Joshua Katcher launched The Discerning Brute in 2008 as a resource for “Fashion, Food & Etiquette for the Ethically Handsome Man”. With a focus on sustainability, social justice and animal rights, Katcher deconstructs the mainstream understanding of masculinity and offers a vision of men that are protectors, defenders, and heroes for animals and the environment. His lecture “Fashion & Animals: Decoding and Harnessing the Dialect of Fashion Culture to Help Animals” has taken Katcher to Paris, Boston, Parsons University in New York, and in June, Washington DC. He will be teaching a course on the subject in NYC this spring with Guilded, and at the American University of Paris in Spring of 2012.
Joshua is on the verge of launching his online men’s lifestyle store, Brave GentleMan, that will feature a highly curated selection of “Principled Attire & Smart Supplies”, including exclusive items and exciting collaborations with some of the most sought-after, high-quality artists and designers. His own line of sustainable, vegan menswear is in development and production. Katcher also launched the initiative, PINNACLE: Reinvent The Icon last year which provides a platform for fashion industry professionals to creatively express their opposition to the fur industry. Joshua lives in New York city where he is a video producer, artist, self-taught chef and a rescued Chihuahua named Enzo’s dad.
On top of all that, Joshua is smart, a good writer, a fan of Battlestar Galactica and nice enough to agree to an interview.
Do you see vegan consumerism as the lesser of two evils, with your site being a way to channel destructive modern materialism in a less destructive direction? Or would you say that once someone goes the vegan fair trade route, consumerism becomes a positive thing and the more things they buy that fit vegan ethics, the better?
The former. It’s unfortunate that consumerism and materialism are so pervasive, but it’s also understandable why this is so; it’s sensually exciting, visually appealing, and it strokes our individual egos to think “this is made for me”. I believe that there isn’t anything wrong with the accumulation of objects that serve a function in a mostly-local model - even if that function is purely aesthetic. Even Prehistoric peoples accumulated objects - if they hadn’t, anthropologists would hardly have been able to discover anything about the way they lived.
That being said, there is a glaring difference between a throw-away, built-for-the-dump, cheap-crap, more-for-the-sake-of-more consumption pattern that is reinforced by our current culture (with dire consequences across a spectrum of concern beyond just animal cruelty), as opposed to a business model that takes into consideration how this product is affecting others at each step of the production process.
I include ecosystems and animals as “others” in this equation, as well as workers, laborers and “consumers”. Isn’t it scary that Americans are referred to as “consumers” now as opposed to “civilians” or “citizens”? I think that was an intentional distinction, and we could go on for hours about the problems inherent in a consumer culture. My biggest objection to a consumer economy is that mainstream economists are delusional. Our economic model functions on the false-assumption that infinite resources exist and infinite growth is possible, yet we can see and prove that this planet and it’s “resources” are finite.
My other major objections are that “natural” or “organic” or “fair trade” products are more expensive. This also speaks to the failure of our economic model to provide worth to well-being and cost to detriment. This is so backwards. Why should organic products have to be labeled ‘this isn’t toxic’? Imagine if it were the other way around and toxic crap had a label that said ‘this is toxic crap’?
The third major objection I’ll highlight is that there is no accountability. Corporations function like a body with no brain. In a recent episode of This American Life, they discuss how criminal psychopaths share many traits with functional, and successful, business leaders. They are able to do terrible things on a massive scale without the effects of empathy or the consequences of accountability. Factory farming is the perfect example of this. Or sweatshops.
And then there is the cognitive dissonance that consumers have who give the benefit of the doubt to the businesses and assume that precautions are taken to ensure that things are in accordance with the values most of us share. I imagine they say to themselves, “If it really were that bad, they wouldn’t be selling it”, and then then business says “If people were really opposed to this, they wouldn’t be buying it”. They’ve got the blinders on, and are living in a perpetual state of infantile self-gratification, as David Orr suggests in Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse.
Like many of my approaches to activism, I see consumerism as a dialect through which to speak to the majority of people who wouldn’t necessarily seek out an academic paper on the failures of consumer capitalism. Ethical fashion is the Trojan Horse in which I hope some other messages can ride in on. I’ll never claim to be doing the flawless thing. My interest is not — and has never been — in puritanism, and I cannot deny that fashion culture has a huge influence on many people doing the most amounts of ecological damage, albeit unwittingly and irreverently.
Is it better to be a vegan shopper, giving money to companies that cater to vegans, than to be a freegan who attempts to have as little impact as possible?
Better in what sense? This is an incredibly complex question. In the sense of having as minimal impact as possible, the least amount of “new” stuff is better for everyone, without argument. Extracting resources always has an ecological cost. Unfortunately, there is a very inconvenient feature to the culture we live in now, and that is the magnification of influence on a global scale, and the appropriation of subculture aesthetics by mainstream businesses. I just saw on the news how Steven Tyler’s rooster feather hair extensions has resulted in such a huge demand for hair-feather extensions that the industry cannot keep up. This affects animals, regardless of where Mr. Tyler got his.
So my next question, as shallow as it sounds, would be about the freegan’s appeal to the mainstream culture. As we know, there is an incredible desire to consume and showcase subculture and authentic individuality in fashion, and what better place to get that inspiration than from an anarchist freegan? You can see the effects of this everywhere in fashion. In fact, it is rumored that the massive fox tail keychain trend is thanks to some freegans who ate roadkill and wore the tails of the roadkill as a symbol of having done so. Someone saw it and thought it looked cool, next thing you know, it’s on Gucci bags.
You can see a similar pattern with the aesthetics of indigenous peoples - the American Indian aesthetic has been totally exploited again and again in fashion, and is really big right now largely in part to Avatar. What is left out, of course, is the context of that aesthetic. As pack animals with a prehistoric legacy of egalitarianism (for the most part), historian Dr. Gwynne Dyer points out that we are driven by what the group is doing, and we seek peer approval. This aspect of our nature has been exploited massively by businesses. And the modern day translation? Keeping up with the Joneses. No subculture is safe from being appropriated, regardless of their intentions or earnestness. In this light, I can’t say one is better than the other. They are both doing good when held up against the current problems we face.
As a vegan, myself, I approach it by embracing the idea of influence magnification, in hopes that values associated with veganism will be magnified, by making sure that THE main features to magnify are appealing versions of social, environmental and ethical empathy. I think many activists who live in communities that are a bit more isolated have the freedom to reject all of mainstream culture. And it’s important to have functioning models that are more consistent like these, but it’s also crucial to have people participating within the mainstream culture who understand its dialects, trying to make change from within as well. I’ll always side with a multi-platform approach as opposed to saying one is good or bad.