Updated: Jul 20, 2020
BY TENA LAVRENČIĆ
Consumers are usually in the centre of the fashion industry: the industry designs and produces for the consumers. That is the problem. We are more than consumers and we need an industry that recognises that.
Yes, consumers matter. Trust me.
What consumers say and how they behave influences the industry. I have seen it firsthand when I led the market studies for multinational clients at the top of their game. I saw how they paid attention to the consumers and I saw them rethinking their strategies because they learned about new consumer trends.
The fashion industry is seeing strong new consumer trends too. In Fashion Revolution’s 2018 Consumer Survey more than 1 in 3 people said that they consider the social and environmental impacts of the clothes they buy, while 80% of people are asking for bigger transparency from the brands. That is incredibly important!
And if I can draw anything from my market research experience is that when the companies tell you that the consumers are important to them, you can trust them. They are. The consumers are usually in the centre of the fashion industry as well. The same industry that continues to pollute, overproduce and exploit.
That is the problem.
The category of consumer
Let me explain this. The industry focuses on the consumer: an imagined category of somebody who buys and uses the services or goods. To please the consumers means to find a way to sell the product. When we design, structure, and market something for the consumers, it means that we do it with the intention of having that item or service bought and consumed.
We can see this in the way we treat the clothes today: we buy, use (likely once or just a few times) and we discharge. Because the clothes, like most things today, is a consumer product.
As long as the industry designs and produces for the consumers, it will produce and make clothes to be consumed and thrown away. Even while listening to the conscious consumers trends.
Voting…with your wallet?
Of course, consumers are not passive in this world of fashion. Interestingly, the idea of an ethical consumer came at the beginning of the 20th century, led by activist Florence Kelley. She argued against the exploitation of the people for the economy. She also fought for the worker's rights, argued against slavery, racism, and child labour.
Kelly and others later positioned the consumer as an actor in the market that can make the difference. The successor of this is today's idea of "voting with your wallet". It means that every time we buy something, we support the company behind it. In fashion, it means that every time we buy from an ethical or sustainable brand, we support them and their ways, instead of supporting the damaging fast fashion system.
Yet, the world and the fashion industry are far from how they looked like 100 years ago. Sure, consumers can vote with their wallets, but that power is exclusively the purchasing power. One doesn’t have to be an economist to understand that not everybody has an equal “vote” in this case. Someone’s "vote" is always going to be stronger than somebody else’s.
Ethical consumption is not enough
Listen, making a better choice and putting our money into the practices we support is important. It is also a privilege to do so. Expecting the consumer to make the moral choice is unfair and it is simplifying the complexity of the industry. For some, the only affordable and available option is fast fashion. Assuming that buying from a fast fashion brand also means supporting their practices is a very narrow perspective.
Further, deciding what to buy takes a huge effort. In the fashion industry especially, the production chains are far from transparent. The industry covers the actual ways the clothes are being made. Often, even the brands don't quite know who is in their own production chains. Expecting the consumer to navigate this is too much. I praise the people who do investigate these issues and are fighting hard to shed light on them. But this is a full-time job and not something that should fall on the consumer's shoulders.
Even if we are able to consume only sustainable fashion, it is estimated that by 2050 we will produce more than three times the volume we are producing today! In other words, ethical consumption is not going to solve the problems of the fashion industry.
We are more than consumers
When faced with multiple and complex problems, we need to open up new perspectives. We are not only people who buy clothes. We are also citizens, artists, teachers, speakers, parents, business owners, activists, policymakers, writers, designers, etc. We have different skills that are needed to change the fashion industry. The industry needs a global, massive, and lasting push, from daily habits to international policies.
This inevitably includes the brands. The message should be clear: stop designing for the consumers. Instead, start creating for sustainability and people.
Fashion Revolution Consumer Survey 2018: https://www.fashionrevolution.org/resources/consumer-survey/
Fashion companies use greenwashing to lie to consumers: http://dailyorange.com/2020/03/fashion-companies-use-greenwashing-lie-consumers/
About Florence Kelly: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/florence-kelley
A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/a-new-textiles-economy-redesigning-fashions-future