New Orleans — Environmentally aware and entrepreneurial community members met Tuesday evening to discuss the economic impact of Carnival in New Orleans, envisioning a future in which all throws are locally made and the best beads are redistributed each year, shifting money now spent on imports to local vendors and artists.
On one side of room, conference organizer Katrina Brees pointed to her “room of solutions” — a space filled with tables of artists and vendors displaying their locally made throw alternatives.
At one table, collected beads were on display, packaged and priced by ARC of New Orleans. Last season, ARC piloted a bead collection float. This year, because it is officially prohibited to throw beads at floats, they are awaiting approval to continue the recycling effort, ARC representative Margie Perez said. The float is unmanned for safety reasons, and last season displayed a large clown head, targets and signs that read “Catch and Release.” The project was funded by a $1,000 grant won in a contest soliciting the best idea for making Mardi Gras greener.
Perez said that in their inaugural season 10,000 pounds of beads were collected in four parades.
Brees said that the beads are sorted, repackaged and then redistributed through a partnership with United Way which helps to employ mentally challenged people.
Citing a number calculated by Tulane professor Toni Weiss’ 2009 economic impact study, Brees said that the largest krewes throw about $50,000 worth of throws per block. Local buyers import the beads from China by the millions of pounds, Brees said, also noting that the beads are made from oil and not necessarily the best toys for children to be chewing on.
The conference’s discussion panel began with a presentation of economic impact numbers from Kirk Groh, one of the co-founders of Verdi Green, an organization with goal of Preserving Louisiana culture by conserving resources and reducing dependence on foreign throws. Parading has an economic impact in the neighborhood of $12 million dollars each year, Groh said.
But for Brees, it is as much about returning to Carnival tradition, in which unique throws are coveted, as it is about steering away from cheap Chinese imports. There’s a magic moment, Brees said, a moment of connection and eye contact between the thrower and the throw-seeker, when the former has what the latter covets. “We want to lengthen and deepen that moment,” Brees said. “With Chinese imports, there’s also “no real bond between throw makers and throws,” Brees said, adding that there are “a lot of human rights violations.”
At one table, Cheyenne Buchanan displayed the products available at iheart.louisiana.com, a website started by Brees and devoted to selling locally produced Carnival throws. From jambalaya seasoning and Chee Wees to pralines and hog cracklin, Buchanan said, the group is working with Louisiana vendors to create snack-sized versions of their products, if they don’t produce them already, and creating custom-designed packaging for individual krewes.
The prices are comparable to bulk beads, Buchanan said, in addition to providing a much-needed snack during parades, or unique and practical souvenir to take home.
Buchanan said the organization plans to expand to promote throws made by local artists — on any scale.
“It’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved,” Buchanan said of the marketing possibilities, “A win-win. People come to New Orleans for this — there’s no reason it shouldn’t benefit New Orleans as well.”
Brees is also the “mother shucker” of the Krewe of Bearded Oysters, an all-female group founded in 2004 who march in up to 15 parades each year. The Oysters were represented at a table where they displayed bead-covered shoes and decorated oyster shells, throws they have been creating for many years at social gatherings with “glue guns and glitter,” and ones that people love to get, krewe member Christine Cloutre said.
The krewe is also “human-powered,” featuring colorful and imaginative floats built onto tricycles.
“If we make a 1 percent change — that’s hundreds of thousands of pounds,” Brees said, of potential change in the current outsourced throw consumption. “Even though the numbers seem big, we can make huge changes — just as citizens.”