An Interview with Josh Hooten

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The husband-wife team of Josh Hooten and Michelle Schwegmann run the Herbivore Clothing Company, which sells non-lame vegan gear (think “Praise Seitan“) and has been publishing the “vegetarian culture” magazine Herbivore for just over a year.

I had a chance to speak with Josh about Herbivore and being vegan in a very non-vegan world. He told me to go away.

Actually, it went something like this:

Let’s start with your “Vegetarian history” (when you became/why you became “one of those people”).

I went vegetarian about 7 years ago and vegan 5 years ago. Prior to that I had a very serious case of denial. I had veggie friends who were excellent role models but for some reason I held on to the stereotypes I had developed about vegetarians and was very stubborn. Despite the fact that some of my best friends were anything but the stereotype, I just wouldn’t let it go. Then one day my old roommate rescued a goose from a busy intersection near our house and somehow that lead to an epiphany for me about her seeing this goose wandering around, scared, and confused, in traffic (with a fishing hook through it’s wing) and how I would have stopped traffic to help too. But then I’d eat a chicken without thinking twice about helping it out of it’s own confusing and frightening situation. So I decided to stop eating meat. Then a couple years later I was reading Diet for a New America and was shocked at how I thought I had this great compassion for animals by not eating their flesh but didn’t think twice about milk and eggs and so forth. During the reading of that book I truly felt like it would have been less cruel to eat beef than eggs, but I wasn’t going to eat beef, so I couldn’t keep eating eggs. Same with milk, etc. It was a very big moment in my life, I remember where I was and what I was wearing when I decided to go vegan. And I REALLY didn’t want to go vegan. I didn’t want to be inconvenienced by learning all this new stuff and having to start cooking for myself and so forth. But when I read the truth, I knew what I had to do. I really didn’t feel like I had a choice.

I assume you went through all the typical family-and-friends issues when you went vegan. Any good stories about being “The Vegan” (as one of your recent issues refers to it)?

I have a few friends and family stories, some of which I can now look back and laugh at but most are kind of a punch in the heart. Meaning, it doesn’t feel good to not get support from the people who you’re closest to. Which, oddly, always seems to be the group that is most resistant for the people I know. Why is it always family who show you their ass when you make big changes like going vegetarian?

Anyway, I had one friend who would get uptight about a column I wrote for a website and how, in my column, I “couldn’t go a week without mentioning veganism, can you?” I told him it made me sad none of my friends supported my decision, or gave me any credit that I might be on to something and maybe they should look into it. Anyway, I told him I wasn’t going to listen to his shit anymore unless he learned about this thing that had changed my life. I told him to read Diet For a New America, and once he did, he could criticize me all he wanted because he’d finally know what he was talking about. He went vegan before finishing the book. His eyes opened up just like mine had.

Shortly thereafter he’d call me on a regular basis to tell me all the messed up things he was seeing that before never would have occurred to him. Like how his mom had triple bypass heart surgery and on the way home from the hospital his family stopped for dinner at a steakhouse to celebrate the successful surgery.

How’d you decide to start the Herbivore Clothing Company?

For the first 3 years I was one of those “I don’t want to talk about my diet, it’s a personal choice” kind of vegans. I didn’t know any other vegans, so I didn’t have any backup. At first this was because I wasn’t very good at talking about it, I was new to it, and couldn’t recite facts, which I thought would be important. Then one day I decided that was dumb. I had important information that should be shared (regardless of whether or not I could remember how many baby chicks are ground up per year in the United States, or why hunting isn’t an effective means of wildlife population control), especially with people I cared about who I often found saying the same dumb, ignorant things I used to say about vegetarianism. And I was proud that I was vegan, so why wouldn’t I talk about it in the right context? So, like any good American would, I turned to consumerism to speak my beliefs for me and I went shopping for an animal rights message shirt. But I’m a bit of a design snob and couldn’t find anything that I liked or that would express my views in the style I would prefer. So I decided to make a shirt, then thought, there must be other people out there in my shoes. Why don’t I make a few dozen of this shirt? Why don’t I make several designs, a few dozen of each?

I’m a graphic designer by trade, so I knew I could handle that part ok. And I’d just recently learned how to make a really sloppy website, so I knew I could handle that too. I had a friend who owned a screenprinting company how knew where I could get really nice quality, sweatshop free t-shirts and he would let me trade design work for printing with him. So why not? That was a couple of years ago and it’s been going well.

And how did that eventually translate into becoming magazine publishers?

We started the magazine for the same reason we started the clothing biz, just substitute “wear” with “read” and “clothing company” with “magazine.” Example: “As fashion conscious, urban vegans who were convinced of our own cleverness and humor despite any evidence of this, we felt we didn’t have anything vegan oriented to wear. So we started a clothing business.” OR: “As fashion conscious, urban vegans who are convinced of our own cleverness and humor despite any evidence of this, we felt we didn’t have anything vegan oriented to read. So we started a magazine.”

I really wanted there to be a magazine that was about celebrating our culture as much as it was about the issues behind it. We couldn’t find one that was covering the stuff we wanted to know about, so we made one.

And we wanted to show the humorous side of the vegetarian community too. Veggies are so often cast as humorless, rhetoric spewing grumps and that is just not my experience. So many of our friends are fun loving knuckleheads how are passionate about the issues but still love to laugh and have fun and celebrate their lives.

What are your current distribution channels?

We handle the subscriptions through our site, and our newsstand distribution is handled by Big Top Newsstand Services, which is the distribution arm of the Independent Press Association. We’re really excited about working with them as their mission is to support independent publishing and keep that voice alive in a world where ever fewer media outlets exist. If we hadn’t gotten picked up by Big Top, we would have had some hard thinking to do about distribution and whose pockets we would have been lining by trying to go with another distributor. Big Top gets us into a lot of indy bookstores and co-ops as well as bigger corporate chains. I think this is indespensible because as little as I like corporate chains, how many pro-animal rights voices exist on that bookshelf? Little to none, so we feel really proud that we don’t have to curtail any editorial content and can still get an expose on chicken factory farming onto a Barnes and Noble newsstand. Other magazines will write about those topics, but not usually from a pro-activist standpoint, which we think is a really vital voice.

A few months ago, I was staying at a hotel outside of Chicago and I was wearing my “Praise Seitan” shirt. We were heading out to the Chicago Diner, but before we did, I had to go through the “recreation area” (where there’s a pool, game area, etc.) to get to the front desk. I forgot that I was wearing that shirt and got a lot of scared looks from kids who were old enough to read but not old enough to know about wheat gluten and such things. On my way back from the front desk, I had to cross my arms to avoid scaring any more little kids. Have you had any strange reactions like that to any of your clothing line/stickers/pins?

Not as much as my friend Chad from Food Fight Vegan Grocery who makes buttons that say “I Love Hunting Accidents.” What a cold hearted bastard.

That’s almost as cold as Jeb in issue 3 who said what he learned from Atkins was to be careful when walking on ice.

I just got a note the other day from someone saying we were doing a good job except the Praise Seitan shirt wasn’t to her liking. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Thanks? Piss off? Relax? I didn’t know what to say. I got a note from a very serious Christian once who was really upset about the shirt. She said she was a vegetarian and a Christian and she didn’t appreciate the pentagram (made out of forks) and so forth. She said I should stop making them and that it wasn’t funny. I told her, with all due respect to her faith, she should spend her time lecturing her meat eating Christian friends about compassion, rather than lecturing a vegan about Christianity. Oh boy, she didn’t like that. I don’t know what to tell people who get upset by that shirt. My feeling is, if they get upset by that shirt, they were going to get upset by something that day and the Praise Seitan shirt just happened to come along.

That brings up an interesting point: a lot of very religious people still eat meat and, as pointed out in the current issue, it’s actually a main part of many religious holidays and ceremonies. I’m particularly bothered when I see a church having a celebration and they’re doing a pig roast. They wouldn’t consider wheeling out a dead body from a funeral to put in the middle of the celebration, so why would they wheel out a dead pig on a spit?

What do you think causes this seemingly paradoxical behavior in otherwise religious and spiritual people?

Tradition. That’s all I can think of. My experience has been that very pro-meat people don’t ever have any solid back up for their stance, they only have tradition or vague statements like “It’s natural, we’ve done it forever.” Completely ignoring the fact that there is NOTHING natural about hacked up chicken parts in plastic wrap at a grocery store. If they were out there with a spear running down their food, they’d have a leg to stand on but grocery stores aren’t much like the forest, so that argument topples right over. And most of them I’ve heard do with a little inspection.

One thing “traditionalists” fail to grasp is that we’ve also been hating and killing each other over the color of our skin forever too, but that doesn’t make it right. We’ve been hating and killing each other over our religious beliefs forever, but that doesn’t make it right. Having a selective view of history to prove your point doesn’t make for much of a debate.

As for religious and spiritual people who eat meat, I have no idea how you can preach compassion and peace and eat meat. It baffles me every time I think about it. Even if their God did intend for us to eat the animals he/she put here, surely he/she wouldn’t enable them to suffer, then let us torture them with factory farming practices. No idea how otherwise sensitive people keep the blinders on.

What’s the reaction been from those within the vegetarian/animal rights community to your clothing and magazine?

As far as the Praise Seitan shirt goes, it’s far and away our best seller. A lot of responses have been along the lines of “finally I can fly the vegetarian flag with a sense of humor!” As for the company in general, people seem to dig it. It’s very validating to start two companies based on the hunch that there are a lot of other people out there like us and have it work out. It’s validating and scary. What else about them is like us? Do they all also swear like sailors and make up drunken dances called “Gorilla versus the Escalator”? Do they have an attacking type manuever called “The Butt Saw”?

Also, we were nominated by Utne Magazine in their Independent Press Awards in the Best New Title category, which was a real honor. So getting recognized outside the community is also very cool.

That said, I have to point out that just like everywhere else there is competition and underhanded stuff going on in the community, from a business standpoint and other areas. I have no time for this bullshit. We’re all here trying to save lives, getting competitive about business stuff undercuts the supposed goal.

What business lessons have you learned from your short time running Herbivore? What’s been your biggest obstacle?

Running vegetarian companies will never get you on “Cribs.” The biggest obstacle is not being able to afford to launch all the new products and projects we want and not having enough hours in the day to get everything done. But that’s actually a good thing. Keeps us motivated.

I imagine that most of the money that comes in goes right back into the business. Has it been a challenge to “pay the bills” at home?

Most of the money does go back into the company. But we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to pay most of those bills on time, as well as sponsor a cow at Farm Sanctuary for the past two years (his name is Boris), as well as lend what support we can to various AR groups including Student Animal Rights Alliance, PETA, the SHAC 7 legal defense fund, Lighthouse Farm Sanctuary, and a few others. Our feeling is that there’s no use in starting a company if you’re not going to support the community that is supporting you.

I imagine that by the time you start a business based around vegetarianism, you’ve learned pretty much everything there is to learn about food, slaughterhouses, and corporate greed. Have you had any “vegetarian epiphanies”—things you didn’t know before going into this business?

Well, one thing you just have to accept is that you’re going to be spending a lot of money with companies who aren’t vegetarian and aren’t down for your cause. Meaning I’m paying someone to print my magazine and they are taking my money and buying meat with it I’m pretty sure. It’d be nice if that wasn’t the case, but you do what you can. Or for clothing, the person who manufactures our blank shirts, I’m sure their whole company isn’t vegetarian. But it’s a good company who don’t subcontract with sweatshops like a lot of garment industry types, and they are rolling out organic cotton options thanks to their customers inquiring with them about it. So you have to hope your choices balance out. If I didn’t start the magazine, that printer or shirt maker wouldn’t have my money to go buy meat with. But, on the other hand, I got a note from a vegetarian woman today who’s husband eats meat. She said he flips through Herbivore and is becoming more compassionate as time goes on (not only because of the magazine) and she thinks he’ll quit meat soon. Or a person who we run ads for said he had been vegan for years and then started eating dairy. He got Herbivore and went back to being vegan, refreshed and excited about it again. So there’s always a trade off and if we didn’t think we were doing more good than harm, we’d quit.

I wouldn’t call them epiphanies, but being vegan and not terribly excited by capitalism, I question all our decisions and try to make the ones that are most in line with our beliefs. Sometimes we’re wrong and sometimes we can’t figure out why one way would be better than the other, but we do question them all.

Gardenburger or Boca Burger (assuming they were never bought by Kraft)?

Gardenburger. Portland Represent! Even though they just moved to Idaho! (or was it Iowa?)

Not sure. I think they’re both actually the same state.

2 Responses to “An Interview with Josh Hooten”

  1. beth durham

    josh & michelle are completely awesome. =)

  2. Gretchen Primack

    any way to get in touch w/josh now? i know herbivore’s gone, alas, but i don’t see his new publishing incarnation’s web presence anywhere…?

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