Why can't we turn off consumerism and fashion?

Industry consultant Robert Antoshak reviews two books that investigate the origins of the fashion industry as well as how the world would look if we all stopped shopping.

The fashion industry remains clouded in mystery for the uninitiated. Indeed, for many consumers, if the design and price of a garment works for them, a sale occurs. What's behind the garment, how it's made and who makes it, remains secondary.

Where clothing originates and all of the steps necessary to produce desirable products is complicated. It's fraught with undesirable implications for many of the workers making these products, the planet's environment, and even the behaviour of consumers. What’s more, taken together as a whole, our industry is amazingly innovative but it can come with terrible consequences.

The origins of consumerism and fashion

How did we get here and why are things the way they are? So often, I find myself in Zoom meetings with colleagues who know nothing about the Multi Fibre Arrangement and the world of import quotas. 

Why are critical product development, sourcing offices and manufacturers located in places like Hong Kong to facilitate the production of apparel consumed in the US or Europe?
For years, many consumers didn't care to ask. However, younger and more curious consumers are not afraid to ask. They want to know how their clothes are made and by whom. Many younger consumers also ask another key question: How much is enough?

This brings me to two essential reads for anyone in the apparel industry. Both are insightful and help to peel back the layers of our industry's supply chains and the economic and psychological drivers behind consumer purchasing decisions.

‘Unraveled’ by Maxine Bédat

Unraveled by Maxine Bédat deftly shows how global supply chains have supported the ever-growing demand for more clothes by consumers in the developed world.

Bédat goes to great ends to answer why things are the way they are in our industry. She also offers an insightful analysis of the apparel industry's responsibilities regarding labour rights, the environment and consumer behaviour.

Our industry has a lot to be proud about, but there is also room for lots of improvement. Bédat notes that the apparel industry "employs millions of the most vulnerable people globally - the majority of them are women - and engages some of the lowest-paid domestically as well." In turn, Bédat's story is made more urgent by the long-term effects of Covid-19 once the pandemic passes.

Bédat ends her book with a discussion about consumerism. She chastises the behaviours of consumers while also condemning a system that delivers products consumers desire.

‘The Day the World Stops Shopping’ by R.B. MacKinnon

The Day the World Stops Shopping by Canadian journalist R.B. MacKinnon explores consumerism from different perspectives, including economics, psychology, the toll on society and the health of the planet.

His question is simple - would the world be better off if everyone consumed less? MacKinnon explains that's exactly what happened when the pandemic swept the globe. Moreover, as MacKinnon correctly points out, global GDP plummeted by more than 25% at the height of the pandemic.

The economic consequences were significant, however the world didn't come to an end. If anything, the environment became cleaner and consumers re-evaluated what was important.

His book also explores whether buying more ‘stuff’ makes people happier. In our industry, materialism is what keeps our supply chains humming, but what if consumers could cut back their consumption?

The epitome of over-consumption

MacKinnon explains: "In a world in which billions of people already have enough clothes, the only way to keep them buying is to generate unnecessary demand." He goes on to say: "The way to accelerate fashion trends is to make clothes cheap enough to buy them more often." This is the essence of fast fashion and the epitome of over-consumption.

Mindless consumerism may be good for the economy, but economic growth cannot happen without consequences. Take the environment for example, MacKinnon proposes cutting consumption by 5% to minimise economic damage, while addressing climate change. After all, such a reduction would rewind global GDP to that of just a few years ago. It sounds plausible on paper, but is it practical or desirable? How does one undo capitalism? That’s a tough question.

Much of MacKinnon's premise is speculative and if his ideas were ever implemented, they would undermine the fashion business that has exploded since the 1980s. Plus, a lot of jobs hang in the balance - in both the developed and developing world.

Hence, this is the challenge that makes such speculative ideas hard to realise in real-world situations. We'd all like a cleaner environment - that's a given, but at what cost? The loss of one's livelihood? That's the bigger question and one that society has yet to come to grips with.