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The Chocolate Industry Exposed: Child Labor, Trafficking and Fair Trade Mislabeling

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies behind the wrapper?

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies beneath the wrapper?

With Valentine’s Day behind us and Easter just a few weeks away, I thought there was no better time to write a post on the chocolate industry than now, when ‘chocolate season’ seems to be in full bloom. Even though it may seem that I am taking somewhat of a detour from my current series on fashion by writing about all things cocoa, the fact is, the chocolate and textile industries share much in common. Both produce things that give people around the world pleasure, and yet that pleasure often comes at a cost. My previous posts on fashion, conflict minerals and technology have attempted to reveal the obstacles in maintaining transparency across our global supply chains, and chocolate is no exception here. If glamor is a facade that often hides the exploitation behind the fashion industry, then the sweetness of chocolate found within the brightly foiled wrappers can be an easy distraction from the gritty, sad reality of how that chocolate is made. The ultimate irony is that an industry that especially caters to children’s Willy Wonka fantasies too often relies on the trafficking of children to make it.

Sigh. There is always a buzzkill. But don’t worry gfs, we’re going to talk about what’s wrong with the cocoa industry, and then we will discuss actions we can take to make it better.

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

Here are the hard facts. Two million cocoa farms across West Africa produce around 73 percent of the world’s four million tons of cocoa. Exports from the Cote d’Ivoire account for 10 percent of its GDP, bringing in $2.3 billion to the region annually. This lucrative business relies on more than 1.8 million children, most of whom work without pay and in hazardous conditions, which include exposure to harmful pesticides and forced use of machetes in their work. Between 200,000 and 800,000 children under the age of 18 are working under the ‘worst forms of child labor,’ and it is estimated that over 10,000 are trafficked annually in West Africa alone.

The child labor situation in the cocoa industry is tragic, and yet too little has been done to institute the needed regulations to ensure that this exploitation does not occur. In 2001, a few members of U.S. Congress proposed a federal system to certify and label chocolate products as slave free: right on the wrapper, next to the calories and ingredient list where it sometimes says “may contain peanuts,” it would read “may contain child labor.” This proposal—the Harkin-Engel Accord—passed the House of Representatives, but lost by a razor-thin margin in the Senate when chocolate manufacturing giants like Hershey, Mars, Nestle and agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland threw their money into a massive lobbying effort.

Thanks to the efforts of Senator Harkin and many others committed to see a change, a ‘voluntary protocol’ was nonetheless negotiated. That meant cocoa companies could try and stop child labor, if they wanted to. It set goals for ending abusive and forced child labor on cocoa farms by 2005. These terms have still not been implemented, due to a lack of certification standards, the Ivorian Civil War in which ‘blood chocolate,’ along with conflict minerals, was making money for the militants, and a lack of political will among cocoa corporations. I mean, they didn’t see fit to end child labor before—why was a law with no teeth going to change their behavior now? Every few years, the law gets reviewed, the lobby pushes back, and a new deadline for implementation is set. Meanwhile, kids are enslaved in the cocoa fields. Farmers dream of making as much as $1 a day—a dream as far off as tasting a chocolate bar most never have, since it’s too expensive. At the same time, kids in the West buy cheap chocolate, and dollars pile into coffers of the same giant companies that continue to bat down this legislation.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol - a commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com)

The Harkin-Engel Protocol addressed again, in 2010. A commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com).

What do we have to show for these efforts, a decade later? Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano wanted to find out, and launched an undercover investigation into the cocoa industry, which they revealed in their startling, award-winning documentary, The Dark Side of Chocolate. The film reveals that, contrary to the chocolate industry’s claims, child trafficking is still very much central to the production of cocoa in Western Africa, especially the Ivory Coast. Many of these children come from the poorest families in the region, and are tricked into thinking they will be paid for their work so that they can help support their families. Children as young as eight years old travel miles from countries like Burkina Faso or Mali, and are forced to labor in hazardous conditions from sunrise to sunset and live in small shacks in the plantations.

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein being a child laborer? Is it corporations, suppliers, consumers or governments?

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein working on a cocoa farm? Is it corporations, farmers, suppliers, consumers or governments? Or is everyone to blame? (photo courtesy of Jessica Dimmock for CNNMoney).

But who is to blame here exactly? Much like the fashion industry, the transnational nature of the cocoa industry makes it difficult to ‘pin the blame’ on any particular person, country, or institution. The chocolate companies point fingers at farmers, who in turn have argued that what they’re paid for cocoa is too little for them to pay adult wages—so they hire cheap children instead—or worse. The Ivorian government has similarly accused chocolate companies of not paying farmers enough for their produce since farmers must sell their beans to middlemen at dramatically low prices, even though the prices for cocoa in the commodities market have risen. In response, chocolate companies have countered that it is too complex to track where their cocoa beans come from, especially since global commodities exchanges might mix Ivorian cocoa with other cocoa. The suppliers in turn argue that they can’t be held responsible because they don’t control the farms. Meanwhile, consumers claim that it is difficult to know where their chocolate was produced given the distance between consumers and producers.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

So what can be done? Mistrati recently gave an interview on the issues of transparency revealed in The Dark Side of Chocolate, and he believes that if major manufacturers who are located in the Ivory Coast are truly concerned about where their cocoa comes from, then they should buy the fields and control the cocoa directly. He also doesn’t think companies are spending enough money on projects fighting child slavery in Africa relative to the revenue they make. For example, take Hershey, which owns a whopping 42 percent of the U.S. market for cocoa, making it the country’s largest purchaser of West African chocolate. Although the company is investing in a $4 million, five year program that helps to train Western African farmers on good farming and labor practices, scorecards recently released by Not for Profit Uniting Church Across Australia and the International Labor Rights Forum revealed Hershey is lagging far behind retailers like Mars and Nestle in eliminating child labor in its supply chain. Hershey has since announced its plan to produce 100 percent certified cocoa for all of its products by 2020, which, if met, could have a profound effect on an industry in which only five percent of its cocoa volume is certified.

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of fairtradecampus.org).

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of United Students for Fair Trade).

Still, as I have written before, there is always a potential that companies will resort to greenwashing when they are not legally bound to follow through with their promises, and Hershey thus far has been somewhat vague on what their certification plan would entail. In fact, Whole Foods Markets Inc. just recently pulled Hershey’s ‘artisan’ chocolate brands Scharffen Berger and Dagoba off the shelves after activists in International Labor Rights Forum, Green America, and the Organic Consumers Association raised concerns about the company’s lack of transparency in their social accountability programs. One of Hershey’s largest shareholders has filed a suit against the company for its alleged use of child labor. The ‘Raise the Bar Hershey‘ campaign, which involves elementary school children as its core base, aims to pressure the company to ethically source 100% of its cocoa by its proposed deadline of 2020. Many children have given up eating chocolate from Hershey’s until the brand makes the full switch. One can only hope that a company built by Quakers on a foundation of educating disadvantaged children would once again become an industry leader.

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school?

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school? (photo courtesy of IRLF).

The Hershey example outlined above clearly demonstrates why companies must operationalize according to a ‘logic of distance’ between producer and consumer as a way to maximize their profits. This logic assumes that the further removed a consumer is from the conditions under which a producer labors, the less likely they will be to have awareness and ultimately, motivation to protest. This is perhaps why Mistrati believes that change in cocoa production methods will be more likely to happen when consumers demand change and pressure chocolate manufactures to increase their purchases of Fair Trade cocoa. The standards for the Fair Trade certification mark prohibit child labor according to the ILO conventions, and qualified auditors are supposed to routinely check producer organizations to ensure that these standards are being rigorously met. By working to strengthen the position of farmers and workers in international supply chains so that they do not have to rely on child labor, a convincing argument can be made for the elimination of child trafficking by creating a greater demand for Fair Trade chocolate. And when children are not forced to work the argument is that they will have greater opportunities to go to school, which is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty that fuels child trafficking in the first place.

However, sometimes transparency in labeling for even movements we trust can be suspect. While Fair Trade advocates have always touted transparency throughout the Fair Trade supply chain as central to its mission, there is a growing concern that as more businesses incorporate the Fair Trade label into their products in an effort to gain new consumers, the high bar for accountability might become filtered. The Fair World Project decided to go to various stores to investigate how transparent various chocolate brands were about their labeling. They were shocked to find out that two “privately labeled chocolate bars,” one of which was from Trader Joe’s and the other from Whole Foods, claimed to be Fair Trade when in fact, only a few of their ingredients were certified Fair Trade. So if Whole Foods’ brand chocolate bar has fair trade cocoa butter, how does the consumer know that the sugar and vanilla included in the bar was not made with exploited labor? Trader Joe’s is even more secretive about its Fair Trade ingredients, with none being identified in their ingredient list (this lack of transparency on sourcing and labor practices is not just limited to chocolate at the cheap retailer, as this article points out).

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe's bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren't made with exploitative labor?

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe’s bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren’t made with exploitative labor when the labeling isn’t transparent?

This is egregious not just because it allows these companies to sell a Fair Trade product without being fully transparent about their supply chains, but also because these private brands are cheaper than true Fair Trade companies like Alter Eco, Divine, and Equal Exchange, all of which invest in fair prices and premiums to ensure that more money is going directly to cooperatives controlled by farmers. Their bars clearly indicate which ingredients are Fair Trade, and furthermore, they include relevant information and pictures about the co-ops they work with in the inserts of their packaging and on their websites. Still, consumers have become so conditioned to trust the label, they might buy a cheaper product that has fewer Fair Trade ingredients (and yes, I was one of those consumers. I’m not exactly a fan of being lied to, so hence. this. post.).

What is so strange is that the Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology (IMO), a certifier for companies using the ‘Fair for Life’ label, requires that a product be 80% fair trade by weight in order to display the Fair for Life logo on the front. Furthermore, neither of these bars indicates the audited company responsible for manufacturing the bar, a key component of IMO’s Fair for Life program. So, what explains these misleading labels?

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Even more difficult to explain is the recent lapse in Fair Trade workplace standards that was revealed a few weeks ago when the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) released a report titled Aiding and Abetting. The report documents how certifier IMO neglected to uphold its commitment to international labor standards promoted by its Fair for Life label when it failed to intervene on behalf of workers at Theo Chocolate who were attempting to organize at their North American factory. In fact, IMO then proceeded to initiate new labor standards that included recommendations for employer-hired consultants who discourage union organizing to be included in a list provided to its workers. While one can argue that this violation was a failure to uphold their Northern workplace standards, not necessarily their ‘Fair Trade’ standards, we should still question, if the certification system wasn’t working in North America, whether it would work for producers in the Global south.

The question is then, how do we make the system financially accountable to the people it is supposed to help, namely both workers and consumers? According to Rachel Taber, who worked at Theo Chocolate for three and a half years as a tour guide, one of the central problems lies with the fact that auditors are being paid by the management of companies like Theo, thus setting up a potential conflict of interest. This is why the ILRF is recommending that complaints by workers be reviewed not by company-associated auditors, but by an independent “International Fair Trade Board of Appeal.” As Judy Gearhart, Executive director of ILRF noted in an interview with me:

“We definitely need more accountability and transparency in our system. And we need to acknowledge that not all of these systems are treated equally. Fair Trade International, which is based in Europe, can partly attribute its more rigorous Fair Trade standards to more robust support by the labor movement there. And that makes a big difference. While we feel that Fair Trade has the right social justice commitments, we need to work harder to ensure that farmers have a strong share in these companies.”

Yes. Because ultimately, farmers and producers, not labels, are at the heart of this movement. There are some wonderful company leaders who are indeed staying true to their Fair Trade ethics, in that they are constantly striving for transparency and are committed to giving their workers a platform to voice their concerns. They’re reaping economic benefit on a more equitable level and taking unique approaches to do it.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange, at their elementary school.

Take for example, Equal Exchange, the oldest Fair Trade coffee company in the United States. Of the nine seats on their board, six are reserved for non-management worker-owners, and all nine are nominated and elected by the workers themselves. They share worker testimonials on their online site, and as Rocio Motato of the Columbian cooperative ASPROCAFE put it, “We have not only a commercial relationship through the coffee, but more importantly, a very human relationship.” Their commitment to environmental sustainability and organic food practices is evident in the quality of their products—the chocolate bars sourced from purely made ingredients are some of my favorites in the business (and I know my chocolate!).

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Farmers in Madagascar gather their beans after sun-drying. Madecasse works with cooperatives to keep the profit in the region so that farmers do not have to rely on cheap child labor (photo courtesy of madecasse.com).

There are other notable models that should also be highlighted. Divine is a Fair Trade company in which farmers own 45% and share the profits, and there is a special focus on women leadership. Alter Eco Foods works with small-scale cooperatives in countries that include Bolivia, Peru, and Thailand, and is an interesting company because its environmental commitments include organic agriculture training for farmers and also partnering many of their cooperatives with reforestation projects. And then there are other chocolate producers that are not certified Fair Trade, but are making quality chocolate that benefits local communities. For example, the Chuao cooperative in Venezuela sells to high-end chocolatiers, and the farmers organize and distribute money fairly among themselves and make really amazing chocolate that is culturally appropriate to their land-based indigenous background. The Granada Chocolate company makes organic chocolate in Granada using their own cocoa beans, while Madecasse, a chocolate company sourced and manufactured from bean to bar in Madagascar, keeps the profits local.

The certified Fair Trade and non-certified Fair Trade companies highlighted above are all excellent examples of models that work, and provide a compelling rationale for why consumers need to start looking beyond the label to truly transform the system, because the Fair Trade seal, which traditionally used to symbolize rigorous monitoring and transparent labeling, is in danger of being diluted and hijacked. Furthermore, we need to start thinking more deeply about whether we should rely solely on a certification to bridge the gap between producers and consumers. While the Payson Center proposal of an oversight committee on certifiers is a good, easy starting point for where we are now, to create a more accountable workplace, Rachel Taber believes that we can go even further to institute a real system of “checks and balances.” As she told me:

You need a union, a real functioning democratic co-op, a way that workers themselves can communicate directly with consumers in a way that their own words will be heard. I mean really, skyping with interpreters would probably be much cheaper than paying out of country auditors.”

On a related note, NGO-sponsored ‘worker tours’ which include a small panel of workers sharing their personal narratives of laboring within global commodity chains are proving to be a powerful way for producers and activists to build coalitions with schools, congregations and most urgently, unions.

Two Cacao farmers from the cooperative CONACADO speak on tour:

Finally, we need to encourage civic engagements and direct action of consumers and workers together to hold abusive companies responsible and reward companies that have implemented worker and consumer demands on them and are actually following through on their commitments. Organizations like the United Students against Sweatshops (USAS), Coalition of Immokale Workers (CIW), and even the Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign have given corporations a taste of the power of consumers rising against them.  For example, after learning that Nike had failed to pay $1.54 million in severance pay to over 1,800 workers in Honduras, USAS led several University boycotts of the brand which led to Nike ultimately agreeing to pay the workers the severance that was owed to them. It is clear that the corporate accountability model is capable of working, in that costing companies money gets things done. You might be surprised just how much your voice can make a difference.

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

Here is the deal. Child trafficking in the cocoa industry is very real, and it is tragic. If we are going to seriously address it, then we need to not just resort to knee-jerk responses such as ‘buy Fair Trade chocolate’ if we don’t even know what that means. Though I want to be clear here, my issue isn’t with the person who buys an Equal Exchange bar over a Hershey bar knowing that the former supports democratic co-ops while the latter is potentially trafficking children to supply their cocoa. We do need to demand more ethically sourced chocolate, and supporting disenfranchised farming communities is a very powerful choice.

Where we get into a problem is when we buy products because we trust the label and we don’t realize that the label might be diluted. Or when we think of ourselves only as consumers and not also as citizens who have the power to organize for system-wide changes, such as the Harkin-Engel accord, or anti-corporate campaigns against cases of abuse. We need to get to know the companies behind the labels to see which ones best represent our values of social justice and transparency, and take cues from organizations we respect, such as the Fair World Project, or a faith-based organization which is active in Fair Trade issues, or any of the ones mentioned above. In the words of Public Enemy, ‘Don’t believe the hype.” In order to better direct the energy of the labor rights movement, we need to think critically, ask questions, and ultimately, refuse to lower the bar for justice.

Update: In late March, Hershey announced that it would commit to 100% Fair Trade cocoa by 2020, and that it would source through certifiers UTZ, Fair Trade USA, and Rainforest Alliance. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, we need to keep in mind that these three certifiers are known for being less rigorous than other Fair Trade certifiers. The Fair World Project’s list of credible Fair Trade certification programs does not include any of these certifiers. Here are links to criticisms of Fair Trade USARainforest Alliance and UTZ. This demonstrates again, the importance of sustained conversation, and thinking beyond the label!

In late 2012, IMO wrote this letter to the Fair World Project promising that they would remove the Fair for Life logo on the front of their label until they had ensured that they had corrected the Fair Trade ingredients percentage in their chocolate. The Fair World Project confirmed that as of 2014, the private labels are sourcing fair trade sugar.

Trader Joe’s has pulled the Fair for Life logo from their fair trade chocolate, but they are still not indicating who it is that is certifying their chocolate as fair trade, if anyone.

Fair Trade USA has repeatedly been criticized for its labeling policy that lacks transparency and its low percentage of required fair trade ingredients. They have made some changes, such as agreeing to mandate a percentage disclosure and to not exempt milk from calculations of fair trade ingredients. But they are still excluding sugar and vanilla as mandatory in products labeled ‘fair trade.’

In December 2015, a food blogger published a series of posts on DallasFood.org investigating how the Mast Brothers – an “artisanal” chocolate company known for its “bean to bar” production and  commitment to authenticity and transparency – did not always make its chocolate from scratch and is less than transparent about its production sources.  As this Quartz piece noted, the story highlights how a company’s marketing, which in this case included beautiful packaging and bearded, hipster founders, can successfully launch a product of questionable quality into the market and help shape it into a consumer and media darling.

Take Action:
  • Want to email companies like Hershey and Nestle, as well as the World Cocoa Foundation, pressuring them to abide by Harkin-Engel? Check out this page where you can also message Tom Harkin and Eliot Engel!
  • Get involved in the Hershey, Raise the Bar! Campaign, where you can find petitions and some great resources!
  • Check out 10 Campaign’s excellent breakdown of the main issues around child labor in the chocolate industry, and be sure to download their comprehensive but clear “Campaign Briefing Document.”
  • Sign this petition initiated by the Food Empowerment Project asking Clif Bar to disclose where they get their cocoa beans.
  • The Global Cocoa Project has some great resources for increasing awareness about the realities behind the cocoa industry.
  • Looking for more ideas on how to get young people involved? Or how you can raise awareness by hosting your own ‘chocolate party?’ Stop the Traffick can hook you up!
  • How about hosting a screening of ‘A Dark Side of Chocolate’ as a way to spread awareness among your peers and larger community? You can purchase it on ILRF’s website. And check out their ‘Take Action’ page.
  • Concerned about Theo’s recent actions against its workers, and IMO’s failure to uphold Fair Trade standards? Want to hold accountable and improve the parties involved? Sign this petition demanding that IMO’s Fair for Life certification label adopt reforms to protect workers.
  • Share this video testimonial of a former Theo worker.
  • Share this amazing TEDx talk by ChocoSol founder Michael Sacco, where he discusses the horizontal trade model that emphasizes community supported agriculture, diversity of production, and intercultural relationships. Watch the ChocoSol philosophy here.
  • Share this video about chocolate company TCHO‘s work in Costa Rica.
  • Screen Nothing Like Chocolate, a documentary by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, which focuses on how Mott Green of the Grenada Chocolate Company and independent cocoa farmer Nelice Stewart produce chocolate sustainably and ethically. You can watch the trailer here.

Good Chocolate List:

  • You should take these recommendations with a grain of salt given some of the points made in this post, but this is a good basic list of which chocolate companies source from areas in West Africa where child slavery is the most pervasive, as well as ethical and sustainable alternatives.
Additional Resources:
My Related Posts:

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Filed under Critical Fashion

2012: The Year’s Fiercest Cultural Figures

Fierceness is SO much more than posing as a circus freak for ANTM. Sorry, Tyra.

Fierceness is SO much more than posing as a circus freak for ANTM. Sorry, Tyra.

Happy New Year! So I have finally come out with the much-anticipated (at least by me) ‘Fiercest figures of 2012’ list. I know I’m a little late with this (I’m running on ‘new blogger’ time) but I’ve been busy making some changes to my blog (stay tuned for some new added features, like Pinterest!) and expanding my series on Ethical Fashion, which I will be returning to this week. While the assortment of people and movements I have highlighted on this list may seem kind of random, rest assured that there is a rhyme and reason to this madness. All of these figures are connected by a theme of fierceness, which goes so beyond being able to pose as an attractive circus freak a la America’s Next Top Model, regardless of what Tyra may think. Fierceness, for me, is encompassed by those who challenge the norm, go against the grain, and beat to their own drum. It’s standing up for what you believe in, thinking outside the box, and fighting for equality and social justice. And hey, if you can do all of those things while posing as an attractive circus freak, then props. to. you. I’m not hatin’ homies.

Fashion: In many respects, it was a depressing year for fashion. Three hundred people killed in a textile factory fire in Pakistan. Toxic chemicals found in the clothes of popular brands like Levi’s, Calvin Klein, and Victoria’s Secret. The fact that Wal-Mart refused to pay for Bangladesh factory safety improvements that could have prevented the deaths of 112 people. The report that revealed that ‘fast fashion’ brands like H&M and Forever 21 were exploiting their workers. Ugh. The list of sad, if not horrific stories never seemed to end, shattering the facade of glamor to which the industry so desperately clings. But these catastrophies did not go ignored. Protest movements from around the world rose up and united in their calls for a more equitable industry.  And at the same time, notable industry players were openly challenging the status quo of the industry, from normative beauty ideals to treating cultures like trends. Here are just a few of these people and movements that I thought were noteworthy to mention:

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Thousands take to the streets on the outskirts of Daka to protest working conditions in Bangladesh textile factories (photo courtesy of Andrew Biraj/Reuters).

Bangladesh protests: Thousands of people took to the streets to protest  the factory fire that was counted as one of Bangladesh’s worst industrial disasters. The story was covered internationally, with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity calling out “Western brands” for faulty monitoring practices.

Greenpeace: You want to know what fierce is? It’s releasing a report that reveals the toxic chemicals found in the clothes we wear, and then successfully sparking a world-wide protest movement that effectively led to twelve global fashion leaders like Nike, H&M and Zara to commit to the elimination of hazardous chemicals released into our clothes and water. Talk about getting it DONE. Awesome.

Fair Tuesday/Buy Nothing/Buy Local day: Following the consumer excess of Black Friday, these three movements emerged as a counterpoint. Fair Tuesday came out of the Fair Trade/Ethical Fashion movement, and Buy Nothing/Local out of Occupy, but taken together, the message was clear: Buy less, and if you do want to get someone a gift, make it an ethical one that uses fair labor and environmental practices.

Paul Frank Industries apologized for this offensive flyer and party, and then expressed interest in holding a panel on Native imagery at a future conference and working with a Native artist to make designs!

Paul Frank Industries didn’t just  apologize for this offensive flyer and party. They also invited Jessica and Adrienne to help host a panel on Native imagery at a future conference and expressed interest in working with a Native artist to make designs!

Native Appropriations and Beyond Buckskin: As I wrote in a previous post, the fashion industry is often guilty of treating different cultural groups like trends. And in the last few years, ‘Indian’ fashion has been all the rage, with outlets like Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 describing their shirts as ‘Navajo’ and ‘tribal,’ and influential retailer Victoria’s Secret sending a headdressed bikini clad model down the runway. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations and Jessica Metcalfe of Beyond Buckskin decided to use their online sites to demand that Native American people be represented respectfully and authentically, and in the past year, have raised awareness and sparked campaigns against Urban, Victoria’s Secret, and Paul Frank’s Fashion’s Night Out ‘Dream Catchin’ Pow wow’ party, to name just a few examples. Adrienne’s recent piece on the sexualization of Native women in pop culture, from Victoria’s Secret’s headdressed bikini clad model to Blair Waldorf of Gossip Girl dressing up as a ‘pocahottie’ on Halloween, that trivializes the high rates of sexual assualt that Native women face, was really powerful.  And I’m obsessed with Jessica Metcalfe’s boutique on her site, which features the amazing work of Native designers. Love. them.

Bruno Pieters: After taking a two year hiatus from the fashion industry, former art director for Hugo Boss Bruno Pieters decided to start Honest by, the first company in the world to share the full cost breakdown of its products. As Pieters noted in this interview, “We communicate everything about the materials, the manufacturing methods, and even the pricing strategies of the products stocked with honest by, to our client. Every part of the collaboration process is transparent including the store mark up calculations.” 100% full transparency? Can we talk girlfriends??  Pieters is a trailblazer for the industry and hopefully other designers will not just take note, but follow in his footsteps.

Diane Pernet & Bruno Pieters in the art film, To Be Honest:

Kahindo Mateene: Rising star couture designer Mateene sees fashion as a “creative expression of a woman’s independence and individuality.” Many designers view fashion as a valuable avenue for self-expression, Mateene takes it one step further when she states that “fashion is most stylish when it is produced with the highest ethical and socially conscious principles.” Her online site, which was launched in 2012, boldly states “Modern. African. Ethical.” Not only are her clothes made with fair trade principles, but the African textiles and prints inspired by her Congolese background are gorgeous!

Cameron Russell: Former supermodel Russell gave a fantastic TED talk, where she focused on the social construction of beauty, and the privileging of whiteness within the industry. Contrasting pictures of her before a shoot with her actual modeling photos was a startling reminder of the power of image. She is currently one of the directors of the consulting firm The Big Bad Lab, a media platform which she hopes will allow girls to explore fashion creatively without such restrictive social norms attached to what is “ideal.”

Casey Legler in her new ad campaign for AllSaints, where she models clothes for the men's and women's collections

Casey Legler in her new ad campaign for AllSaints, where she models clothes for the men’s and women’s collections

Casey Legler: A former Olympic swimmer, Legler is a woman posing as a male model, challenging heteronormative views of gender. She looks superb in both men’s and women’s clothing, and is infinitely charming. As she notes, “I find the gender fluidity of this work so excited. Seeing me on the men’s board speaks to this notion of freedom. There’s something really bold about that. It seems to be saying ‘Look, there is also this other way. And it’s pretty rad.'”  Amen.

Elizabeth Kline: Her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, has been described as the Fast Food Nation for the fashion industry. It’s a fantastic, accessible account of how cheap fashion has impacted people, the environment, and global economies.

Diana Wang: Seduced by the title of ‘head accessories intern’ at the magazine Harper’s Bazaar, Wang headed to New York City to start what she hoped would be a glamorous experience that would open other doors into the fashion industry. Four months later, she returned to her home to Columbus, Ohio, and filed a lawsuit against the Hearst Corporation, for not paying for her work. Reading her story is something out of the Devil Wears Prada. It helped to open up a larger debate about the exploitative nature of intern work, as Wang claimed that there were little educational benefits to outweigh the unpaid nature of her internship.
Vivienne Westwood's Climate Revolution

Vivienne Westwood’s Climate Revolution

Vivienne Westwood: I am often wary of famous designers who claim social responsibility, as it can be difficult to gauge whether it is being done to just attract a new consumer following. But Westwood, with her punk sensibilities, is committed. From her ethical fashion line made in Kenya to her many environmental and political campaigns which she details on her blog ‘Active Resistance,’ to her clothes that express support for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and call for climate change, Westwood is one of the few designers actively using fashion as a vehicle for environmental and political activism. Her message to ‘buy less, choose well, make it last,’ has become the ethical fashion community’s mantra. I loved it when she just told people to stop buying clothes for six months to keep landfills from filling up. I mean, when Dame Vivienne tells you to do something, you kind of have to do it, right?

Bandi Mbubi: Although not directly related to fashion, Congolese activist Mbubi’s Tedx talk on the importance of sustainability in technology was an important reminder of the tragic consequences of unconscious consumerism. He documented how the crisis in Eastern Congo is being fueled by the fight over mineral resources that are often found in the technology we use. Interestingly enough, he touted technology’s ability to ‘get the word out,’ but emphasized the need for more transparent supply chains. Truly inspiring.

Media + Politics: From the presidential election to school shootings, global protest movements, drone wars, and crazy weather, the media certainly had its share of provocative stories to cover. However, the mainstream media, as I documented in a previous post, often fails to report on the news in a complex manner. Fixated with increasing ratings to make money for their corporate owners, news outlets often cut expensive funding for international reporting, instead focusing on entertainment -related news, or ‘info-tainment.’ The end result is a media landscape that treats its viewers as consumers, instead of citizens. That is why we so desperately need independent media.

Me meeting Amy Goodman and Dennis Moynihan during their Election 2012 tour-def one of my top moments of the year!

Me meeting Amy Goodman and Dennis Moynihan during their Election 2012 tour-def one of my top moments of the year!

Amy Goodman: Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! is truly, one of my heroes. Her news station is independently funded, which has allowed her to open up the dialogue to include alternative voices. Her interviews are always multi-faceted, complex, and thought-provoking. Whether it is expanding the debate to third party candidates, addressing racism in the Trayvon Martin case, or hosting one of the most insightful, coherent debates on Israeli settlements, Democracy Now! is helping to give public discourse back into the hands of its citizens. Check out their 2012’s Year in Review, and Amy Goodman’s book The Silenced Majority, which recently made the New York Times best-seller list.

The 20 women senators elected this year, OBVI: Highest ever in the country’s history, and a remarkably diverse group. The House letting the Violence Against Women Act die was depressing, but the news of these women being elected brings me hope.

Anonymous protest

Hacktivist group Anonymous organized a protest in Steubenville that attracted over 2000 followers.

Anonymous: I didn’t use to be a fan of internet vigilante justice, but I’m starting to believe that in our ever increasing corporatized media and cultural landscape that it is needed. And as I followed Anonymous in their 2012 hacktavist struggles, I couldn’t help but be impressed by their anti-corporate protest that also seemed to have a strong social justice mission to protect the marginalized. But I straight-up developed a crush on the group when they released incriminating evidence against several young men charged in the Steubenville rape case. They, along with blogger Alexandria Goddard who covered the case from the beginning and fought for mainstream media attention, are truly the young girl’s knights-in-shining-armour.

Aung San Suu Kyi, former political prisoner and now elected Parliament member of Burma, is one of the fiercest people of the century.

Aung San Suu Kyi, former political prisoner and now elected Parliament member of Burma, is one of the fiercest people of the century.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma has had a long history of human rights abuses, leading thousands to flee as refugees (for more information on the Burmese refugee crisis, check out this wonderful video). Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was imprisoned for her opposition against the government, was recently elected as a member of parliament in a resounding victory. Props also to Hillary Clinton (I mean, do you want to define fierce?), who has always admired Suu Kyi and has made Burma a focus during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Fierce women who challenged gender/sexuality ‘norms’:

Savannah Dietrich – Challenged Victim Silencing: The brave young woman who, after she was sexually assaulted at a party and her attackers were let off too easy, tweeted the names of her attackers as a response to the judge who ordered that “no one should speak about this case for any reason.” That a rape victim might have received a harsher sentence than those who assaulted her sparked national outrage, and her team was successfully able to request that the boys’ court records be unsealed. The end result? The boys weren’t invited back to Trinity High School that year, and they also got a stiffer sentence. “Everyone thought I was this little girl they could intimidate,” she recently stated in an interview. Man, were they wrong. A true role model for victims of sexual assault everywhere.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, doesn't care what people think of her as a working mom.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, doesn’t care what people think of her as a working mom.

Marissa Mayer – Challenged Normalized views of ‘Work-life balance’: Mayer was nominated by my cousin Whitney, a lawyer, new mom, and one of the fiercest woman I personally know. Mayer, who was hired from Google for a $100 million deal to be the CEO of Yahoo, received criticism from some women for only taking two weeks of maternity leave. But as Whitney put it, “I have no problem with it, and am enjoying watching her pull this company together. For all of our conversations about women’s ‘choices,’ we never seem to question this notion that women are the only ones who are capable of taking care of their children. And at the end of the day, is it really any of our business how she chooses to raise her child?” True DAT.

Blogger Libby Ann – Challenged Propaganda on Reproductive Rights: When I read this article by a former ‘pro-life’ blogger who had come to realize that she was ‘duped’ by the rhetoric of the movement, I passed it on to everyone I knew and posted it on my Facebook. Twice. It was the most articulate, coherent dialogue on abortion I had read. Ever. Why? Because quite simply, she exposed the ‘framing’ of the pro-life movement that emphasizes saving babies as a fraud, arguing that the movement does little to provide access to contraceptives, support poor women (finally-an economic element to the debate!) who could not afford to have children, or research why half of all zygotes that are so essential to the ‘personhood’ debate fail to implant. As she put it:

The reality is that so-called pro-life movement is not about saving babies. It’s about regulating sex. That’s why they oppose birth control. That’s why they want to ban abortion even though doing so will simply drive women to have dangerous back alley abortions. That’s why they want to penalize women who take public assistance and then dare to have sex, leaving an exemption for those who become pregnant from rape. It’s not about babies. If it were about babies, they would be making access to birth control widespread and free and creating a comprehensive social safety net so that no woman finds herself with a pregnancy she can’t afford. They would be raising money for research on why half of all zygotes fail to implant and working to prevent miscarriages. It’s not about babies. It’s about controlling women.

Talk about shutting. It. DOWN.

Mindy Kaling of the Mindy Project could care less about her weight - and red dress fierce much?

Mindy Kaling of the Mindy Project could care less about her weight – and red dress fierce much?

Mindy Kaling – Challenged Women’s Roles in Television: The Mindy Project is the first sitcom starring and created by an Indian-American, and one of the few starring a woman of color. It features Mindy as a successful doctor who calls the shots in a male-dominated workplace, but who’s girly and loves her girlfriends. She’s not super thin but has a positive body image. And in every single freaking episode, there is amazingly sharp and self-aware commentary on race, gender, sexuality, and pop culture. Why are people not freaking out more about this show? Oh, and just recently, Stephen Tobolowsky, the actor who played her boss, was let go because the writers wanted Mindy to be making “more decisions in the workplace on her own.” Are you freaking out now girlfriends? Mindy’s totally my crush (and I don’t need to say ‘girl crush’ because as Mindy put it in a previous episode, “are you that scared of people thinking you’re a lesbian?”). Watch this show!!

Saturday Night Live: Just got to give a quick shout-out to two brave sketches that nailed our current cultural moment. The first was ‘The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party,’ where rookie Cecily Strong aptly nailed the self-righteous hipster who is constantly taking Instagram pics, asking whether she can sing ‘Negro spirituals,’ and giving strong opinions on political issues about which she knows little. My favorite quote? “People are very happy right now, and that makes me very, very sad.” The second, on the iPhone 5, was one of the most brilliant sketches on SNL I have ever seen. Featuring Chinese laborers who confront the ‘Tech Experts’ complaining about the new phone’s features (‘it’s too light!), it was a truly scathing critique of ‘First World problems.’

Music: It was an amazing year for artists who used music to push boundaries and make cultural and political commentary, both blatant and subtle.  Very few of these musicians will be nominated for a Grammy this year, but the way they challenged the music industry can not be discounted.

Pussy Riot inspired protests all over the world in a way that resurrected punk music, and music in general, as a tool for protest.

Pussy Riot inspired protests all over the world in a way that resurrected punk music, and music in general, as a tool for protest.

The fiercest single of the year? Um yeah, that goes to Russian punk feminist band Pussy Riot, obvi. Their single, ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’ criticized the Orthodox church’s traditional views on womencalled Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I a ‘suka’ (meaning bitch in the derogatory, not in that cool, ‘reclaiming patriarchy’ way), and called out Putin’s re-election as a fraud. Charged with hooliganism, they faced a prison sentence of up to seven years. Their arrests led to protests all over the world, with people donning masks similar to the ones that the band had worn.  Do I need to say anything more? If you haven’t checked out their brilliant performance, then you can watch it here. And stay tuned for an upcoming documentary on the band, which is heading for Sundance in 2013.

Punk rapper/Performance artist cites the Riot Grrls as an influence.

Punk rapper/Performance artist Mykki Blanco cites the Riot Grrls as an influence.

The Riot Grrl: Along those lines, this feminist punk underground movement that emerged in the early 90s seemed to re-emerge in public consciousness in a big way in 2012, because all of a sudden, everyone who was bad-ass was dropping them as an influence. Pussy Riot of course. But then there was Mykki Blanco, rapper/performance artist/drag queen who cited Riot Grrl icon Kathleen Hanna as an influence and described her style as “a mixture of riot grrrl and ghetto fabulousness.” Lena Dunham, creator of the show Girls, appeared on Grantland and mentioned how the provocative nature of her show was influenced by having ‘some Riot Grrl in me.’ And Tavi Gevinson, 16 year old fashion blogger and founder of the teen feminist site Rookie, also expressed her admiration of Hanna’s band Le Tigre and 90’s era teen ‘zines like Sassy that were part of the Riot Grrl movement. I am SO stoked for the upcoming release The Punk Singer, a documentary on Hanna!

Frank Ocean: For all the reasons I listed in this post.

Azealia Banks: If the Grammy’s allowed EPs to be nominated, my girl Azealia would have been tearing it up this year. Her first single ‘212’ was addictive, raunchy, and fun. Her song ‘Fierce‘ would make the list just by virtue of its name, but it really was the chillest blend of hip-hop, house music and 1980s ball culture (see the amazing film Paris is Burning for more on drag balls). But it was ‘Liquorice’ that really did it for me, with her sharp indictment of the fetishization of black women. Feisty and fiercely intelligent, the openly bisexual Banks has stated, “I’m not trying to be the bisexual, lesbian rapper. I don’t live on other people’s terms.” And we’re done GFs, DONE.

Nelly Furtado: Her song ‘Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)’ wasn’t just fierce because she looked hot while walking down the street in stilts. It was fierce because it featured amazing Native American hoop dancers, including champion hoop dancer Tony Duncan, in a way that was respectful and truly representative of the culture. Gwen Stefani, take note.

Solange Knowles: 2012 was a great year for Solange to drop the wannabe-B act and carve out her own niche, as the indie, totally hipster sister with an awesome sense of style and distinct set of pipes. I have watched this video dozens of times, and it never gets old. Featuring a stunning South African setting, fashionable dandies right out of the Congolese Le Sape Society (or Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance), and even subtle commentary on the politics of hair and personal choice, the song is whimsical, sweet, and just right.

Marina Abramovic + Anthony and the Johnsons: Two brilliant performance artists collaborated for a patriarchy-smashing, provocative music video called ‘Cut the World’ that you may very well hate. I could only watch it once, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the week (oh, and the documentary on Abramovic, The Artist is Present, was totes amazing).

Kitty Pryde: You know when something or someone is fierce, but you can’t really put a finger on it? (Ok, maybe this is a dilemma that only I really face). Well that’s exactly how I feel about Kitty Pryde, whose homemade mumbling rap song ‘Ok Cupid’ simultaneously seems to capture teenage angst while never taking it too seriously. The style is like nothing I’ve seen before, and I’ve been playing it constantly since it came out. There is just something about this girl….

Le1f: Being an openly gay rapper in a homophobic industry is tough. 6’3 Wesleyan grad Le1f however, gets it done. Turning gay slurs into “expressions of braggadocio” and walking the fine line of making activist music that’s never preachy, he pretty much re-defines fierce. And his song ‘Wut,’ is seriously addictive. At the very least, you’ll be impressed by his dancing/voguing.

That’s all.

What did you think about my list? Anyone else you would have added? Let me know in the comments below!

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The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Can We Talk…Please?

There are few international issues that incite as much global anger as the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

And yet, despite our government’s political and financial support of Israel that relies on American tax dollars ($30 billion in the last ten years alone), it is the one issue that I would argue is impossible for Americans to discuss openly in the public sphere.

This past summer, the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, decided to challenge this stifling of the conversation when they bought advertising space inside the public bus system that read, ““Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.” Continue reading

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