Re-fashioning how we shop

Apr 03

On March 25, 2015 The Atlantic published “The Neurological Pleasures of Fast Fashion,” which illustrated how clothes shopping has transformed into a “widespread pastime, a powerfully pleasurable and sometimes addictive activity.” Not only has shopping become a recreational activity (one that I, too, enjoy), research now shows that the brain literally lights up when it finds a desirable object—specifically, when that desirable object is also a really great deal.

This delicious response is what has driven fast fashion stores, like Zara, Forever 21, and H&M, to record profits. With multiple shipments per week and wallet-friendly price points, shoppers can consistently get their fix with little damage to their budget. This effect is compounded by the fact that clothing represents an area of goods referred to as “high involvement,” meaning that these items give shoppers access to the lifestyle that they wish to live.

Translation: If I buy a cheap sweater that still looks like something modern-day princess Kate Middleton might wear, it means I feel more like modern-day princess Kate Middleton. And that’s addictive.

Unfortunately, this vision of luxury comes at the cost of a devastating environmental footprint and harsh labor conditions abroad. The EPA reported that in 2010, Americans tossed 13.1 million tons of textiles into landfills. This works out to approximately 68 pounds of fabric and clothes per person into the trash. According to figures from the U.S. National Labor Committee, some workers in China make as little as 12 to 18 cents per hour in poor conditions. These conditions are exemplified in the April 24, 2013 building collapse of the garment factory, Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh—the deadliest such disaster of its kind, killing more than 1,100 people, mostly women, because of unsafe working conditions.

Even consumers, who echo their commitment to the environment and shop sustainable items in other non-fashion industries, still routinely shop fast fashion. According to a 2012 article in the journal Fashion Theory called “Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands,” otherwise environmentally-minded consumers, who regularly purchased cheap, trend-driven clothing, saw little discrepancy between their positive attitudes towards sustainability and their choices to consume and dispose of cheaply-made clothes en masse.

How do we then, as communicators, demonstrate the negative environmental and social impact of our clothing consumption habits, and actually wean a nation of eager shoppers off their addiction to fast fashion?

Let’s look to slow food (an international movement started in the 1980s as an alternative to fast food) for inspiration. Due to a surge in awareness of inhumane practices in meat production and health concern about pesticides in our food over the past ten years, there was a renaissance in slow food. It is now not only accepted, but also popular to shop organic and to ask about the origins of your food. Your free-range egg, grass-fed cheese, and farm-raised bacon sandwich on locally-baked bread is the new normal. And perceived as tastier.

This is the lens with which we can affect the fashion industry. If clothing transfers aspects of the garment to its owner, then communicators can demonstrate that shopping sustainably makes you look even better. These customers will look cooler, savvier, and discerning by shopping “slow fashion” rather than cruising $5 t-shirts, and they will start a ripple effect among their peers. For example, if you wear a thrifted leather jacket, tell your friends. If you buy a locally-made dress, make sure you call it out as part of your #OOTD (outfit of the day, natch). Similarly, with education, fast fashion can become stigmatized and less desirable. Through gentle peer pressure and the desire to look cool among your friends, we can eventually transform the fashion industry and feel confident in the supply chains we support.

This change is already beginning. H&M offers in-store textile recycling (even netting you a discount to use in-store), and now sells the Conscious Collection, represented by actress/slow fashion advocate Olivia Wilde. Other stores like Everlane, Zady, The Reformation, Verdalina, and Eileen Fisher (personal favorites) specialize in sustainable, fair trade ways to give you your fashion fix. This way you can look good – and feel good doing it.

It won’t be easy to pry customers from the sale racks of fast fashion retailers, but there is a stylish way forward to finding a cleaner conscience, a cleaner closet, and a cleaner planet.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 3rd, 2015 at 12:20 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Behavioral Economics, Corporate Social Responsibility, Research + Insights, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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