The Essential Sustainable Fashion Guide — Part 2: The Psychology of Buying Clothing

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 2.38.45 PMIn the first part of this series, I reviewed some of the basics of the human and environmental toll of the fast fashion industry. Now, I’d like to delve into why we want to buy them. It’s been proven that the more a person values money and status, the less happy and more anxious he or she becomes. This is at odds with what advertisers would have you think. Advertisers spend millions of dollars in every medium possible to suggest that the pursuit of possessions is what leads to contentment. Not only do Westerners have to trudge through a quagmire of advertisements on a daily basis, the price of unnecessary items like fast fashion, televisions, and other toys has plummeted, while the things that may positively impact one’s satisfaction, college, healthcare, or transportation, have become much more expensive, leaving the shrinking American middle class with a consolation prize of cheap, nearly disposable clothing. (PS: My cover photo is from a spoof ad series by Nathalie Croquet, check it out!)

Fashion Branding

Branding is at the heart of all large fashion corporations. With a myriad of choices, consumers want to find clothing that articulates their values or speaks to their aesthetic preferences. Brands can easily be described as people. Burberry is posh and British, Diesel is rugged and punk-ish, Bebe is svelte and sexy. That’s because when you find a brand that you particularly like, it’s more than just the clothing, it’s the feeling those clothes give you. This is not to say that dressing aspirationally or according to one’s feelings is wrong, quite the contrary, I believe the transformative power of clothing can be quite uplifting.

The brand mimics and replaces the expressive act of dressing oneself by imposing its own attitudes onto the wearer, acting as value modulator rather than translator. As shoppers learn to tie their own ambitions and identity to these companies, the brands enjoy an unending outpouring of loyalty. 

Effects on Shoppers: Identifying with Multinational Corporations

050811de17d46e4a771336af349c575dDesire relates to the Limbic System of the brain, that which controls emotion, behavior,
and motivation. This is the part that’s often misnamed as the “reptilian brain,” or the “paleo-mammalian brain,” but is now understood to be a series of structures rather than a separate entity. In the BBC’s 2013 documentary The Secret of the Superbrands, a young British woman is subjected to a series of photographs of handbags while in an MRI machine. The resulting brain image showed fireworks in her pleasure center as expensive handbags flashed past her. This  unconscious reaction seems to imply that her brain’s autonomous reactions have been shifted thanks to targeted advertising. 

Perhaps the reason we’re so easily courted by brands relates back to our evolutionary need to find the most desirable partner. Beyond the pretense of values, clothing can subtly express one’s resources available to spend on attracting a mate. One might assume that to have the time and money needed to buy expensive clothing, one must be creative, resourceful, or successful. 

Even the opposite appeals to one’s vanity, T.J. Maxx and other discount stores appeal to shoppers by telling them that they’re much more clever and savvy than others. 

Because many of these advertisements are meant for women, I cannot ignore the underlying sexism of the fashion industry. For decades, women have been fed the idea that “good husbands” are a scarce commodity. This ultimately produces a fierce girl-against-girl competition that not only crushes the participants’ self-esteem, but elevates physical attractiveness above other traits in the pursuit for male attention. Men also deal with unfair pressures in dating, which is its own bag of awful, but men are more likely to consider mates by their attractiveness first. As popular media would further illustrate, the prevailing assumption is that unattractive men can make up for that through personality or success, but “having a good personality” has become slang for “homely” for women. Two facts that companies delight in.

Designer Clothing: Accessible Exclusivity 

Balmain-s-Spring-Summer-2015-advertising-campaign-01972More expensive clothing does sometimes coincide with higher quality. Jeans made in Italy were probably done so by workers paid by Italian standards, where factors like cut and fabric are handled with more care. I’ve always preferred having one pair of flattering, well made jeans than a dozen denim sweatpants from a sweatshop. But what of those brand name items made cheaply but still touts luxury? This is what has been called accessible inaccessibility. 

Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Betsey Johnson, these brands and their ilk can be found in any mall in America; they’re produced en masse. These brands are lusted after by the general population, but are still acceptable to wealthy fashionistas thanks to a pyramid scheme described in The Secrets of the Superbrands. Starting at the top, these brands create super exclusive, haute couture, limited items that are probably bespoke for the rich and famous. Then, there’s the middle tier, that which a well-off person may be able to afford, and can be bought at a store. This maintains some degree of the quality associated with the highest tier. A Balenciaga handbag from their NYC store, for example. Neither of these make nearly as much money for the company as does the low tier: shit stamped with logos. The Louis Vuitton belt or the Coach umbrella you can buy at Macy’s. Despite having very little value, these poorly made items are still quite expensive for the average person because consumers want to be associated with the luxury and glamour of the top tier. The top creates desire for the bottom which creates profit for the top, etc. 

I cannot deny that the clothing at the top of this pyramid is gorgeous. Hand-stitched appliqués on shimmering gauzes and silks of the finest quality are nothing short of wearable art. What I do bemoan is the assumption that because a brand can create beautiful pieces, that the factory made ephemera must be so, too. Just because I love Raf Simon’s haute couture doesn’t mean I’m running to the nearest mall to buy a cheaply made bag with Dior’s name on it. 

 

Burberry-Spring-Summer-2016-Runway01
Burberry S/S ’16

The documentary also gives an example of fallout from when this delicate balance topples in a case study of Burberry. The iconic plaid pattern had become synonymous with football hooligans and chav-y Brits who glommed onto the design. Because “the poors” were donning it, the brand lost favor with the fashion elite, which began to trickle down to everyday consumers. In America, we didn’t feel this as much. So, Burberry hired a new creative director who exiled the ubiquitous pattern to the lining of its coats (where it originally was found) to win them back. After a long process of inviting celebrities and fashion magazines to attend their runway shows, followed by the ensuing magazine fodder, they regained control of their brand and the pyramid.

 

Knock-offs and Dupes: Proving the point

I have little patience for knock-off designer clothing, not because I’m concerned with the sanctity of a company’s logo, but that it sloughs off any pretense of buying designer clothing for their quality or craftsmanship. It is the essence of a brand whose only value is that which we give it. With the lowest possible quality, the only reason anyone would want to buy them is for the status and values expressed by one’s opinion of the brand. 

Then there are the dupes. Brands like H&M and Forever 21 have a nasty habit of mimicking others’ designs. Sometimes the injured parties are just as bad, peddling equally unsavory business practices, but often, it’s independent designers whose work is ripped off by larger corporations, with no legal repercussions. This dishonesty shows how inauthentic fast fashion has made clothing, that these brand’s image is so cheap that it could change in an instant based on what’s trending on tumblr. 

Fast Fashion: The Logical Conclusion

Clothing is all but disposable, and with dresses that cost a pittance, any girl could easily spend more at Starbucks than she did for the day’s outfit. This hearkens back to the idea of consumptionism, made popular in the 1950’s by an ad copywriter, the term refers to a type of consumerism that encourages buyers to use up, or consume, their replaceable goods. A brilliant business plan and terrible environmental policy, it seems to be the way we’ve gone. Americans buy 80 billion garments each year, up 400% than in the 90’s.  And the average American throws away 82 pounds of textiles annually. 

Donating your clothing does nothing to help the problem. Only 10% of the clothing donated is sold in thrift stores. The remaining 90% goes unsold and is shipped by the ton around the world and dropped off in developing countries. This creates even more waste and maintains economic hardship. If you live in Haiti, you don’t need 500 teeshirts — you need goddamn employment. This giant dump of unwanted clothing kills the need for local textile industry, something that could actually help.  

Fast fashion is marketed with a sense of urgency. Everything is exclusive, limited, or rare bails-of-clothes-1024x768in stores that constantly churn out new designs. Because we are taught to identify with, are judged by, and given higher status by our clothing, it’s no wonder that we can’t stop buying them, especially since the prices continue to slip below rock bottom. 

Westerners need to learn to accept a higher price for clothing, and to buy less of it in order to reduce the global economic, environmental, and human cost of our fashion choices, but to shift the culture, there needs to be a mass rejection of the psychological work that has been done to our subconscious desires. In a constant state of believing beauty is just one more pair of shoes away, and that beauty and status is to be attained above all else, we’re just floundering.

In the next installment, I’ll explain why having a sense of style and a dedication to clothing actually helps you cut down on waste, and the habits one can develop to shop ethically! Until next time~

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