The Hipster Industry

(Anna Seward)—If you read Yasmina’s excellent article on misrepresentation, you’ve gotten a taste of how thoughtless “ethnic” trends can erase a culture, but what do they do to native economies? In the Native American headdresses example, the native community sees none of the profits. Produced entirely by white mainstream companies, the culture is further buried. But even when local sources are utilized and the trends are not offensive, what happens when a global market goes after a local supply?

Let’s talk about the feather extensions of summer 2011. I have a large contingency of hipster friends so I started to see these cropping up the previous winter, but even if you don’t have my Portland connections, I’m sure you knew at least one girl who got feathers pinned to the underside of her hair at one point (here, modelled by Ke$ha).

What you might not know is that the fad caused a national shortage and chaos in the fly-fishing industry. Feathers that once sold for $30 (wow, it’s gotten weird to see the dollar sign #studyabroadproblems) started to go for $200, fly fishing stores started to refuse to sell to women who were ogling feathers, and farms were killing nearly 1,500 birds a week to keep up with demand. The trend died as many do, with with mainstream tweens deciding some neon pink feathers were so their back to school look.

A similar explosion of an industry is happening in Bolivia with quinoa. A highly nutritious grain, quinoa has long been a staple in South American indigenous food. Recently it’s gained popularity in wealthy vegan communities, and now most of the quinoa grown in Bolivia (along with other South American countries) is exported to mixed results:

 The surge has helped raise farmers’ incomes here in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. But there has been a notable trade-off: Fewer Bolivians can now afford it, hastening their embrace of cheaper, processed foods and raising fears of malnutrition in a country that has long struggled with it.

Farmers in Bolivia are also rapidly switching from llama herding to the more profitable quinoa farming, disrupting a delicate balance that’s been in place for centuries. Again, growing up in trendy Portland it was a weird transition as a teenager to start to see quinoa on my friends’ tables. My mother raised me on quinoa just as she had been in Peru. Something about the situation made me uncomfortable when one of my friends’ white parents would tell me, “We’re having this new grain for dinner tonight. It’s called ‘quinoa.’ Have you heard of it?”

Who knows if quinoa is going to stay around and become another one of those “ethnic” foods the global community adopts as one of its own, like sushi or curry. Something unnerves me, though, about how blindly we all walk into trends in fashion or food. In some ways these are just the problems of globalization. What do we lose when we not only broaden our community but in many ways also push our own consumption habits onto other parts of the world? It also makes me wonder about our culture of immediate gratification and if we put any thought into our consumption at all or if we allow ourselves to get carried away with novelty. That’s new, I want it. Tell me where you got it. I’ll tell all of my friends.