There’s Political Power in Rejecting Overconsumption

by: Rosie Dalton | 1 year ago | Features

You don’t have to go naked, but many 80s and 90s supermodels proved the power of political activism. Here, some of the greats have been captured by Herb Ritts. Image source.

Overconsumption is all around us. It’s in the supermarket aisles, on our computer screens and amongst the masses of new stock received by fast fashion retailers each and every week. There is no denying that it’s become a pervasive part of our culture, but the question we need to ask ourselves is: why? We haven’t always believed it was our ‘right’ to buy new clothes each week and the retail experience hasn’t always been considered ‘therapy’ either. Which demands the question of whether we’re really just being led by patriarchal corporations here. And if that’s the case, then we need to do something about it.

Yes, it can feel unfair sometimes that the onus must be on the consumer for setting things straight. But let’s face it: as long as we continue to buy ethically dubious clothing from massive fast fashion corporations, they are going to continue producing them. Of course, not everyone can afford to buy ethical clothing as frequently as they do fast fashion — but then again, we shouldn’t need to buy something new every week either. It is the mindset that’s flawed and responsible shopping offers a radical rethink of that system.

When you think about it, our own financial restraints are probably nothing compared to those of the disenfranchised workers actually producing fast fashion clothing. For example a recent BBC exposé revealed that Syrian refugees (many of them children) were being paid barely more than a dollar per hour to produce clothing for the likes of ASOS in Turkey. That’s a figure well below the Turkish minimum wage. And puts harsh perspective on our own perceived ‘right’ to buy new cheap clothing more frequently than we really need. No it’s not our fault that we’ve been conditioned to believe $10 is what a t-shirt should costs — but it is our responsibility to recognise who is subsidising the true cost of those garments.

So why have we become so afraid of boycotting the man today? This used to be a sign of standing for something, but today lots of people have simply become complacent. Sheldon Wolin would argue that this is because of Inverted Totalitarianism. Which Dr Otto von Busch, fashion designer and lecturer at Parsons, The New School for Design in New York applies to fast fashion in the following way: “the current mode of democratized fast fashion shows explicit tendencies of what political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls ‘inverted totalitarianism’. While fashion may not govern politics, it plays a crucial role in the desire-driven demobilization of consumers, while it simultaneously celebrates the subject’s illusionary individualism and autonomy”. In other words, fashion has become a means to control consumers and, in particular, women. Unfortunately, it seems to be working.

As soon as women entered the workforce and became increasingly financially independent, capitalism (an inherently patriarchal system) had to concoct ways to make us feel disenfranchised again. This is what the pink tax is all about. Which sees women pay a higher premium on the exact same products as men. Earlier this year for example, UK pharmacy Boots took action when a customer realised that a woman’s razor cost £2.29, compared to £1.49 for a whole pack of near identical male versions. But what are we actually doing about these injustices?

The fact is there’s significant political power in the way we use our consumer choice. It enables us to not only challenge — and even change — the practices of big corporations, but also to reject misogyny more generally. Boycotting the man has given rise to many a subcultural movement over the years. The 1970s and 80s for example, saw the emergence of punk and grunge from these very same principles. And the 1990s too, was rife with anti-capitalist activism. Like the way consumers slammed Nike for using slave labour for instance, forcing necessary change in the process. “The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse,” said Phil Knight, then chairman and chief executive officer of Nike in 1998. Today though, the company has transformed into a sustainability leader — and that’s largely due to consumer pressure.

In 2016 boycotting is not as prevalent as it once was, but marching in protest is no longer the only way to stand up to the man either. The fact is that major corporations rely on our business to survive, meaning that our consumer dollars are precisely what makes their dubious production practices successful — or not. By rejecting these businesses in a very direct and physical way (i.e. by spending our dollars elsewhere), we are thus able to ensure that it’s the latter. And if producing in this way suddenly becomes less successful, these companies will be forced to find more ethical ways of doing things. We are already witnessing the early groundswell of this, with Inditex’s partnership with Tencel and H&M recycling initiative. But there’s still such a long way to go.

This is our new form of subcultural movement. As Tome designer Ramon Martin explained at Clean Cut’s Future Talks seminar for Mercedes Benz Fashion Week this year, ethical clothing has become the next chapter in fashion; the thing that will go on to represent our time and culture. “This is what is going to speak to generations to come; to [distinguish] what fashion was in the early 2000s,” Martin said. “‘It wasn’t about high hemlines or a miniskirt or whatever it was back in the day; it was about changing the way we make clothes.’” Which is a very empowering proposition, don’t you think?

Yes, this certainly does require a total rethink of the ways in which we consume. But do we really need to buy 18 different t-shirts. Or do we just want them? And if that’s the case, then we have to ask ourselves why. The reason is because the patriarchy has structured things this way — has made us believe that we are entitled to buy new clothes every week and that we need to wear a new outfit every day. Regardless of whether we actually ever cared about these things or not. Trend culture is predicated upon this rampant consumerism and fast fashion (with its 52 micro-seasons) represents this phenomenon in its most twisted incarnation.

There is no doubt that the patriarchy is still controlling women and they’re doing so through fashion. This is where the idea of outfit repeating as a ‘crime’ stems from. As well as the notion that we can and should be able to buy new clothes every week — a proposition they then make possible by providing as many $10 t-shirts as our arms can possibly carry. But only we have the power to reject this misogyny and change the nature of big brands for the better. Nike offers the perfect example of how it can be done, so there’s really no excuse. Of course, it doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy new clothes — ethical clothing represents a style revolution so it’s just about buying less, but making each piece count. 

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