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We are consumerists. Here's why that's a bad thing

Jan. 1, 2018
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The term “consumerism” was turned from a positive connotation into a negative one by Vance Packard in the 1960s. Popularly in1950s America, consumption was nationally encouraged and advertised. Those who have read Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman may have known the impacts of a society run on the thesis of consumption and salesmanship. As the world becomes more globalized, and our society becomes more commercialized, we all share a consumeristic nature—as it does not extend to only the richest. 

The True Cost is a documentary about clothes and the “true” cost behind the making of them—the untold (and to an extent hidden) environmental and societal impact of production. It explores the destruction caused by the apparel industry and particularly by fast fashion. But to what extent is the industry totally responsible for these impacts? My two years of doing IGCSE Economics taught me enough to understand the basis of supply and demand. If there isn’t a demand for fast fashion (or, more precisely, cheap clothes of low quality), there will not be a supply for it. Hence, my question/concern becomes: to what extent are we responsible for the “true cost” of (unsustainable) fashion and goods production?

via: The True Cost 

Facts and figures from the film:

  1. The fashion industry is the world’s second-largest polluter.
  2. The world consumes 80 billion pieces of clothing each year.
  3. 90% of donated clothes end up in landfills in undeveloped countries and kill the local fashion industry (due to free clothes).
  4. In 2013, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed due to its poor infrastructure and killed 1000+ people; it was dubbed the deadliest disaster in the history of the fashion industry.

Essentially, the film explores more than just the impact of fashion on the earth and the people. It delves into an issue we face as a society: consumerism. The mass production of clothes causes a rapid increase in environmental pollution; furthermore, mass producing equals fast fashion. Sustainability is about creating zero waste, but fast fashion neglects sustainability because the industry is driven by profit. Apart from environmental impacts, we also face human rights issues, because the industry’s drive for profit causes companies to use child labour, sweatshops, poor infrastructure and materials to produce garments. The documentary’s eye-opening investigative perspective stands to inspire designers and consumers to be more conscious of our decision-making regarding fashion.

Some designers are beginning to think about ethical and sustainable fashion practices. For example, as shown in the documentary, Stella McCartney is a well-known high fashion designer who takes into account the harm the fashion industry can cause: “I design clothes that are meant to last. I believe in creating pieces that aren’t going to get burnt, that aren’t going to landfills, that aren’t going to damage the environment. For every piece in every collection I am always asking: What have we done to make this garment more sustainable, and what else can we do? It is a constant effort to improve. Our philosophy is that it is better to do something than nothing. For me, it’s about the basic principles: sustainability is important, as is recycling.”

via: Stella McCartney

Popular shops at the current time, such as Re/Done or Reformation, are producing clothes that are sustainable, producing little to no waste. The exposed and hidden truths also inspire consumers to support sweatshop-free labels, thereby influencing the industry to favour more ethical practices. The documentary pinpoints the majority of what is wrong with the fashion industry—as it also reassesses consumers’ role in causing these impacts. “Retail therapy”, our obsession with holiday sales, and other consumeristic habits all contribute to the demand for and supply of fast and unsustainable fashion. Moreover, with the overwhelming amount of advertising and news, we’re too often told we need to have more. 

Perhaps the key to sustainable fashion is somewhere between decreasing and stopping consumption. What should be considered is a focus on recycling and re-manipulating—for example, taking apart a garment to reuse fibers for different designs and purposes. Or reconstructing and adding to an existing garment to create newness. Easy and straightforward methods of upcycling garments can even be done at home—for example, embroidery on old clothes, patching on old jeans, cutting t-shirts into crop tops, etc.

We need to be aware that we have been raised to be consumers. We spend money on almost everything. The development of communication, transportation, and advertising has made sales a lot easier and faster. And due to a culture of consumption, we put a high value on materialistic objects and aspects in life. The social norm can be interpreted as: If you dress better and look better, you’ll be more appreciated, and you’ll be looked at differently and become a better person with a better life. The emphasis is on better—we must always strive to compete and improve, and nothing is ever enough. As a society, therefore, we become more appearance-concentrated and materialistic. Being consumerists, we consume the thoughts and ideas being fed to us by corporations and the media just as much as we consume actual things.

Even upon realizing that this is a problem, it’s difficult to grow out of it. The idea has always been that we make money to spend it. After all, isn’t that the entire point behind working and saving? But how do we become more conscious consumers? I’ve learnt that you can vote with your dollar: being conscious means being aware of where your money is going and what it is supporting. 

Have you ever wondered: Who made the clothes I am wearing? Who grew the cherries I am eating? Who made the bread I am using to make this sandwich? 

Today, we are too separated from the supply chain. We cannot stop being consumerists in this society and culture. But what we can do is reconnect to where things come from—because I hate to disappoint you, but not everything grows on a tree.