Today's "Greening Mardi Gras" conference launches an initiative to make Carnival financially and ecologically better for Louisiana.

Photo of sample throws from ZomBeads
Possible future Mardi Gras throws from ZomBeads.com

"The show, not the throw. The throw becomes the photo you want, that Facebook picture. They want to say, 'Look at this exciting stuff I did' versus bringing a pile of beads back to Buffalo, New York and saying, 'Look how cool Mardi Gras is.'" 

Katrina Brees is reflecting on the Mardi Gras dilemma: Beads. The excitement's in the anticipation and the catching. Once a parade is done, the tangible evidence of the fun is a bag of beads that are far less interesting than they were on the float and in the air. She hopes to change the emphasis of Mardi Gras starting today with "Greening Mardi Gras: A Conference on Ecological and Economic Transformation" at Cafe Istanbul from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Brees moved from Boston to New Orleans 10 years ago to get involved in costume design, and she fell in love with Mardi Gras, so much so that she formed her own marching group, the Bearded Oysters Parade Club. Since then, she has been involved in more than 100 parades as a performer or a costume or float designer. She got her MBA at UNO and has tried to use her business knowledge to improve the environment, particularly in the Mardi Gras business. 

Her concern is that Carnival has stagnated, motivated by the desire to be bigger rather than better, or by assuming that "bigger" is the same as "better." Floats and costumes have become interchangeable, Brees says, so much so that it would be hard to tell one year's parade from another based on photos. "When you look at the floats being put out in Venice and Rio, it makes our floats look like a yard sale," she says. "Because we're taking the focus away from the art and the creativity and putting so much effort into beads and making that the focus, we're losing our cultural heritage." 

One of the focuses of today's conference is on throws, which Brees finds unsettling on a number of levels. The 2005 film Mardi Gras Made in China documents the sweatshop labor required to make the throws that are a staple of Carnival. Much of that pain and struggle is for nothing, she says, referring to a study of Carnival throws that says the superkrewes throw $50,000 worth of throws in a block. That inevitably leads to the phenomenon on a multi-parade night of people losing interest as the night wears on in all but the most special beads. Much of what is bought and thrown hits the ground, where it becomes trash. She'd rather see crews throw fewer, more unique beads that are a product of a local industry.

"We're not trying to get rid of beads or tell people that they're bad," Brees says. "We're trying to get people to make choices." At the same time, she understands how the shift to Chinese beads came about. "The whole country went this way. The highway to China was easy to get on."

Her goal is to establish a new cottage industry for throws in Louisiana, and today she launches her new website, IHeartLouisiana.com - a shopping portal for those looking for an alternative to buying Chinese throws from Accent Annex and other bead retailers. On the site, ARC of New Orleans sells recycled beads, which provides year-around income for those who sort the beads; and "A Taste of Louisiana" takes the Moon Pie concept one step farther. It offers a variety of edible products as throws including seasoning mixes, ground coffee, hot sauce and hot nuts. ZomBeads.com is a marketplace for artisans who recycle materials into Mardi Gras throws. These throws are made to be competitively priced and can be mass produced. Brees doesn't expect the first year buy-in from the krewes to be overwhelming, but she insists that everyone involved has lined up the labor necessary to help make these throws should demand be substantially larger than expected.

She believes that these initiatives are just the start, and that others will become involved in the alternative throws industry. Brees hopes that they will help refocus Mardi Gras parades on the magic moment when someone on the float connects to someone in the crowd and tosses him or her a specific throw. That magic, she insists, is the the real thing. "The beads are a fake," she says. "We pretend they have value; they have no value."   

Today's conference will be a trade show and panel, partly to launch the site and the idea of alternative Carnival throws, and to discuss the issues connected to Chinese-sourced throws. A representative from Rex will be a part of the panel, which is important to Brees. "Rex being on board with this says it's clearly not just a hippie movement anymore," she says. She stresses that neither she nor anybody else in the movement is attacking Mardi Gras. "Every person involved loves Carnival. Nobody is out to destroy it. We only want it to benefit our community more greatly."