Monday, September 18, 2006

V for Vituperation.

Well, this is rich.

Awhile back, a high-minded British fellow named Neil Boorman decided to set an example for us all by living ‘brand free’. His blog lays out his polemic and, to his credit, confesses that he’s managed to sell a book about the whole enterprise. As I write this today, all his branded stuff has been reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes at Finsbury Square, London. Onlookers were treated to free bottles of unbranded water as they watched the spectacle.

But apparently, this stunt hasn’t all gone as planned for Mr. Boorman. In a piece in the Guardian this past week, he whined, “When I announced I was burning all my branded possessions, I expected support, not censure.” You read that right. Censure. People reacted to his book-selling stunt not by seeing him as some kind of messianic social reformer but as an irrelevant crank.

And rightly so.

The whole thing is so utterly intellectually bankrupt that I hardly know where to begin. So I’ll begin here: What the blazes do you plan to wear and eat, Mr. Boorman? Will you hunt for your food and wear the skins of your prey? Because it seems to me that, brand or no brand, your presence on this planet implies consumption of resources. The fact that you and I and six billion other souls infest this benighted orb is the reason that we consume it and make such a mess. Avoiding labels isn’t going to change that.

What it IS going to do is make things worse. Unbranded products are bandits and scoundrels of the worst kind. They are accountable to nobody. Not to customers and not to shareholders. They make no promise they must then be burdened with keeping. Your wieners and beans now need only pass government thresholds for safety and no more than that. Your garments can be made anywhere their manufacturer wants to make them, out of anything and by anyone who will do the job. When a product fails, you’ll have nobody to blame. No leverage for you, no responsibility for them. And yet, for all of that, precisely the same amount of our planet’s riches will be consumed in the process of making your stuff, save and except for the grilled swordfish that the ad agency would have been fed while shooting the commercial for the branded versions.

What is most galling about this is that he offers to people, much as that No Logo person did, an alibi: The fact that we’re wrecking our collective home is the fault of brands and the people who market them, not the fault of you and me. That’s all but criminal. It’s like saying it’s not the fault of people who drive SUVs that they burn all that gas, it’s the fault of the companies that made them. We being but helpless pawns in the face of their irresistible marketing campaigns.

Look, if you want to debate the morality of rampant consumption, Mr. Boorman, you won’t find an argument here. But so long as we consume anything, we need to do it as responsibly as we can. That means buying the best quality we can afford, so we aren’t buying all over again sooner than we have to. It means making manufacturers accountable for what they produce and how they do it. It means having respect for the things we buy and the sacrifices made to produce them. And it means giving positive social meaning to doing these things so that the behavior is perpetuated. If, in the end, we buy less but buy better, we’ve got a much greater chance of saving the world than we have by mincing about in our unbranded hemp trousers wagging our fingers at it in smug disapproval.

And those things are exactly what brands are for. A good brand is to consumerism what the constitution is to citizenship. It’s power to the people. There are bad ones, too (you know who you are). But, as it is with democracy, the best way to fix them is from within the system.

That free water still came out of the ground, Mr. Boorman. The plastic bottles it likely came in were still a product of petroleum. The smoke your belongings produced will be inhaled by half the world by the time the wind is through with it, and the whole mess will still wind up in landfill. And you’ll go shopping.

They’ll be chopping a few trees down to print that book of yours, by the way. Probably advertise it, too. And if your literary ambitions are realized, your name will become a household word. A veritable po-mo Guy Fawkes.

Which is suspiciously brand-like, if you ask me.

Next thing you know, he’ll have his own logo.