In follow-up to our EcoSalon post last Friday on Punks + Pirates, Alabama Chanin (AC) held a Facebook chat with Richard McCarthy (RM) of Market Umbrella to explore his interesting perspective on cultural assets, punks, pirates and the Spanish Armada.  I was first made aware of Richard’s work at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium last October.

Alabama Chanin:  Richard, thanks so much for being here with us today! Great to be in our warm studio in North Alabama with snow on the ground outside… Are you in New Orleans?

Richard McCarthy: Yes, I am. No snow but (for us) heavy jackets in the fertile crescent of New Orleans.

AC: I want to jump right in as I am so excited and there are so many important topics that you address in your work. I love the term “cultural assets.” Did you coin this term?

RM:  Yes, talk of assets is slowly transforming philanthropy. Briefly, should we focus on our deficits? That which is wrong: poverty, illiteracy, obesity? Or do we focus on our strengths? Often imbedded in our cultural traditions…

The rise of interest in cultural assets should be of great help to those of us wishing to transform the way we eat, dress, and live. Or… food, clothing and shelter. Among the cultural assets we (as farmer’s market/food practitioners) zero in on the heirloom varieties of fruits and veg… Or traditional dishes that disappear every time a new franchise sets up in a town to replace slow foods. What might this look like for fashion, textiles?

AC: I think that this is something that we all know but adding the words ASSET makes it seem so valuable. We spoke about the goal to turn cultural assets into financial assets in communities – that seems so BIG… where do we find those assets?

In a way, the heirloom varieties of the food world are the craft traditions of the “fashion” world. Hand-made bags, hand-sewn clothing – like what we do at Alabama Chanin – using tradition from our communities. In France, beautiful lace, silk from China… There are a lot of rich traditions (assets).

RM:  In the South (and the Global South), traditional assets are often viewed as obstacles for growth and development. Instead, we should reexamine traditional assets, traditions to determine as to whether they may be valued by outsiders. In New Orleans, traditional jazz was thought of as old-fashioned, out of favor, etc., until cultural leaders held the music up high as a treasured asset for outsider to value — The Jazz and Heritage Festival.

But that’s music. In food, this recognition of assets (often disappearing assets) might be the rediscovery and REbranding of heirloom strawberries, mirlitons, heritage beef, wild-harvest nuts, etc.

Are there markets for these goods? Does the scarcity of them add value? After all, in order for traditional (cultural) assets to survive either we value them ourselves OR find market for these goods.

AC: That is so interesting – we know about a few markets but never thought of that for our own community. June was talking the other day about this market in Los Angeles. Seems like a good start: State of Unique.

RM: The mainstream economy (i.e., the Armada) may not (or may not yet again) value these goods. We must find consumers and advocates for them by reaching out, forging new relations, new ways to differentiate these old or slow tastes and looks (for fashion) in the marketplace. Herein lies the tension between treasuring assets (free from commercial corruption) versus growing wealth with them (is everything for sale? If so, at what price and in what kind of commercial relationship?).

This raises the issue of traditions. Where do they come from? Are they ancient? Do we simply accept them as tradition, no questions asked?

Or are they invented by leaders? One example is important research British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition. In the book, Hobsbawm examines the invention of Scottish kilts — with all of the family tartans — as a very shrewd business decision made by textile manufacturers during the heady days of the industrial revolution.

If indeed we examine many (back to tradition) movements, we find more often than not these are creative movements that are actually forward moving. This means… we are in every position to make new traditions — even if built on or influenced by old ones.

This is where myth comes in.

AC: I find the idea of inventing new traditions very inspiring.

New Question from TM: How do we start the conversation on the value of these cultural assets? Slow fashion and sustainable alternatives are essential to preserving our culture and the unique ability of many designers. Some of us in the industry understand its importance, but how do you explain to someone that the $5 shirt they bought can have such an impact?

RM:  As for your question, Theresa, herein lies the challenge of scale, economies of scale, economic realities that working people face, and the problem of what economists rarely discuss: externalities. What I mean by this is this: The wider market is rigged. You’ll hear libertarians often describe this when issues of why market forces don’t work. In other words, we’ve messed with primitive (or pure) capitalism so much that we must simply remove all barriers, government intervention, etc.

This, I believe, to be a false argument. Our economy is complex and mixed. We (as consumers) continue to jump in and out of the industrial grid: We trade backyard vegetables with a neighbor or shop at the farmers market AND then head down to the big box discount store to purchase Tide.

As to your specific and valid point, we need to a) clarify why is it some “popular” goods are so cheap and therefore attractive to those who have limited resources? Or, why industrial food’s real costs are hidden in the subsidies for agriculture or clothing, and b) are these “boutique” goods necessarily more expensive. If they are, can we reduce costs (without giving up on our principles) OR maybe we should reorder our priorities, spend more, etc. The hidden costs are the long term ones: health of local economies, health costs, environmental, etc.

I think that is the biggest issue. There are a lot of people who WANT to shop responsibly, but they either assume it’s too expensive or don’t know where to begin. I think in getting rid of the barriers of your farmers market with the EBT matching program (which I have seen done here in Tuscaloosa with great success) you give a great example of how to start. We have to show people WHY it is valuable, and why it is a smart investment

OS: In fashion, it feels a bit more complicated as the craft is about more than just clothing our bodies. The food/market industry has been so great at getting GREAT product to the people. How do we do this with fashion?

RM:  Food versus fashion … Olivia … Yes, this is an important point of distinction. Food has successfully carved out space (for the slow foods — non commodified foods) that has found voice in the marketplace.

RM:  When you think of small farmers who grow heirloom vegetables, say, instead of commodity soybean, these farmers gain independence (from the grid) IF and only IF they manage for forge allies who will purchase their products at decent prices. There’s also more risk: The guaranteed price for their goods is only as good as their relationship is with their consumer: Be it chefs or home consumers.

RM:  These allies have appeared and have helped farmers, fishers find a niche in the market. To do so, this has required minimal infrastructure: tents, umbrellas (at farmers markets) or restaurants whose menu has room for branded products (i.e., Farmer Cores special heirloom golden beets).

AC: Richard and I talked about how to bring this idea of local fashion into the local markets. While we are working locally, we aren’t really selling locally… we need to find ways to overcome this. Does fashion have a Slow Fashion movement? Perhaps what fashion needs is an Alice Waters, to jumpstart a movement that emphasized the importance of sustainable, locally produced apparel?

TM: On the grand scale, I think there needs to be a widespread political movement to enforce labor laws, enforce minimum wages, and show a respect for human life in our industry. Consumers need to be aware of the conditions from which their clothing is coming. I also think that things like Maker Faire and clothing markets create excitement and validity for homegrown designers. It shows the work and commitment put into clothing, and it can spread that message to more people.

RM:  Here is where that earlier question about $5 versus $50 T-shirts follows closely with the food challenges. Are fresh, healthy, local foods only for those who eat in fancy restaurants?

AC: Part of the hurdle is to make locally produced apparel attractive to the local economy. Of course, cost is a factor as well – just like it was in the food industry. It would be interesting to do a project with Market Umbrella to see if we can find a way to bring fashion to the people…

MP: Alabama Chanin, I think that is the hardest part, competing with more entrenched players who have large marketing budgets and low costs. Convincing mainstream consumers to give up on cheap clothes and cheap food is very difficult unless you can sell and distribute in new ways… Another possible barrier is the relationship. When you buy locally at a farmers market, you get a relationship with the farmer. Buying locally produced clothing is normally done at a boutique, where you gain a relationship with the shop owner perhaps, but not necessarily a relationship with the person who created the piece. How to make that part of the interaction?

RM:  Now, we circle back ’round to those economy of scale issues that are in some ways easier for vegetable farmers but very difficult for meat, poultry, or grain growers (who need to depend upon other pieces of the production process: slaughter facilities, docks, and processor plants). But that’s on the producer side.

On the consumer side, we see a great deal of innovation taking root around food access issues: Most notably the incentive programs for vulnerable families: Wholesome Wave, Fair Food, Roots of Change, and our program in New Orleans at the Crescent City Farmers Market: MarketMatch.

TM: There’s a stigma that a $50 shirt is overpriced, and as a college student, I see the struggle with spending that much on something. But I have also seen the difference in the better quality clothing that I have been willing to pay for. They last longer, look better, and give me the satisfaction as a consumer that I am not contributing to the cycle of abuse of workers

AC: We definitely have a Slow Fashion movement – the term coined from the Slow Food Movement. And there are lots of folks out there doing great work! Very much like the pirate ships you talk about in your SFA presentation. Any tips you might have on how to start sailing in formation?

RM:  In my paradigm of independent pirate ships, we seek ways to sail together, in formation. From afar, it may appear as though the food system work is sailing in formation. And yes, the convergence of national campaigns — especially to combat obesity — seems to fix its eyes upon food system work. However, upon closer inspection, there are many tantalizing distracting points: When funders come knocking, do we go with them to receive their funds (and leave the other pirate ships behind)? Is there room on the Armada for me? (Or in other words, am I selling out or a sail out?)

AC: Richard asked this question of me earlier, “What is our role: are we consumers or active participants in our own lives?” I think our role as designers (fashion or otherwise) is to find ways to help “consumers” transform to “active participants.”

RM:  For fashion, as it has been remarked earlier in questions, it is so very difficult to sail alone. Where do you price the goods? At what point is the right scale enough? There is so much risk AND it is difficult to create a sense of urgency for fashion.

AC: Yes, the sense of urgency in fashion is daunting… and a HUGE part of the problem.

RM:  Whether food or fashion, it is important for pirate ships to scan the horizon to name and recognize the landscape — the swells, the currents, the enemies. It’s important to recognize strategic allies (who may or may not share core values).

And then it’s important to look within one’s core business model (to use the kind of Freakonomics —, 21st century language). Yes, it’s a bit cliché but only when we know who we are and what we do might we find ourselves pirate ships ready to partner with others.

What are the barriers: Access to capital? Access to markets? Labor? I somehow doubt that it’s access to creativity.

AC: The creativity is most certainly there… however, there is also the barrier to markets and the fact that local labor is so much more expensive (in the short term)… To the point of a movement; is Etsy (and sites like it) filling that need? Or, are they more an indication that the desire for handmade, smaller scale goods exists?

AC: Etsy is a great start and has provided a place for many, many makers to find their voice and for this conversation to grow! It is definitely a large and growing pirate ship…

At the same time, like the food industry, there are GIANTS of industry in the mainstream that tend to overwhelm the “makers.”

RM:  We find it fascinating how during this age we have rediscovered direct marketing contact: eBay, Etsy, farmers markets — all of these remove what once was huge barriers for individual expression. And yet, once we think we’ve reached calmer seas … the economy changes, the market changes. All the more reason to forge ties with those whom you can trust, recognize those whom you need (even if you don’t trust), etc.

TM: I think Etsy is a great way to get your name out there, but it still doesn’t create that genuine connection. You may like something you order from someone and order from them again, but you also may not. There’s no “brand loyalty” like you find for a lot of the bigger fashion names. In addition, it’s almost an overwhelming venue. 500 hair barrettes with fabric flowers are great, but the options can overwhelm a new visitor

RM:  Here I am also reminded about the issue of consumer fetish. How much choice is too much choice?

RM:  Also, it is important to together build a new shared language, history with new allies.

I believe that this has been central to the farmers market success across the US. Libertarian and suspicious farmers have joined forces with urban cosmopolitan actors. Together, both have grown closer. They have learned that many initial suspicions were incorrect. And together we have set aside misguided ideas about each other and now have a new, shared history, language — new traditions based on mutual aid, trust, etc.

Does this have any resonance with fashion? Several years ago, I stumbled into a public market in Rio (Brazil). It was an ordinary marketplace (outdoor tent) that housed small designers who made and fitted clothes literally two feet from their competitors. Ordinary Brazilians would purchase “nice” but affordable original designs from small designers. What would a design market look like here?

AC: I want to see what a market here looks like. Sounds like the next step on our journey… smile.

AC: Richard, we are almost out of time… how fast it goes. I would like to end with a bit of your experience on the ground (or in the market)… Working within your community, have you found out anything about yourself or human nature that was particularly surprising to you?

RM:  I keep learning. I yearn for those early years (6 months into the project) when I had it all figured out. I grew out of the social justice movement but grew so uncomfortable with the conflict that comes with fighting against others, the Armada. I feel so much more comfortable creating alternative realities with fellow pirates. I grew up in a marketing and sales household; ran so far away from it that I eventually found myself in marketing and sales (of the things we need: trusting relationships, community, and food).

AC: What a beautiful journey… thank you so much for meeting us here. Looking forward to designing a market with you and…

TM: Thank you SO much for letting us all be a part of this discussion. It’s things like this that get me excited about fashion and committing myself to slow fashion and sustainability.

*All photos thanks to

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