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Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

If you want to signal that you’re a serious person, few assertions are more effective than announcing that you don’t like stuff. In one corner are the mall-goers, the e-commerce-addled shopaholics, chasing the latest trend. These consumerist materialists are, goes the thinking, indifferent to the labour and environmental impact of overconsumption. In the other are those too busy saving the world – or otherwise making something of themselves – to care about such trivialities as their clothes and household implements. Thus the tech bros with wardrobes of identical drab turtlenecks, as though a patterned garment would be so distracting you wouldn’t be able to disrupt whichever industry while wearing it.

The more you care about material objects, goes the ubiquitous, subtly sexist critique, the shallower you are.

Well. Here to demolish that notion once and for all is Maine-based writer Katy Kelleher. In her new book, The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, Ms. Kelleher attempts to reconcile her belief in the importance of physical beauty – visual, but also textures and smells – with her lifelong interest in the conditions of production: “Sometimes, I feel as though my passion for beautiful things splits me into multiple people. There’s a person who desires recklessly, who hedonistically craves all the shine, all the glimmer, all the light in the world, who wants to hoard and steal and own. There’s a person who notices the shadows and dwells on them, mulling, thinking, doubting, detracting.”

And dwell she does, on everything from quartz countertops (air-quality concerns for workers) to mirrors (historically made from mercury, poisoning workers) to perfume (don’t dwell on what “musk” is if you enjoy spritzing yourself with the stuff). She does this not to command readers to lead more spartan lives, but in order to balance the legitimate human need for beauty with the ethical concerns of how many beautiful objects were produced.

As Ms. Kelleher shows, being drawn to beauty is a human universal, not some quirk of contemporary North American consumerism. In a section on shells, she writes, “You can … purchase a shell-adorned mini dress by influencer-beloved brand Reformation. This isn’t new. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was all the rage in the Netherlands to have a gaudy, gold-accented nautilus chalice on your table.”

“This isn’t new” is a running theme in the book, along with “It’s not all consumerist brainwashing” and “This is not a modern phenomenon.” These serve as refreshing reminders that being drawn to possessing shiny things is not something humans will be transcending any time soon.

Also not unique to our times: unappealing or unethical production practices. The “ugly history” to which the title refers includes unsightly processes involving weird bits of animals, as well as things such as Nazi-era porcelain. People were giving themselves lead and mercury poisoning hundreds of years ago for one frivolity or another, without any Instagram ads prompting them to do so.

And yet, the title, The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, gave me pause. It made me anticipate a formula that thankfully the book itself did not deliver.

Style writing from the past couple of decades often asks readers, in an admonishing tone, whether they know where their food (or clothes etc.) comes from. Sure enough, behind the scenes of every industry is a polluting, abusive hellscape.

I’m never sure what to do with this information. Factory farming is bad, but so, too, is food production of all kinds, rife with toxins and exploitation. Vinyl flooring is plastic and, as such, emits whatever the bad thing is that’s emitted by plastic, but tile flooring would bankrupt your family, which also has drawbacks.

Everything is terrible, and yet we all need to eat, and certainly in a Canadian winter, we need clothes. The implicit suggestion always seems to be: Be rich, so you can buy the ethical version. And if you’re not sitting on an endless pile of money? A good person would simply do without.

It’s no wonder, then, that some react to this line of thought by shrugging their shoulders, reciting the ubiquitous phrase, “There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism,” and buying whatever crosses their path.

Ms. Kelleher is part of a new crop of writers – among them food author Alicia Kennedy, novelist and critic Rachel Connolly, and fashion journalist Isabel Slone – pushing back against those shrugs of indifference. Yes, there are systemic woes, against which we may feel powerless. But if you’re someone who’s interested in food, clothes or home décor – if you like stuff – this passion can fuel more discerning, limited and therefore ethical consumption.

There are times when Ms. Kelleher defends upscale purchases as an alternative to overconsumption. (One learns that “a $1,000 lingerie set” is actually fairly priced when you consider what goes into making it.) But she doesn’t claim that high-end products are somehow inherently ethical. Diamonds are a naturally occurring material, but she’s no shill for the notorious diamond-mining industry. She expresses affection for plastic seashells, and a grudging acceptance of her own plastic-filled kitchen.

Most importantly, she distinguishes between the squickiness factor of where certain things come from (in silk production, moths are most definitely harmed) and labour abuses. The behind-the-scenes is always uglier than what’s showcased for public view, but not all ugliness is equal.

Ms. Kelleher’s answer for reconciling the ugly and the beautiful is to decouple appreciation from acquisition: “I’ve come to see that having beautiful things is only one, rather limited, way to access the experience of beholding beauty.” You can visit a museum without taking home the exhibition, or study an exquisite seasonal blossom.

In the abstract, I’m sure she’s right. In practice, I cannot claim to find gazing at wildflowers as interesting as my favourite shoe store having an end-of-season sale.

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