consider the question: who made my clothes? And that’s a really important question to ask and I like to contribute to that and say it’s equally important to say of whom are my clothes made, in addition to who made my clothes? So animals are turned into fashion objects and they’re hidden behind this industry where we don’t see how they’re processed. We do see how they are processed and for most people, it goes against the values that all of us already share.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s a very interesting world we live in and I know that many of us fall into this lifestyle where we want a deal, we want a bargain and it’s so tempting because you can walk into just about any store and everything is on sale and there are some things that are incredibly inexpensive. You want it. It looks good.
Joshua Katcher: And that’s the dangerous thing about fashion. It’s similar to food where we want it to taste good and we don’t want to think about how it’s made. That’s what I call esthetic irrationality where because something is pretty or because something is yummy, that makes it a good and not a bad. Even though the way it is made might be considered a bad but that’s hidden under layers of marketing and very expensive advertising. That’s the thing that the manufactures don’t want you to think about. It creates fantasies for us and to believe in those fantasies are the fashion ads that we see, the runway shows and all the glitter and glamour that surrounds the fashion industry. And the parallel to that is what we see happening in the food industry with happy meat, organic meat and all of these attempts to green wash and white wash things that might otherwise be seen as horrible.
Caryn Hartglass: All right, let’s just talk about people for a moment. Let’s get to the animal story in a moment but we hear occasionally about some nightmare that occurs in a non-western country where people are locked in a building or crammed in a building and they’re treated really poorly. They’re paid next to nothing and they are just like slave labor and then some disaster happens. There’s a fire where everybody dies or they can’t get out. But these things are going on all the time today. It’s not a random experience. A lot of our clothing today is made by like serfs, feudal labor almost.
Joshua Katcher: It is and the problem isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse and that’s what a lot of people don’t realize is that we think that sweat shops were a big issue in the ‘90s and we somehow worked it out. No. What’s happening is the companies are being much more quick with their responses about let’s say that we are addressing these issues or let’s say that we’re making our policies more safe for workers and that we’re going to have more oversight. But really, it’s just happening more and more frequently. And if anybody watches John Oliver on HBO, I think it was just either last night or the night before, he did a whole segment on this very issue. It’s really – he uses comedy to address this and if you just Google “John Oliver sweat shop” it’ll pop up and it’s really worth watching because what he does is shows the history of how frequently this happens that there’s a tragedy in a factory, a bunch of people die or they discover that it’s a bunch of 12 year olds working 14 hour days and being paid nothing and they can’t even buy the equivalent of a meal for their family with a day’s salary. It is slavery, it isn’t like slavery.
Caryn Hartglass: No, it is.
Joshua Katcher: This is not getting better so this has a lot to do with our desire for cheap clothes, our desire and entitlement to feeling like we deserve a $10 t-shirt. It seems though that we are willing to pay a little bit more for organic food now and we should be willing to pay a little bit more for fair labor and fashion, and also for ethically made fashion that doesn’t use and harm animals. Animals are even more exploited in the fashion industry than laborers are because the laborers can at least attempt to organize, they can at least talk to each other and try to fight for their rights and protests. They often get crushed in their protests but at least they are able to do that. The animals aren’t even considered valid beings, their just seen as units of production. Their needs are very, very rarely met. Who speaks on behalf of them? If we let the industry speak on behalf of the animals, of course they’re going to tell us that the conditions are fine, their happy and their well taken care of and it’s just a haircut. That’s what we always hear from the wool industry, it’s just a haircut.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh god. I remember when I first read about wool production, I got some little book and it’s horrifying to read what goes on to sheep for their wool.
Joshua Katcher: It is something that most people don’t think about and have no idea about. It’s something that the sustainable fashion industry likes to claim as sustainable, that wool is this product that is considered biodegradable and natural and we hear all these lovely key words and then we look at the actual numbers and we look at how the sheep, the livestock themselves, impact the environment. We know that livestock are the number one cause of the worst environmental problems. That means sheep. There’s a billion sheep on the planet, a billion. That’s one for every six people. When you consider the amount of resources that need to go into raising that number of sheep, the amount of land use, the amount of drinking water and the amount of chemicals to process the wool, and it’s a high volume, high turnover industry where the shearers are expected that they are paid by volume, many of them in America and Australia. These are prey animals. Sheep are prey animals and they don’t like to be pinned down so they resist and they fight and in undercover investigations, you can see these undercover investigations if you just search wool exposed or wool investigation. They resist, they don’t want to be pinned down and then these workers who have to shear a thousand sheep a day get frustrated and they end up beating these animals over the head with their shear blades and they get cut. It’s just a nightmare. It isn’t just a friendly haircut and it’s terrible for the environment. So that’s a big problem with wool.
Caryn Hartglass: And then I’ve read how destructive they are on the terrain, specifically in Australia and when the animals are spent, just like in the food industry, then they’re liked shipped over to the middle east to be slaughtered as meat.
Joshua Katcher: Yes. So when you look at the area of the area like New Zealand and Australia which is one of the leaders in the production of wool, their number one source of green house gas emissions is sheep.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Joshua Katcher: The industry really doesn’t want people to know about that and they’ve just in the last several months have paid for studies to try and show that wool is eco-friendly because it didn’t get very positive results when they had their life cycle assessment looked at. So they’re doing a little bit of back cuddling and trying to figure out how to repackage wool as environmentally friendly again because it’s not. But if you look at the hair by itself, detached from the animal, then yes, it’s a great product, but can we have wool without the animal? And that’s a question that we’re actually asking right now, that science is asking, that we are able to answer. The answer is soon, yes, we will be able to have wool and fur and we already have leather without the animal attached. And there is a lot of really exciting things happening in the realm of biotechnology that is going to enable us to remove animals from the production equation.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I have to say that I never thought about the green house gas emissions from sheep so thank you for bringing that up. I never connected the dots. That’s genius and just one more thing to be upset about.
Joshua Katcher: But regarding your question or point about the land, yes, land erosion from sheep grazing is a big problem and what they tried to do for a while was confine the sheep in the same way they do to pigs on these high confinement gestation crate style operations. They tested that out and it didn’t work out very well and so they stopped doing that. They realized that it’s a problem and whenever there’s a lot of money at stake, you are going to see the industries doing anything and everything that they can to find a different way to make it work or just to green wash and deny, deny, deny until they absolutely can’t anymore.
Caryn Hartglass: This green washing is really important to pay attention to so people may not realize there are companies that want to appear that they are with it and doing good things for the environment. They make all kinds of claims and some of them are misleading and some of them false. They appear green but they’re really not.
Joshua Katcher: It’s a really big problem and it’s confusing and it’s disheartening for citizens to have to try to decipher whether a business is being honest or not. And the lesson that we learn again and again is that if an industry claims it’s environmentally friendly, you should be suspicious and you should look into and find out, are they really environmentally friendly? Are they really ethically? What is at stake for them and why are they making this claim? Those are really important questions to ask because if an industry that’s a traditional industry or huge corporation, often times, it’s just marketing.
Caryn Hartglass: Now let’s talk about sustainable fashion. Is there a sustainable fashion organization or a certification? What does that all mean?
Joshua Katcher: The concept of sustainable fashion in itself is not regulated, per say. There are regulations that exist in different countries regarding whether you can label something organic or whether you can label something made in a certain country, but no, it’s a de-regulated concept. It’s really up to the companies to proclaim to themselves whether they are ethical, whether they are sustainable. Under the sustainable fashion umbrella, you have all these different concerns, the labor concerns. So a company that takes pride in being all made in the U.S. or being all made under fair labor conditions could be considered under the umbrella of sustainable fashion or a company that has all organic fancy fabrics like linen or organic cotton or recycled cotton; any sort of recycled material are under the umbrella of sustainable fashion. There’s no oversight and one of the reasons for this lack of oversight is because most people think the politicians don’t see fashion as being an important thing. That first point that I made that fashion is seen as this frivolous thing that permeates every area of our society that the people empower also sees fashion as a frivolous thing. The people, who don’t see fashion as a frivolous thing, are the people who are making a ton of money and some of the world’s most wealthy people are the heads of these fashion companies. The head of Zara is I think the fourth wealthiest person in the world and Zara is a fashion company like H&M and Forever 21, these companies are the ones you can go in and buy a $5 t-shirt and then it falls apart and then you go and buy ten more within a week. These companies are making a killing and that pun is intended.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. I’m sure politicians know about them because they know where the money is and they want to support the folks that are going to give them big campaign contributions.
Joshua Katcher: Right. One of the fashion editors of the New York Times made a really interesting point when she said that sometimes the people she interviews say they never think about fashion and she responded by saying this is something that you should think about because it isn’t just about your clothing choices, it’s about manipulating people into how they perceive you. So there’s this whole other side of fashion where it isn’t just about the physicality and the materiality of it, it’s also about the sociology of fashion and the symbolism and the power that can be aimed through appearing a certain way and to utilize fashion to become who you want to be perceived as, and that makes it an even more complicated topic.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely and that’s what makes marketing so evil. They are screwing up the minds of so many young people and so many young women today have all kinds of image issues and it’s spilling over to the young men. You’re not fat enough, you’re not thin enough, your butt’s not big enough or small enough or whatever. It’s a problem, a big problem.
Joshua Katcher: It is and we were just talking about that in my class this morning. I teach at Parsons as you said and we have a whole section in our fashion class about creating unachievable standards through advertising and marketing where even the models that they hire, you never see the real models. These models are retouched in Photoshop and they’re made to be perfect and there is no such thing as a perfect human being. Human beings come in all shapes and sizes, and in all colors. You don’t often see people who see themselves reflected in the fashion industry and we’ve seen a lot more recently with curvier models and models with more diversity on the runway and even models that are in wheelchairs. It’s much more inclusive but there’s still so much to change and so much more to do in that realm.
Caryn Hartglass: Now women have a much greater variety and selection of clothing, especially when it comes to cruelty free options, things that don’t use animal products, no wool, no silk and no leather. Men have more of a challenge. Where does the Discerning Brute go?
Joshua Katcher: Men have a twofold challenge because most mainstream men are a little bit – I mean it’s been better in recent years but shopping for fashion is perceived as a feminine thing. We live in a sort of macho culture, a patriarchal culture, and guys don’t really want to identify as fashion consumers. So a lot of them claim to just not be interested in fashion but we all participate in fashion. If you close your eyes and pick up a t-shirt off your floor and you pick up a pair of jeans that you’ve worn everyday for a month and put them on, you’re still making a fashion decision. You’re still participating in the fashion system. You’re inescapable. Even if you’re a nudist, you’re still making a fashion decision.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s a choice.
Joshua Katcher: But guys have a problem. There isn’t very much offered by way of men’s wear that is ethically made and that’s why I started the Discerning Brute in 2008 to address that void and to start addressing men in a similar way that GQ or Esquire or Details magazine appeals to men. I wanted to appeal to men in this way but also make them feel comfortable talking about issues we care about and that it’s okay to talk about sustainable men’s wear and its okay to talk about ethical men’s wear and to see a hero and a protector and a defender of workers and animals in the environment. This can be a masculine thing. I wanted to create that space and hope that men who are looking for fashion would find the Discerning Brute and be turned onto issues that they wouldn’t have sought out otherwise.
Caryn Hartglass: I think more men are getting into fashion these days. There’s all kinds of things that have been going on like the entertainment world that has spilled over into everyday lives. More men are wearing creams, lotions, and makeup and hair products. The fashion seems to be getting a little bit more interesting and adventurous for men, which is nice. I have some questions that I don’t know if you have the answers for them but you can find, for example, for a man who wears suits, either occasionally or regularly, you can find summer suit cottons and linens that are quite lovely. But when it comes to winter time and you need a suit to wear – for example, we went to a funeral a month ago and we didn’t even know it but it was outdoors and we froze. My partner Gary was in a suit and it was a thin suit because he doesn’t have a heavy winter vegan suit.
Joshua Katcher: Yes, well my brand Brave GentleMan, we make those and I think we’re the only brand on planet Earth that specifically makes autumn-winter vegan sustainable, fairly-made men’s suits.
Caryn Hartglass: What are they made out of?
Joshua Katcher: We use a variety of materials and one of the most exciting materials that we’re using right now is a blend of recycled cotton and recycled poly and it has a beautiful wool-like hand feel and it’s a gorgeous tweed. And actually, in the factory that I work with in New Your City right now, I’m working on a new collection that’s going to be ready in probably about a month for this coming autumn-winter season. It’s really impressive the tactile technology that we’re looking at right now. The technology to recycle fibers that would otherwise have ended up in the landfill or to engineer plant-based biodegradable bio plastics and polyesters that are made from recycled water bottles or any number of new technologies. The exciting thing about technology is that it’s always getting more refined, it’s always getting greener and it’s always getting more efficient. And when you compare that to an animal model, like having animals on a farm, that really can’t change that much, there’s only so much you can do to modify a living being. You can confine them and you can modify what you’re feeding them but ultimately the industries that rely on animal bodies to produce fibers are really inefficient and it’s just a bad design. When you look at it from a design standpoint, it’s incredibly energy inefficient and it’s incredibly slow and it’s really messy. These new textile technologies – I like to call the material that I use future wool. We have future wool and future leather and future fur and we have all these materials that are superior to their animal based counterparts. But we’re up against industries that are very well funded that don’t want to be competed with any other industries. I hope that my suits and my collaboration I have with Novacas that these looks get out there and not just to people who are looking for the vegan suit but it should appeal to anybody who likes good menswear.
Caryn Hartglass: Well what seems to succeed in our capitalist society is an idea that attracts investors who think they’re going to get a good return on their money so we have companies like Hampton Creek Foods that are replacing chickens to make eggs with plant-based eggs and we have Beyond Meat where they’re replacing the animal to make plant-based meats and investors are really excited about this. So you need to come up with a product that investors would like to invest in.
Joshua Katcher: We’re working on it.
Caryn Hartglass: I bet you are. Now I heard about a fabric made from the green leaves from pineapple plants.
Joshua Katcher: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s exciting.
Joshua Katcher: It’s called piña text and the women who spearheaded piña text, she used to be a leather industry executive and she realized that leather was incredibly harmful to the environment. The tanning process it completely toxic. But even before you get to the tanning process, you’re already starting with the industry that is the number one cause of the world’s worst environmental problem. So you can’t have sustainable leather and you can’t have vegetable tanned leather as they like to call it in this green washed version of leather because the tanning project is just piling on even more harmful effect to an already problematic livestock based industry. When we think about leather, we can’t think byproduct, we have to think whole product because looking at leather as a byproduct is really damaging to the idea that when they tell us they are just making use of something that would otherwise be thrown away, this is not at all the truth. If it wasn’t for the leather industry, a lot of these companies would go out of business. They rely on the money that they make from leather as one of their primary economic investments. So without leather, these industries wouldn’t be able to make their ends meet.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay I have one more question about some of these synthetic materials. A lot of times when I buy something that’s polyester, there’s a lot of static cling. Are some of the newer ones solving that problem?
Joshua Katcher: Solving the problem of static cling?
Caryn Hartglass: Yes.
Joshua Katcher: That’s not something I looked into.
Caryn Hartglass: Put it on your list Joshua.
Joshua Katcher: I’ll put in on the list; solving static cling. I think if we just demagnetized the earth, we’ll be okay.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, well that may lead to some other problems.
Joshua Katcher: I’m just kidding.
Caryn Hartglass: Well Joshua, it was great talking to you today and there’s a lot more that I think that I need to learn from you so we’ll have to pick up this conversation another time.
Caryn Hartglass: The Discerning Brute or Brave GentleMan, which you are Joshua Katcher. Thanks for joining me again, take care.
Joshua Katcher: Thank you so much, bye-bye.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay bye. All right, let’s take a quick break and we’ll be back to talk about vitamins.
Transcribed by Stefan Pavlović, 6/9/2015