My wife turns on BBC news every morning as she gets ready for work. This morning, the BBC talking heads were discussing the problems of fast fashion. The discussion was underpinned by some ideas that never really got air time. So here they are:
Fashion, to me, is two different things. The essential nature of fashion is about a desire for self-expression and individuality. However, like every other facet of human life, the essence of fashion has been corrupted by market thinking. Fashion for most of us has thus shifted to from self expression to something that I am broadly defining as “a constant change in what is considered “cool” to wear as determined by a select number of influencers in order to sell stuff”. This shift was not inevitable. It is market-led social construct based on exploiting our psychological insecurities – our need to stand out from the crowd (but not too much), define ourselves (by sort of looking like everyone else) and own symbols of status (what else explains $490 for a white t-shirt?) – something that I’m prey too as much as anyone else. There is nothing in nature that changes my trousers from baggy to slim from season to season other than my insecurities.
Retailers, manufacturers, brands and other businesses involved in fashion are all subject to the demands of the owners of global capital flows. They need to relentlessly create growth and profitability – “shareholder value” – and they are judged by investment analysts on quarterly sales figures. Even smaller players are subject to the need to sell to feed themselves and their families.
Fashion is thus not just a social construct, but one which is actively reinforced and accelerated by those with economic interests in making and selling clothes, accessories, magazines and everything else related. The insane pressure to sell more stuff inherently means that people will define what is “in” this week differently to what was “in” last week. (There is also insane pressure to get clothes stitched by 10-year-old kids in Bangladesh on a dollar a day as long as you don’t get caught, but that’s another story for another day.)
Then comes the marketing. Every brand needs to stand out in order to sell, so they target us. They sell us lifestyles, emotional fulfilment and status via flashy magazine adverts, Instagram “influencers” (grrrr) and finely tuned facebook ads to make us “connect” with a brand and thus buy the aforementioned $490 white t-shirt (I estimate a mark up of $485 on manufacturing cost, a 98% gross profit margin. Nice work if you can get it, I guess). The sum of all of this emotional and psychological manipulation is a relentless (yes I use the word again) and inescapable tsunami of narrative that makes each of us believe that fashion is a real, immutable force of nature.
One of the guests on the show, Andrew Opie, who works for the British Retail Consortium, was invited onto the BBC to talk about the retailer perspective. He stated again and again that it is not the fault of fashion brands as they are just responding to consumer demands. Of course, this is true to some extent – they can only sell what consumers buy. What he neglected to mention was how our global economic model forces fashion brands to place intense psychological pressure on consumers to conform to a cyclical model of fashion where cycles are getting faster and faster.
One of the interesting statistics the BBC mentioned was that the UK purchases 26kg of new clothing per annum per head, the most in Europe. In second place was Germany at 16kg. My bet is that the conversations at Asos and H&M (and at McKinsey and Bain) are not about how to reduce UK consumption but about how to up Germany’s. I can see the consultant powerpoint slides now.
Incidentally, the news is part of the problem here. It is easy to imagine how the BBC could have a segment on the problems of fast fashion on one minute, followed quickly by a business report praising Asos for record sales and profits without talking about how the two are related. Food for cognitive dissonance, anyone?