Fashion, as Walter Benjamin wrote, is ‘the eternal recurrence of the new’. In the most commonly used sense it is simply change for the sake of change. It’s central feature is its transience, its insistence upon originality. When it comes to sartorial fashions, those we generally refer to when we speak of the term, this can be a very dangerous thing indeed.
We recently received the results of a shopping habits survey from a website called Styloko, a site whose name makes clear the insanity regarding its purpose before one even succumbs to its landing page’s brazen call to action. SIGN UP NOW! So what are we signing up for when we join Styloko? The site, like others of its kind focusses on promoting conspicuous consumption and throwaway fashion. Users are invited to stockpile coveted items in their own virtual boutique where they can follow their favourite brands to keep track of ‘must have’ trend items and brag about their latest purchases.
The danger of fashion’s focus on transience is that it encourages the sort of ‘loko’ consumption that we’re seeing on this site. As trends come and go at an accelerated rate and the demand for fast, cheap disposable fashion rises we’re unsurprisingly seeing some greedy and unpleasant consumer behaviour as people strive to be original in a world where what was the height of chic yesterday is mocked and condemned today. Remember galaxy print and those hidden heeled sneakers?
Styloko’s survey reveals that 43% of a sample of 1,512 users prefer the ‘throwaway’ approach to fashion, which in their words involves ‘buying cheap basics and chucking out regularly’. Given the nature of the site these results are fairly predictable, it is designed to cater for people who have adopted the ‘shop till you drop’ attitude that comes with constantly striving towards novelty. But the predictability of this statistic doesn’t make it any less unsettling. One has to question why the urge to remain ‘current’ is so deeply engrained in the buying behaviour of this 43%.
The sociologist Thorstein Veblen blames the ‘irrational orgy of consumption’ that he calls modernity on the central principle of dress, ‘conspicuous waste’. His critique on the leisure class suggests that money and power alone are insufficient to claim social standing, it has to visible too. People strive towards ‘the new’to compete with one another, to outdo members of their social class by consuming more, by wasting more. Though Veblen’s involvement of class in this social observation is somewhat outmoded now, his acknowledgement of the competitive attitude involved in fashion change is still very relevant. Look at Styloko, its whole purpose is to allow people to brag about what they have and what they want. Members are able to give ‘love’ to those whose buying habits they identify with, which serves to create an isolated social structure where those who are able to afford and accumulate more sit at the top of a hierarchy based on material gain.
So what’s so bad about this emphasis on quantity and newness, on competing to own more of the latest trends? Its not about the money, if people want to throw away their money on poorly made shit that won’t last two minutes that’s their choice. It’s about how these ‘throwaway’ items are made, the sacrifices made along the chains of supply and manufacture that ensure that customers get a ‘good deal’ at the end of it. Nowadays the focus of mass consumer competition is moving away from exclusivity and towards quantity and affordability. More than ever western highstreet retailers look to use third world labourers to produce their garments in order to keep manufacture costs down and ‘pass on the savings’ to their customers. These labourers aren’t protected by laws governing working hours, factory conditions and minimum wages like local manufacturers would be.
If people knew what kind of practices they were supporting, perhaps they’d shop differently. Only recently an 8 storey Bangladeshi factory that employed cheap labour to make clothes for Primark collapsed, killing 230 of its employees. Deep cracks in the factory walls were noticed days before the event, yet workers were urged to continue working, threatened with the sack if they failed to turn up. Does this sound like an institution that cares about the welfare of its workers? Labels from the brands that this factory was supplying could be seen lying amongst the rubble. A pair of BM brand trousers displayed a price tag of £14. What is truly remarkable is that the charity ‘War on Want’ have recorded earnings as low as £14 a month in Bangladeshi factories such as these. One pair of the trousers these manufacturers produce retails at the amount they earn in A MONTH. Workers that supply Primark, Asda and Tesco are living on as little as 7p an hour.
Besides the obvious ethical issues involved in employing overworked, underpaid workers and sticking them in far less than satisfactory conditions, we have to think of the environmental considerations involved in flying fabrics and garments from one country to the next before they finally settle on the shelves of our beloved high street shops. A friend of mine who works in print design in one of the few remaining textiles mills in the UK has shared that they are often approached by companies looking to pay no more than a pound a metre for fabric. Given the cost of making and printing their fabric and all the labour it involves it isn’t always possible for her company to meet this request. As such buyers look further afield for cheaper deals, often sourcing fabric from one country, buying the transfer paper used to to print designs from another and getting it printed up in yet another location. That’s a lot of air miles!
It is remarkable that in this day and age, when we have so much information available to us about the threats facing the environment, and we receive so many news reports about human rights violations and dangers facing third world workers, we are still competing to accumulate cheap items made in sweatshops that will simply be discarded at the end the season. This global attitude towards fashion needs to change. It’s totally backwards, irrational and downright unsettling.