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New Consumerism and the Fashion Industry

We are creatures with a love for material things, preferably an abundance of them, and clothes are no exception. In them, we look for and see  the reflection of our ever-changing identity, which in turn creates the urge for constant adaptations in style choices, for the purpose of refining our self-expression and self-perception (Niinimäki, 2010) With the global financial crisis came an alternation in the minds of consumers – it forced us to think in and act on necessities as opposed to desires. At least to an extent, that is.

The factors that made a difference

In addition to the difficult state of the economy all over the world, the evolution of fashion and us, its consumers, has been affected by several other related events. Environmental challenges have also shaped the mind of the consumer to think about the wellbeing of the planet, and the long-lasting effects or need for instant (purchase) gratification.

Growing unemployment rates, decreasing living standards in many corners of the world, and the unveiling of the myriad of unethical practices across fashion’s supply chains all contributed to the altered mindset of the consumer.

In the name of planetary survival the need for slow fashion has given birth to a rising number of brands that prioritize durability over pure numbers, but consumers have yet to follow suit. Young shoppers in particular are still enticed to make purchase decisions that aren’t aligned with their environmental beliefs, as fast-changing trends remain the key factor in their choices (Joy, Sherry, Venkatesh, Wang & Chan, 2012).

While trends have yet to learn this unyielding attitude that doesn’t change with each season (both literally and figuratively), fashion as a whole industry has made tremendous progress in the right direction.

Ethical production trumps quantity, while lasting items on offer have become the primary focus of many old and new brand names such as PACT apparel or People Tree, who bind fine craftsmanship with sustainability. Add to that the creation of authentic pieces that have character and that are deeply relatable, and you have a winning recipe for fashion success in the 21st-century climate.

Organic and recycled thoughts

As opposed to the “throw away” culture that has reigned supreme for decades on end, we’re now witnessing the growth of recyclable and reusable as the new go-to for long-lasting fashion items. Sustainably harvested fabrics and materials are in the center of production, while skin-safe and durable options such as organic cotton are at the forefront of the industry, as well, and the cross of the two qualities makes for a brilliant asset for quality-oriented consumers. Recycling, on the other hand, has also gained in popularity, and brands are doing their best to encourage their consumers to recycle and repurpose as opposed to reject their garments. Campaigns that invite their loyal customers to give their items back for repair, as the outdoor gear brand Patagonia has the habit to do, are leading the way into a new fashion era of mindful shopping and wearing.

Brand success, however, still depends on more than just their sustainable footsteps, as consumers’ decisions are easily swayed by poor in-store attributes and high prices (Chan & Wong, 2012). Such inconsistencies have the power to increase the dissonance between the consumer’s Earth-friendly attitudes and their final shopping choice – the latter may ultimately not reflect the former despite the ethical conundrum.

Fashion is no longer, if it ever was, as simple as “I need a pair of jeans, therefore, I’ll purchase the first one that fits”. But the digital rise has added a new layer of meaning to the consumerism game, and that is the notion of experience. We crave for our shopping endeavors to be deeply personal, crafted by brands to accommodate our needs, and the final product is only a fragment of the sale.

So, instead of mindlessly buying, we’d rather opt for just one item, the one that epitomizes an experience. Convenience, availability, uniqueness and the shopping environment are several influential ingredients in this equation, so thrift stores, second-hand and vintage stores along with the DIY movement have experienced a wave of revival and greater interest. They all fit with the modern consumers’ need for clothing as practical items and a desire for fashion as an expression of their authentic, personal style (Reiley & DeLong, 2011).

In this environment, spurred with movement from both the consumer and the designer end, fashion has the potential to change the future of consumerism on a more profound, emotional basis, and with longevity paired with style at the center of this struggle.

Minimalism and Mindfulness: Combatants to our (over) Consumption

If there is anything to be gained from the lead up to Black Friday, Cyber Monday and of course – Christmas, it is this: as a species, we love stuff. A complicated love affair no doubt, a matter not just of budgets and bank balances, but of the brain too.

We desire to own new things to show off our personal uniqueness, to own goods that few others possess for the sake of our social status and self-identity (Lynn & Harris, 1997). We purchase things impulsively, a coffee here, reduced sale item there, conflicting with possible long-term goals to save money, for short-term satisfaction. We even buy things simply to make ourselves feel better (Baumeister, 2002), Items we may not truly (on a happier day) want – because ‘treat yo self’. For fashion followers, every Fashion Week brings in new trends and looks that that we didn’t realise we needed but are stimulated by all the same. For the layperson, the release of seasonal collections remind us that we must obey Mother Nature and purchase a winter/autumn/spring/summer staple.

Our psychology is easily led in a pulsing consumer world; there’s no wonder we have so much stuff. But if we are more likely to seek retail therapy than clinical therapy, where does that leave our psychological well being?

Minimalism and mindfulness offer reasonable solutions to our stuff problem: minimalism helps de-clutter our physical space and mindfulness de-clutters our mental space. Minimalism is the most practical approach of the two, grounded in the principle that we can live more with less. The theory goes that a reduction in stuff will lend to greater freedom, reduced stress and an overall healthier relationship with your spending habits (The Minimalists). If you can limit the number of items you own – everything from smartphones to sheets – the happier you will be. This comes from having greater opportunity to manage what’s truly important to you and to avoid being distracted by what’s not. Some people take this approach literally and restrict their ownership to only 100 items of the greatest value. Putting a numerical limit on what you own may prove effective in encouraging considered purchasing decisions, so perhaps minimalism is the way forward.

 

The Psychology of Fashion

However, minimalism does fall prey to our fallacies. Our judgements of value, for instance, can be entirely subjective. The endowment effect illustrates that the perceived worth of an item increases with its sentimental value and familiarity (Kahneman, Knetsch & Thaler, 1991). Such an effect can go a long way to explain hoarding behaviour, the antithesis of minimalism. Equally, the minimalist approach may champion quality over quantity, but quality costs. Those who genuinely subscribe to the minimalist lifestyle may be more able to afford a several-hundred-pound-investment-coat, compared to those who need the money for rent that month. Juggling these kind of decisions may burden an individual with more anxieties and dissonance than they experienced pre-minimalism. Simply, minimalism isn’t for everyone.

Here enters mindfulness. Mindfulness is considered a mental state that focuses your awareness to the present, where thoughts, feelings and reactions can be acknowledged and treated separately to appropriately and calmly evaluate your decisions (Brown & Ryan, 2003).  This moment of pause to calm the mental storm we experience day to day is to give way to ‘voluntary simplicity’ (Gregg, 1936), thereby propagating healthy minds without the need to tally up our furniture. For our spending, mindfulness lends a ‘due-diligence’ and ‘awareness of subtler processes of one’s own mind’ (Burch, 2012), a combative measure to our spending fallacies. Do you truly want to buy that coat that you’ll never wear, or is that just your emotions talking? Is that shoe everything that you need in your wardrobe, or is it just your intuitive, physiological reaction to the appealing glossy magazine trap? Overall, the mindfulness approach seems much more accessible and broadly beneficial to the everyday consumer than minimalism.

However it too is not perfect. Part of the teaching of mindfulness is to let certain anxieties, superficial or no, pass through your present-mode to be considered when they need to be considered. While this proves ideal in theory, some decisions in life do require some future thinking and planning, lest you be surprised and unprepared by what life might throw at you. Equally, the success of mindfulness depends entirely upon the mental capacities and determination of the individual. To say you only ‘get out what you put in’ becomes distinctly difficult when it’s all happening within your head, rather than being something external and tangible that you can manage.

All’s not lost, however, for the consumer. Upon evaluation, a healthy consideration of your own battling mental states and a thoughtful insight into the items you own and look to own, can do a great deal to curb your stuff problem. But probably better to try after Christmas.