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At Barney's, Green Is the New Black
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At Barney's, Green Is the New Black

Business

At Barney's, Green Is the New Black
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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The green bandwagon itself may be responsible for some temperature-raising emissions.

Mike Pesca reports on one of the latest businesses to go green - Barneys. This notable New York department store is a symbol of how chic environmentalism has become.

MIKE PESCA: Barneys New York is known for featuring the most immodest mannequins on Madison. Whether dressed as dominatrixes, knife throwers or simply, evincing a confidence gained from wearing $4,000 suits, the inhabitants of these windows belong to an exclusive club.

Membership is determined by Barneys' creative director, Simon Doonan.

Mr. SIMON DOONAN (Creative Director, Barneys New York): Every holiday time, we try to pull something out of the air that everyone's talking about.

PESCA: This year, Barneys has gone green. Recyclable shopping bags and eco-conscious catalogue, charitable donations - all nice for the Earth, but kind of a headache for Doonan.

Mr. DOONAN: I thought, what the hell am I going to put in the windows, like, drowning polar bears? Which, let's face it, it's not very festive.

PESCA: So he brainstormed. He stuck to his belief that earnestness was deadly, and he took stock of what Barneys costumers already thought about environmentalism.

Mr. DOONAN: Our customer is looking for a little more meaning in their purchases. It's not enough just to have the latest fab, fab, flossy, flossy handbag.

PESCA: Eventually, it all clicked. This week, Barneys debuts their eco-themed holiday windows, including the 12 green days of Christmas complete with a Prius in a pear tree. If you walk through Barneys' revolving doors, you see a display case filled with hundreds, maybe thousands of discarded soda cans and bottle caps. Give your eyes a second to adjust and the cans take shape. They're the face of some sort of animal. Wait. More cans are suspended from the ceiling. They look like antlers. You thought you were visiting the $19,000 Balenciaga handbags, but instead, you're staring at Rudolph, the recycling reindeer. The zeitgeist has spoken. To quote a Barneys slogan, "green is the new black."

Dr. BILL CHAMEIDES (Dean, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University): This cannot be a fad.

PESCA: Bill Chameides is dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: It's going to be a disaster if everybody gets all excited about being green for a year or two and then says, all right, we're done with it.

PESCA: Chameides actually thinks that the Barneys campaign in it of itself is a good sign. It validates the fact that environmentalism has become so mainstream. While Barneys is the first high-end retailer to have its own green label, the commitment to nature can only go so far. Just ask the crocodiles who went into making that handbag.

Environmentalism being in fashion has some downside. First, there's public expectations. What if people come to believe that all that's needed to reverse global warming is a minor change in shopping habits or wearing the right T-shirt? Then, there are the activists. They might become resentful of environmentalism's newfound trendiness, warns Trent Stamp of the watchdog group Charity Navigator.

Mr. TRENT STAMP (President, Charity Navigator): I really don't think that there is any way that you can shop your way to being philanthropic in this country. We see way too many people that wear their cause on their chest, you know, red-colored sweatshirts or, you know, or yellow wristbands. And then I think that's the time when you lose the true activist and you get people turned off.

PESCA: Stamp is not raking Simon Doonan or Barneys over the coals or wind turbines as it were. In Stamp's opinion, some causes have reached a tipping point. For instance, who hasn't given $10 to someone doing a breast cancer walkathon? That cause has reached total saturation. Global warming has yet to achieve that kind of penetration.

Rudolph the recycling reindeer might help towards that goal, or he might drive the activists mad, or it may simply be a place where old Diet Coke cans go to die. If Rudolph shorts out, there's always Simon Doonan's backup plan, something he calls Frosty the fair-trade snowman.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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