In my mind, it is very clear that we as consumers are demanding impossible prices for the clothing we buy. Since we hold the purse strings, our wish actually does become the industry’s command – it may seem like the retailers and brands have all the power, but if we aren’t buying? They’re SOL. Just take a look at the record number of retail bankruptcies this year.
Circling back to my original point: we want cheap prices. As the industry bends to accommodate this perceived need of ours, pressure begins to build. Everyone has margin goals they’re trying to achieve, from the retailer to the vendor and the factory – no one wants to budge in this arena. So, as the customer asks for cheaper prices, the retailer presses the brand for lower costs and for goods with higher markups. The brand then turns around and presses their factory for better pricing – sometimes the factory will be able to negotiate higher order quantities in exchange for bulk volume discounts, sometimes they just have to make it work for fear of losing the brand’s business entirely. And where does the factory turn to release this pressure, you ask? Well, there’s always their employees…
A perfect example of this process recently surfaced in the news. In February, Walmart held a conference with its major brands to make a proposal: in order to maintain its reputation with consumers as the retailer with the lowest prices, Walmart called on these brands to slash prices by 15%. If you’re a vendor at this meeting, you just felt the crushing weight of dread descend on your shoulders. There is no room to negotiate here: either (A) you make the necessary changes, or (B) you lose what is probably your largest account – you can bet your competitors will be more than happy to fill in for you if you choose Option B.
At every point in this scenario, the players are maxed out: they are giving as much ground as they can in hopes that the orders will keep coming (and ideally increase in volume). There is no flexibility – any small fluctuation could upset the entire chain. Does it seem likely that anyone in this situation would be thinking about the environmental consequences of production, the life cycle of their product, or the well-being of the employees and communities they impact? Not exactly. To be fair, that might not be because they don’t care about these things. Intentions aside, they just don’t have the bandwidth – they lack the capacity to act. The problem is that choosing blindness and ignorance in this area ultimately reaps the same harvest as truly corrupt intentions: both avenues contribute to the perpetuation of a broken industry.
So, in my head, the solution starts with consumers – us. It begins by learning to recognize quality and acting on this recognition: paying prices that accurately reflect a garment’s worth. True, we need brands to do a better job of communicating value and educating us, but regardless, we need to graduate from the mindset that cheaper is always better. It’s not; we just can’t see the breadth of the consequences at the point of sale.
This is a problem that’s woven its way into this industry – and into our minds – so thoroughly that, while I can give it a name, I have no clue how to go about finding a solution. How do you change the culture of consumption – especially without having everyone on the same page?
Recently, while shopping Everlane’s “Choose What You Pay” section, I was given a chance. It was an opportunity to truly shop my values, to affirm all of the things I believe in and to use my money to vote for a fashion industry where the cheapest price doesn’t always win. Given the option to choose my discount, to decide the value I placed on each component of production and on the people who brought the product into existence, what did I do? I took the biggest discount and clicked purchase.
What?? I literally write a blog about this stuff and I still chose the option that strictly paid for the cost of labor and materials – no part of my purchase went to Everlane (they oh so gently reminded me as I clicked on the price). Writing that down makes me feel really small, because I know my choice was out of line with what I say is important to me. Why is it so hard to shop my values?
As consumers, I think it’s important to recognize how we’ve been shaped by the environment in which we consume. Regardless of the degree to which we’ve been influenced – surely this varies from one person to the next – there’s no denying that we are on the receiving end of messages every single day trying to tell us what to buy, how much, and how often. Whether subtle or overt, the places we shop are trying to tell us what we need, appealing to that gap between who we are and who we’d like to be. No one places a product on the sales floor and lets it try to sell itself; rather, there is a whole host of ancillary activity aimed at enticing us, drawing us in, captivating us and convincing us that an item is exactly what we didn’t know we needed. I don’t think we spend time consciously noticing these efforts, but their effect is by no means insignificant.
“Customers typically don’t need most of what we sell, and there is a psychology that loves that promotion.” –Macy’s CFO Karen Hoguet
When was the last time you walked into a store, looked at a price tag, and were completely content paying exactly that price? Meaning, you didn’t look around for promotional signage, didn’t seek out a sales associate to check the price for you, and didn’t ask if there was a sale going on?
To quote Elizabeth Suzann founder Liz Pape, “the baseline has been falsified.” The price of apparel has steadily declined while other product categories are moving in the opposite direction. We’re spending less on clothing as a category: in January 1990, Americans spent 5.2% of their overall expenditures on apparel and shoes. In January 2017, this number had shrunk to 3%. Meanwhile, we’re buying more clothing – 80 billion new items per year, up 400% from 20 years ago.
Here we find ourselves with a “chicken or the egg” scenario: researchers have found that widespread discounting by department stores and mass merchants has significantly influenced the expectation of discounts when consumers shop – regardless of the category. The more we cry out for low prices, the deeper the discounts go. These days, they’re nearly nonstop: one-day sales last all week long – and they come back around week after week.
To compound this issue, consumers – especially young consumers – are buying and discarding clothing faster than ever before. For all the talk about environmental concerns and ethical working conditions, there is a marked absence of this dialogue at the point of sale. Consumers are demanding sharp prices and on-trend product, whereas they merely like the idea of quality materials and transparent supply chains. We, in general, no longer see the intrinsic value of clothing – it’s all disposable, therefore we prioritize the pieces that are easier to let go of (cheaper) when that times comes around.
This last point is critical: we value clothing from the point of sale onward, starting with the moment it becomes “ours.” I believe this is due in large part to the fact that the production process is so far removed from our daily lives – it happens on the other side of the world, all over the world, rather than here in our backyard. There is a push to change this, to bring production back to the United States, but we’re our own worst enemy here:
“Consumers’ expectation that they should be able to buy clothes, sofas, and eyewear at rock-bottom prices is one of the biggest hurdles to the scaling of the American-made movement.” –Fast Company
We no longer understand what goes into the making of our clothes, so we don’t know how to value that part of the equation. Instead, we focus on the benefits we can see: the price we have to pay, the ease with which we can adopt the latest trend, etc. Maybe this stems from how quickly retailers churn through their inventory these days: if I see completely new product every time I walk into a store, then it would follow that none of the clothes take much time or effort to make, right? The way clothing is sold today suggests that at its core, it’s disposable.
We didn’t need a marketing campaign to teach us to treat our clothes like commodities. No one had to tell us how to devalue our clothing; we learned this lesson from the industry itself, from the subtle messages woven into every nook and cranny of the business of selling clothes. From an overflow of product, to the near-constant promotions and sales, it’s no wonder we can’t justify paying full-price. At this point, how do we change course?
The first step could be as simple as waking up. While we remain captive to the messages that confront us everyday, all we can do is contribute to the problem. But what if we stopped and looked at those messages? I mean really looked at them and picked them apart? Are they true? Could this awareness give us the power to stop buying in?