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The new holier than thou

Author Andrew Potter.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: One of the do-gooder trends that's popped up in recent years is showing off our new, leaner consumption style. But social critic Andrew Potter says it's not all about doing good for the world. There's more than a little self-interest going on when we shop organic, buy distressed designer jeans and make our own jam.

His book is called "The Authenticity Hoax." And I asked him what exactly that means.

Andrew Potter: What it is is, in a sense, a successor form of status display, succeeding the old conspicuous consumption that we're all familiar with. And what has happened, I think over the past 30 or 40 years, there's been a shift in the culture where as we got wealthier, it actually became less socially acceptable to just sort of, like, engage in raw displays of how much wealth you have or what great taste you have. And so we engage in what I call "conspicuous authenticity," displays of consumption or experience that sort of express what a deep person, how spiritual you are.

Vigeland: What are some examples of that?

Potter: Things like volun-tourism or eco-tourism. The idea that you're not just going traveling somewhere; you're going there to actually help out the locals. Or you're going there to help preserve the planet. I think the current fetish for the locavore craze -- local eating, local meat, local produce and so on -- is an expression of that as well. This idea that I'm not the kind of person who shops just to own something. I shop to sort of sustain a local community that matters to me and my kin.

Vigeland: Well, what's wrong with conspicuous authenticity? What's wrong with eco-tourism?

Potter: Oh, there's nothing wrong with it at all. Except, one of the problems is, like all what economists call "positional goods," it's valuable only to the extent to which other people can't really have it. Especially in the food, the locavore movement, one of the most important aspects that people talk about is "I've got this butter, right, that you can't buy in the open market. You need sort of social connections to get it." What I'm trying to point out is that when you wrap up your consumption in a sort of moralizing guise, it ends up sort of being almost a more pernicious form of status-seeking, because it makes it seem like you're actually better than other people and not just simply better connected.

Vigeland: You talk a lot in the book about how marketers and brand strategists are tapping into this these days. Can you give us some examples of that? I mean, obviously, you spent a lot of time talking about Whole Foods.

Potter: Yeah. I talk about Whole Foods... What's amazing, the beginning of chapter four actually lists about 50 different products and services or goods or people that have been promoted on the grounds that they're authentic or they have authenticity. I mean, everything from chain saws to Sarah Palin has been sort of claimed to be authentic in one way or another. And so it's a great marketing strategy across the board.

Authenticity, I think, is kind of like charisma. If you have to say you have it, you don't, right? But it's the more subtle forms of selling of authenticity, where you sell something not as authentic, you sell it as saving the earth. It's the big problem that a product or store like Whole Foods is having, because they're called "Whole Paycheck" for a reason. But beyond that, they sort of got wrapped in this whole idea of "big organic," this idea that they're just sort of adopting the techniques of industrial mass marketing to organic, which nobody really likes and is sort of undermining the brand in a lot of ways.

Vigeland: You also talk about the one-upsmanship that comes into play, the "keeping up with the authentic Joneses." You say, you know, there's this trend toward competitive anti-consumption.

Potter: Yeah. You have to show that you're not actually connected to the stuff you're buying. The French call it "nostalgie de la bou," nostalgia for the mud, this sort of fetishization of poverty. You see that, you know the hipster movement in Williamsburg, N.Y. There everyone talks about this idea that you have a fixed gear bike, because you can't afford a proper 10-speed and so on.

But I think the way that it gets really interesting is in the various ways people are kind of downgrading their houses. You know, you get these amazing stories of people putting no-flush toilets in their condominiums in Manhattan, which there's a kind of charming preposterousness to it all, right? This idea to prove you're more authentic than everyone else, you need to actually live like someone kind of third-world, poverty-stricken aboriginal.

Vigeland: Would you call yourself a conspicuous authencicist? Or a conspicuous consumer?

Potter: Oh absolutely. And it's sort of the embarrassing part of all of it -- is that it's actually quite hard to get away from. I mean, I spent far more money than I had -- I just put it on a big credit card -- a couple years ago to go on a canoe trip in the northwest territories of Canada to spend time away from technology and away from human nature. And that kind of stuff, we all do it, we all like it. What I'm trying to point out is that it might not necessarily make us happy and it certainly is a lot easier to do when you can at least put something on your credit card.

Vigeland: Andrew Potter is the author of "The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves." Glad we found you. Thanks so much.

Potter: Thanks so much. It was fun.

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