Consumerist fashion: innovation repressor

The language and expression of the consumer society in fashion is so overriding that we hardly notice it. In the collective cultural consciousness, fashion is consumption, materialism, commercialisation and marketing. It is buying high street and high end. It is watching, shopping, purchasing. The prevailing consumerist fashion style and story appears ‘natural’ to our way of thinking and behaviour: it is normal to access and engage with fashion primarily by exchanging money for product; it is expected that these same products will look dated and stylistically incongruous in six months; it is usual to discard rather than repair. It also appears that this state of affairs is freely chosen.

Dig a little deeper and we see other forces at play. It soon becomes apparent that consumerist fashion is locked into a cycle of self-justification, creating the very conditions by which it becomes both dominant and credible. We see an ever more rapid cycle of new product introduced in stores (up to 12 season per year and moving towards a strategy of continuous replenishment (Anson, 2010: 4)) because retailers compete on novelty. We buy poor quality items increasingly often because their inferior materials and construction means they fall apart quickly and need to be replaced. We grow our reliance on fashion that can be made into and traded as a commodity because the consumer society fails to value activities that can’t be marketed. In the consumer society we organize our ideas about fashion around commerce and consumerism and end up becoming dependent on them.

The domination of consumerist fashion within the fashion mindset means that alternatives are squeezed out. Other options seem unworkable.

Justin Williams (2010: 251), in his contribution to the excellent book ‘The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice’ calls upon Herbert Marcuse’s insights into the key factors which influence the governing story, technology, or ‘project of realization’ in society. It is, to paraphrase, all down to dominant interests. And the interests of the dominant parties favour one particular story and way of experiencing (in our case) fashion and; in the process of favouring one story these parties deny and reject others. The domination of consumerist fashion within the fashion mindset means that alternatives are squeezed out. Other options seem unworkable. In such a context, alternatives become seen, in Williams’ words as, ‘the booby prize’ (2010: 263), because cultural conditions create desire for the current set up and alternatives from outside the status quo appear inferior, impractical and unattractive. Indeed perhaps this explains why so much time and effort is spent making those alternatives that already do exist fit in with – look the same as, perform the same as – the way things are now.

Yet the key point here is that the status quo is not the only possible state of affairs. The prevailing system is the result of intentional, political choice and as such consumerist fashion is a power structure rather than an expression of our desire for dressing ourselves in commodity products. It is a way to expand the control of those with influence, not a reflection of fashion’s wider potential and practice. To return again to the arguments made by Justin Williams (in his piece, about cycling); consumerist fashion is not freely chosen by shoppers (its the only option), nor are the fashion alternatives freely ignored (they don’t know about them) (Williams, 2010: 256); instead it is dominant economic logic, business models, organisational structures and culture that dictate the prevailing view and experience of fashion – and refute alternative views. Seen thus, consumerist fashion not only damages the resource base, workers, consumers, etc., but also – and perhaps more insidiously – represses innovation; stifling anything other than that which benefits those invested in the status quo. To this, the response of those of us who love nature and the creative and cultural power of fashion and design can only be to invigorate innovation of these alternatives and develop a different plan of action. It is in this space of a different and varied plan of action where I situate my work. Join me.

Anson, R. (2010), End of the Line for Cheap Clothing?, Textile Outlook International, 147, 4-10.

Williams, J. (2010), Bikes, Sticks, Carrots in M. Maniates and J.M. Meyer (Eds.), The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 247-269.

Click here for information on how to cite this blog.


Thanks for elucidating a slippery phenomena. After having just been at NY Fashion Week, I am more aware than ever the pull by the industry to be “on trend”. Yet, I know there are eco-friendly designers who are not only creating more classic styles, they’re also admonishing potential customers to not buy unless it’s necessary. Possibly a clever gimmick, nonetheless, I am heartened to see more and more people talking about “less is more” in the realm of eco-fashion. Yours is a particularly well-thought out voice. Food for thought.