Perhaps on Sunday evening or early this week, you watched John Oliver’s segment that shared the scary cycle of fast fashion companies getting in trouble for human rights violations and the rest of us quickly forgiving and forgetting.
It is a full 17 minutes, but I hope you’ll forget about the fact that our attention spans have disappeared and stick it out for the full video.
Why? Because we have to recognize this as a significant moment. No, we didn’t do enough after the Rana Plaza factory collapse and the subsequent factory fires that led to the creation of Fashion Revolution Day whose anniversary was April 24. Just like we didn’t do enough after all the tragedies since the early 1990s caused by the pursuit of ever cheaper clothing that John highlights in this feature. But it is a significant moment when an extremely popular tv show that is only 30 minutes long gives more than half of the show over to reminding us how we (this means you and me) are letting this pattern continue.
I will say that Gap, which is the company in focus for majority of the video, is not the worst offender. Who is? Every store you’ve ever been in where you’ve exclaimed “I can’t believe how cheap this is.” Sometimes that is Gap, but it’s also Forever21, H&M, Zara, Target, Walmart, American Eagle Outfitters, Old Navy, Topshop, Kohl’s, Joe Fresh, and so many more.
Many of these companies are in reputable industry organizations and have CSR departments and compliance teams. Some of them have really innovative programs for trying to improve on environmental issues. But at the end of the day, a $5 t-shirt and a $20 blouse need to cause us to raise our eyebrows and ask ourselves “but how?”.
The next step is action, but today, I hope you’ll take some time to watch the video, notice the patterns, see the cycle, and decide whether you want to do something about it.
Welcome to 2014! Lazy days spent with family offer the perfect time to catch up on reading, so we’re kicking off the New Year with a new read! Enjoy!
“In the world of Cheap, ‘design’ has become a stand-in for quality.”
In today’s shopping world, the middle ground is gone. Our options seem to be luxury goods that cause us to be suspicious of price and discounted (but “designed”) items that give us suspicion of quality. As consumers, we often feel manipulated when we shop, because we don’t actually know what we are buying. In fact, according to Shell, “we believe that merchants habitually overcharge us just because they can, and the difference among products represents not a difference in quality but in the varying ability of salesmen to fool us.”
Why are we so suspicious? And is our suspicion warranted?
Ellen Ruppel Shell’s book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, indulges our greatest consumer fears that retailers are taking advantage of us. Starting from the history of the department store and down to the invention of the price tag, she follows the growth of our cheap-obsessed American culture.
Honestly, after reading this book, it feels like unless I buy all of my clothing from that price-transparency movement starter Bruno Pieters, I may never know if the cost of my clothes is the result of the price of the materials, the skill of the labor, the import tax, or some concept of “good design” (which in the case of “cheap” is design for disposability).
So why the pursuit of “cheap”? Well, it’s a long (well-researched) history, but this is what’s going on behind the price tag:
Prices are influenced by emotions, not just concrete numbers. And since human beings are pretty irrational, our emotions get a lot of attention from retailers. According to Shell’s research, “a fair price…is one that is ‘emotionally okay’ with the person doing the buying.” Some of this is pretty visible in stores, hence why $2.99 is more common than $3.00. But what about the fact that humans have a really hard time predicting the needs of their more rational future self? Well, we might not be so conscious of that, but it’s why a deal feels so good now. We don’t necessarily know what things are worth or what will make us happy or fill a need, but we do know how we feel when shopping. And a deal appeals to those emotional highs and lows. Our emotions get played to and suddenly, we’ve bought what the store wanted us to buy rather than what we truly needed.
We assume getting a discount “involves a trade-off of quality for price” whether it’s true or not. Even though we’re chasing deals like alcoholics going after their next drink, we actually don’t like the stuff we buy on sale as much. HUH? Think about it: if we buy something that has been marked-down, we start looking for flaws. Of course, something is wrong with it if no one else wanted it and it’s been left on the shelves. And that means that even something on sale that is of good quality has a lower perceived value, which influences how we treat it. According to Shell, “the less we pay for something, the less we value it and the less likely we are to take care of it, with the results that cheaper things – even if well made – seem to wear out and break more quickly.”
We like brands because we are looking for markers of quality, something (anything!) to explain the price. Most of us have no idea what we’re buying when we’re shopping, but a brand name has historically been a reference for quality. In fact, the idea of a brand or marker of quality is the only thing that overrides the previous point: “Once quality is assumed – as it is for many branded products – a lower price is a plus. When quality is in dispute, as it is when we buy things we know nothing about at flea markets or eBay, low price can be a negative.” So we don’t mind buying our Polo shirts for 75% off, but that Persian rug on eBay better be freaking expensive, otherwise it is obviously no good.
And speaking of discount goods, outlet malls are complete crap. Yes, they started off as a mechanism for getting rid of unsold, damaged or irregular merchandise, but now, most chain stores are designing and producing lines for their outlet stores. Yet, we’re still willing to get in our cars, drive hours, and spend an entire day after the pursuit of a deal. Why? Because we think that because it’s no frills and inconvenient, we’re EARNING a good deal. It is not a deal, guys. I REPEAT: IT IS NOT A DEAL. Don’t fall for the trap. And whenever you’re tempted by the distant glow of the outlet mall, consider the Simpsons reference Shell includes in this chapter, straight from Homer’s mouth at the outlet electronics store: “I know a genuine Panaphonics when I see it. And look, there’s a Magnetbox and Sorny.” (Don’t be Homer…)
And what is the result of all of this? We’ve been conditioned as consumers to look for markdowns, so retailers are now scared to stop putting things on sale. Oh well. I guess we’re all just human.
But Shell ends on an unexpectedly optimistic note that we as consumers can set our own standards for ourselves, demand transparency, and set ourselves free from this low-price death spiral. This optimistic conclusion was surprising given how far I felt pulled down the “all retailers are frauds” tube, but if you are a paranoid consumer or into behavioral economics, this book will have you turning page after page. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed it.
Thanks to the folks over at Well Spent for putting this book on my radar. While it’s more consumer goods focused than just fashion specific, it is hugely helpful in understanding why we buy what we do, and how the market got to where it stands today, which hopefully will inform on how we can make a change in the future. Or God help us, we’re going to run this ship into the ground.
Share your thoughts! How does price influence our buying habits in more subtle ways? Is “cheap” addictive? How can we overcome the allure of a deal? Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share your views.
The biggest perk of a public transit commute is the opportunity to read more than you ever thought possible. And I have been speed-walking to the train and reading about anything and everything but fashion, because, to be candid, I needed a little fashion break.
But I found that the more I didn’t read about fashion, the more I saw it pop up in the most unexpected places (which reminds me of another book). At the risk of you judging my reading list, I recently finished “The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service” and couldn’t help but focus on how Lady Astor would wear and re-wear and re-fashion clothes into something fresh all the time, even with endless amounts of money, mostly because that’s just what people did at that time. And as I read Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project,” I became surprisingly interested to learn about her own shopping and closet clearing habits and how she believes they affect her (and everyone’s) happiness.
But to really delve into understanding what our culture’s current relationship is to its clothes and to shopping, “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion” by Elizabeth Cline is a must-read. I literally have pages and pages of notes I took from this book, because I was blown away by the knowledge she was laying down.
Here’s a few jaw-dropping statistics directly from the book:
“The United States now makes 2% of the clothing its consumers purchase, down from about 50% in 1990.”
As recently as 1995, “apparel importers were often able to get their labor costs down to less than 1% of the retail price of their clothes.”
“Every year, Americans throw away 12.7 millions tons, or 68 pounds of textiles per person…1.6 million tons of this waste could be recycled or reused.”
“The natural resources that go into fiber production every year now demand approximately 145 million tons of coal and somewhere between 1.5 trillion and 2 trillion gallons of water.”
“By one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume.”
China has “more than 40,000 clothing manufacturers and 15 million garment industry jobs. Compare that to the 1.45 million garment and textile industry jobs the United States had at peak employment some 40 years ago.”
Cline isn’t writing for the educated ethical fashion consumer. She writes for people who like her have struggled with overflowing closets, the thrill of a sale, and a limited budget. And I appreciate that she shares her own struggle in the book. In some ways, “Overdressed” is Cline’s own Happiness Project: an attempt to clean up her closet, find clothing that made her feel good, and bring some meaning to her wardrobe.
So who should read this book? The reader who identifies with Cline’s quest:
“I owned more clothing than I did anything else and probably knew the least about it of anything I bought.”
“If I wanted to buy well-made, fashionable, moderately priced clothing, I wasn’t sure where to look.”
“I intentionally avoid buying plastic products such as bottled water because they are oil-dependent and not biodegradable, yet here I was with a closet full of the stuff.” (i.e. polyester)
“When we entirely gave up homemade and custom clothing, we lost a lot of variation, quality, and detail in our wardrobes, and the right fit along with it.”
So please read it, if only because I really want to talk about it more and I need someone to talk with about it.
What are you reading lately? Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share your current reads.
In a few short weeks, I’m headed to India for three months. It will be my first time in the country, so I’ve been asking my friends who are local or who’ve traveled to India what I should bring, especially in regards to clothing. Their advice: pants, long(er) skirts, and tops with sleeves, all of which should be comfortable when sweaty and dirty yet still culturally appropriate.
And herein lies the dilemma. The clothes I bring are going to get roughed up – dirt, hardcore bug spray, sweat, aggressive laundering, etc. – and with such little packing capacity, I’ve considered that I may want to leave them there and fill up my backpack with souvenirs for my return journey instead. I did this in 2007 when I worked on a field research project in the wetlands of Belize. I spent less than $100 at a few chain stores and had to dispose of most of the clothes upon my return as the high percentage DEET literally began to degrade the fabric. One of the few things to survive was a pair of green Old Navy cargos. They are one of the most disgusting things I own yet continue to wear. I’d be embarrassed about this, except that when I wear these pants, I remember that summer that I wielded a machete, climbed Mayan temples, and got a fantastically ill, delaying my departure home. But I survived, and I learned so much about myself in those three weeks. Wearing those pants brings back the incredible confidence that comes with proving yourself wrong. I love those pants.
Because of all of these worries about if what I bring will survive, I’m leaving my favorite pieces safe at home in the States and getting back in the shopping game after a few lovely months of little to no consumption.
But is it ok to buy clothing, and in this case cheap clothing, with the intention of getting rid of it soon after purchase? What is the alternative in this situation?
Here’s what I’ve bought so far:
– Cotton capris from Old Navy (less than $10)
– Two knee-length cotton skirts (less than $10 each)
– Two knit skirts (less than $30 each)
I’m also bringing:
– Ankle-length Forever 21 dress
– Leggings which I’ll pair with locally-bought tunics
– Various t-shirts and long-sleeve tops
– Rain poncho
– Large pashmina for covering up and using as a travel blanket
Over the next few months, I will share what does end up in my backpack, what happens to it along the way, and what comes home with me. I don’t know what to expect quite yet, but this should be an interesting experiment.
Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share what you think: Have you ever bought something knowing it would be ruined and you would dispose of it shortly thereafter?