This was originally posted on November 19th, 2017.
After WWII, people found themselves wary of how and why they were spending the little money they had. Companies provided lasting items – If you needed a shirt, you would most likely be wearing it for years to come and would require little to no fixing. As years went by and the economy got better, we saw a consumerist boom similar to the one in the 1800s: People, after years of saving and being cautious of how they used their money, suddenly had a bit of extra cash; companies were aware of this and started launching publicity campaigns in order to change the public’s views regarding purchases. Edward Bernays is considered a key professional during this period, being attributed by some the entire shift of perspective of the masses. Using the books written by his uncle Sigmund Freud, he targeted the weak spots of the then current way of buying: it was missing the superficial joy and style people tend to look in items they own. They want their purchases to represent their personality and character.
This was extremely successful. And in decades to come, it led down the path of fast fashion and impulse buying – peak consumerism. This gave (and still gives) companies the perfect excuse to lower costs of production and making products less durable, and brand recognition gave them the “right” to still inflate the retail cost despite the decrease in quality. People would see the year’s trends in the catwalk of a prestigious brand, go to the stores to buy it, and then the cycle would repeat the following year. Then it was season by season. In the current age of globalization and technology, it seems to be month to month, sometimes week to week. But how would retailers have such a huge amount of clothing bulk-made and shipped so quickly? Outsourcing.
Outsourcing is the leading way in which fashion, tech and nearly every single category of product you purchase gets made. Second and third world countries compete to get them made in their factories, offering the lowest bulk cost they can. But by doing this, workers are usually stuck being underpaid in really poor, many times hazardous working conditions. A couple of years back many humanitarian societies started awareness campaigns that reached many people and educated them on this issue. The documentary The True Cost by Stella McCartney is possibly what reached most people. This led to consumer awareness and in turn, rage, which consecuently prompted (mainly fashion) brands to pledge to better their background checks on factories they outsource to and to be ethically conscious. Some followed through, some did not.
After the digital boom of the 2000s, outsourcing grew even more. But perhaps the biggest change that came with the evolution of technology was the way in which we store information- notes, pictures, job-related files, etc. This caused yet another shift in perspective, both from consumers and retailers. For consumers it felt like a breath of fresh air. Instead of worrying about having to keep track of notebooks to keep notes on, a camera with pictures in need to be developed, a planner to keep themselves on schedule, and more, they now could have it all in one or two devices. Companies, however, saw this as an oportunity to create a whole new market. From their point of view, if you have a great amount of digital storage, it means you can buy more apps, order things online, and most importantly, advertise.
Online advertising grew to such a degree in the late 2000s that now a days it is a rarity to find a site that doesn’t display ads on the sides of their page. This was met with annoyance at first but ended up being the new normal. Fast fashion, impulse buying, it could all be pushed constantly.
All this oversaturation of publicity while awareness campaigns were out made people start to research the downsides of consumerism on their own. Now it was all just a google search away. Many were drawn to smaller independent fashion companies. Then they started realizing it is not just fashion, but most items they consumed. And so, again, they were drawn to other smaller, independent companies who prided themselves in being ethical. That in it of itself became a trend- said companies turned it into their branding and their aesthetic. The cool thing to do is buying durable items in a responsible manner. Conscience is the new black.
Internet influencers noticed this and, as they do, followed the trend. But this time, the trend was not a pretty jacket to wear, a nice picture to take, it was a message. They became interested in having lasting items, buying not exactly less, but consciously. Many took it down the minimalism path. And so, with pretty pictures and thought-out captions, they spread what they knew and got more people to start researching.
Consumerism isn’t dead yet, the title is deceiving. It has certainly taken a huge hit; globalization is both making it and breaking it simultaneously. The more people that become aware of the problems of impulse-buying (which are many more besides the ones I mentioned, many directly affecting the ones who buy- Credit card debt, hoarding, stress, among many, many others), the more they take a step back and a hard look on their habits.
Maybe it truly ends up being just a trend and nothing more. Or maybe it becomes a new wave of perspective shifting. We will have to see and decide ourselves.