Retail Solutions for Consumer Dissatisfaction and ‘The Great American Apparel Diet’
In chapter three I am going to analyse the poor retail practices succeeding the theory of ‘race to the bottom’, as well as current retail solutions tackling consumerist customs and their efficiency. I am therefore looking into possible key strategies presented by Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose in Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change (2012), and respectively, their relevance in modern consumerist society. As an important illustration of anti-consumerist behaviour and a possible explication and solution I am going to analyse ‘The Great American Apparel Diet’, as presented by founder Sally Bjornsen and other participants in the project. In this case study I am going to estimate the reasons triggering the emerging of such movement and, consequently, the outcomes of the experience and how it could be applied in other fields of consumption.
One factor worth analysing is the theory of ‘race to the bottom’, which explains the process of promoting consumerism by the ever expanding competition for consumers in each sector of economy. Driven by consumers’ desire for low-priced goods, this fight for global expansion and capital gaining is based on geographical position and is inevitably forcing considerate producers out of business, additionally stimulating poor practices. Although the ‘liberalization of international trade’ is believed to help sustain the economies of countries globally, the result of trading between low-wage and economically sustained countries, defined by globalization, in fact ‘undermines the standard of living for workers, disrupts local economies and cultures, and threatens the integrity of the natural environment’ (Ebrary 2014), which defines it as generally ‘disruptive to Western labour markets’ (Quak 2015). Becoming more of a necessary condition, rather than a factor in globalization (Devine, Katsoulacos and Sugden 1996:1), international competitiveness leads to demise in employability and product quality, dropping the bottom line of production costs even lower, leaving workers in each stage of production with insufficient wage and unfavourable working environment. These low prices, triggered by competition, consequently encourage overconsumption and increase the levels of dissatisfaction among both consumers and working force, creating nothing but gaps in intercourse with consumers in this perpetual path of consumption for growth’s sake.
Addressing the problem of these dropping levels of satisfaction, industries are trying to involve customers into supporting consumer lifestyles and consequently in assisting in sustaining their own dissatisfaction through purchasing of low quality goods. Therefore, rather than aiming to achieve genuine sensory satisfaction, sellers focus on forging fulfilment by promises for more, better, more ethical and emotionally stimulating products. This commercialization of consumer satisfaction can also be found in leisure activities which are turned into business opportunities, a phenomenon analysed in Grayson Perry’s ‘Spare Time’ (Perry and Crombie 2006). Looking into Veblen’s theory that ‘indicating one’s pecuniary standing’ is largely defined by conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure (Veblen in Corrigan 1997: 17), one could speak of commercialization of self or of one’s image in consumerist society. This defines consumption as a dominant factor in personal judgement and as described by David Brooks, industries create some sort of a ‘realm’ of citizens, living in ‘perpetual aspirational state’ (Brooks in Christians, Fackler, Richardson, Kreshel and Woods 2016: 152). This phenomenon is further encouraged by all media sources, which, despite portraying the outcomes of fast fashion as ‘undesirable’, are inclined to ‘couch solutions as extensions and/or modifications to the status quo’ and in this way economic growth is further sustained (Fletcher and Grose 2012: 126).
There has been an increase of sales in all areas of economy, one of the most vivid examples being the fashion industry with an increase of 60 per cent of clothing sales in the last ten years (Black 2008: 14). This enormous industrial growth has led to the creation of another phenomenon described by Anthony Dunne as ‘honeymoon period’ (Dunne and Raby 2001: 63), which term illustrates the unrealistic expectations and short-term satisfaction of consumers, resulting in the annual disposal of over one million tonnes of textile in the UK alone (Black 2008: 45). This is another issue industries have been unable to tackle functionally – as analysed by Fletcher, ‘there are few economic savings brought by repairing garments today, mainly due to the low price of new garments relative to the high price of labour for repair’ (Fletcher and Grose 2012: 101), which leaves consumers with little choice but to stay within and keep sustaining the contemporary industrial treadmill, supporting the statement of Baudrillard that consumption is nothing but ‘another logical step in the development of capitalism’ (Corrigan 1997: 20). Consequently, further stimulation of consumption illustrates well the inability of industries to sustain both industrial growth and satisfaction and even if millennials are inclined to suggests that a certain ‘progress’ has been marked in recent years, overconsumption has gained the shape of an addiction whose medication would cost the industry millions.
As a representation of millennials’ dissatisfaction with poor quality consumerist objects and failed retail relationships in 2009 a non-profit online project emerged called ‘The Great American Apparel Diet’ (TGAAD). Established in the United States by writer Sally Bjornsen, the diet aims to assist participants (aged 18 – 73) in abstaining from garment consumption for a year, which defines it as one of the first campaigns to officially expound overconsumption as a restriction, levelling it with other addictions that require similar treatment (such as alcohol, drugs and food addiction, for example). Reliance on spending and object acquisition has previously been identified as detrimental and held responsible for a number of mental and physical illnesses. In his book Capitalism: As if The World Matters, Porritt attributes to ‘Western society’s inability to satisfy the archetypal needs of our kind’ a number of problems including psychological disorders, aggression, drug abuse, rise in crime, etc. (Porritt 2007: 61-65). Additionally, he suggests that society members are highly aware of the corroding effect consumption has on behavioural patterns and interpersonal relationships, yet individuals are reluctant to change their expenditure habits and therefore stay ‘wedded to ’financial security’’ (Hamilton, 2003 in Porritt 2007: 61). Participants in TGAAD, however, exemplify a proportion of millennials, undertaking a process of shifting values from consumer objects to other important beliefs and principles. As explicated by Bjornsen, the campaign is largely motivated by environmental and financial objectives of each individual participant and is a portrayal of one’s desire to sustain a lifestyle, unrestrained by material consumption (Bjornsen 2009). In that sense, TGAAD is an expression of the millennial buyers’ dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the trading strategies and lack of empathy and meaning they are subjected to.
Analysis of the experiences of participants in the project before, during, and after the diet (Figure 7., Figure 8., Figure 9.) has helped establish a few fundamental aspects in their beliefs and practices, which differ and evolve over time. Following the whole process of quitting garment consumption, one can note that most participants in the project have undertaken this transition in order to retain values previously replaced by consumerism, or to reflect changes in personality and principles that do not conform to the ever growing and repetitive approach of material culture. The understanding of consumption as rather escapist act of denial and temporary fulfillment has, therefore, led them to search for other financial and ideological investments. An adequate portrayal of the common perception of shopping as a ‘temporary fix for real problems’, is the 31-year-old participant Kerstin Hahn, who used purchasing as a tool to ‘escape from the pain, depression, and isolation’ due to infertility problems (Hahn in Bjornsen 2009). Shopping as fulfillment and distraction is therefore often perceived as a ‘retail therapy’, a reward, delivering a sense of accomplishment (King in Bjornsen 2009), or respectively an encouragement for important achievements, such as new profession, or weight loss (Funk in Bjornsen 2009). An interesting case and an important factor, lying in the very base of consumerism addiction, is the commercialization of self, well-illustrated by a reasonable proportion of the participants, who associate with their wardrobe, passing onto objects the qualities of their own identity (Everett in Bjornsen 2009) or experiencing a constant demand of approval from others based on their possessions (Williams in Bjornsen 2009). Consumer objects as short-term satisfiers have consequently
Figure 7. Bjornsen 2010. Dieters’ Profiles – Reasons for Participation in ‘The Great American Apparel Diet’.
Figure 8. Bjornsen 2010. Dieters’ Profiles – Reasons for Participation in ‘The Great American Apparel Diet’.
Figure 9. Bjornsen 2010. Dieters’ Profiles – Reasons for Participation in ‘The Great American Apparel Diet’.
encapsulated them into a sort of hedonistic treadmill that nurtures industries, yet, it brings poverty to their personal capital and value systems.
After examining the transition each individual participant has undergone throughout the diet, one could mark a progress in personal development, as well as a long-term change in purchasing habits. Although a proportion of the participants return to purchases on a weekly/daily basis, most are generally more interested in sustainability and investment in other priorities, such as family, education, or charity. Using participants’ blogs for monitoring individual experiences and obstacles, it is important to note that the direct focus on concepts that deliver ‘real joy’ and separate one from their clothing (Lynch 2010) is an important factor in stepping out of the ‘frenzied state of buying’ (Bjornsen 2009) and establishing new consumerist behaviour. As Fletcher explains the importance of psychological involvement in the process, on average ‘consumers are intellectually informed, but not emotionally engaged in the discourse on the consumer economy’, which inhibits them from translating their knowledge into lifestyle choices (Fletcher and Grose 2012: 140). In a society, where brands are replacing traditional binding institutions, such as the church, the army, the police force (Shaw 1999), it is important to look at consumerist objects as ‘heirlooms of the future’ (Black 2008: 79), rather than temporary tools for satisfaction, in order to mark a real progress. In terms of psychological engagement, TGAAD appears to be a valuable example of provoking a change both in terms of knowledge and performance on the subject. Some of the solutions it presents, such as garment exchange, exploration of one’s own creativity in matching clothes, or new shopping rules to follow (see Figure 10.) (Bjornsen 2009), and most of all the valuable personal experience of individuals, encountered that change, could also be applied among bigger groups of people in other
Figure 10. Bjornsen 2010. Sally’s New Shopping Rules.
areas of consumerist culture. It is important to note that the participants in TGAAD should be observed as a representation, rather than an exception of consumerist behaviour among millennials, which demonstrates that bigger aggregations are capable of undergoing similar changes.
Therefore, the mere act of addressing the consumption as s form of addiction could be perceived as a much more effective means in the pursuit of consumerist satisfaction, compared to the illusion of progress, created by industries, in order to sustain sales.
The exploration of consumer practices and satisfiers has come to inform industries and to hugely influence my own work, therefore, becoming a subject of immense interest for me. Engaging with further primary research, I would like to explore more thoroughly how the transition in consumerist society towards low-end products affects sustainably focused brands and brands delivering through products and experience genuine sensory satisfaction.
The results of my secondary research so far indicate that due to the constant demand for economic growth and the consequent poor industry practices, consumer satisfaction is currently in demise. Discontentment is, in fact, encouraged through low-quality cheap products, delivered in unwelcoming retail spaces or online. Some adequate solutions in regard to better purchasing experiences are suggested by the internet-based organization ‘The Great American Apparel Diet’, encouraging customers to think sustainably and have a more personalized approach towards products.
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