The Book by StyleCircle, published May 2016

“A thrifty person does not drive miles to save three bucks on tube socks. A cheap person might. Every schoolchild knows that cheap thrills are not thrilling, and cheap talk not worth listening to... Yet we are all drawn to cheap. Cheap is about scratching the itch, about making real the impossible dream of having one’s cake and eating it, too… We demand and expect it, and miss it terribly when, as with rising gas and food prices, it lets us down. At the same time we revile it.” – Ellen Ruppel Shell, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

It’s no secret that we’re cheap. In fact, it’s something that we’re proud of. Whether it’s scoring a mad bargain on a designer dress—20% off! 30% off! 75% off!or finding a month-old chocolate bar for 79 cents, we just can’t shake off the desire of getting what we want for less.

And it couldn’t be easier. Americans are spending a meager 3% of their annual income on apparel today, versus 11% only 60 years ago, but are buying 64 new items each year up from 40 items in 1991. These numbers themselves speak volumes to the drop in apparel prices, and to the influx of cheap fashion in our daily lives. Shopping has shifted from luxury to leisure, allowing consumers to walk mindlessly into Forever21 or Zara on their lunch breaks and return to their desks high off polyester and red-stickered price tags.

But why do we shop this way? Why have our priorities changed from longevity to disposability?

The journey to cheap began in the 1860s when John Wanamaker opened his first retail colossus in Philadelphia. Customers could purchase mass-produced domestic and imported goods that catered to people of all economic classes. Wanamaker popularized the use of price tags, eliminating the barter culture of the past. Even at that time critics opposed the idea of selling low priced, mass produced goods and feared for small local businesses and the state of the American economy. Despite this, low prices seemed to improve the quality of ordinary people’s lives; luxuries were not just for wealthy people anymore.

After the democratization of the retail industry came the invention of the shopping cart and barcode, which shifted practices from full-service to self-service and reduced the need for high-quality staff. Technology also played an important role in lowering cost for manufacturers, therefore passing low prices onto consumers. Production shifted overseas to further drop the dollar. Today 97.5% of clothing purchased in the USA is imported, whereas twenty years ago this number was just 43.8%. Huge discount corporations like Walmart and Kmart opened their doors in the early 1960s, taking “cheap culture” even further. These locations focused primarily on price, throwing customer experience, store layout and design to the wayside. Retailers pursued a high volume, low-profit margin business model, promoting good deals and mass consumption in order to turn a profit. Moving into the 21st century these mega-retailers became supercentres, allowing customers to take care of everything from their grocery shopping to glasses prescriptions to holiday shopping. Shopping, it seems, became all about low prices; lots and lots of them. 

Today, the average closet is 6ft x 8ft – the size of a modest bedroom 40 years ago. We are expanding in all facts of life, from our houses to our waistlines, to accommodate for this shift towards mass consumption. As a nation, we feel we deserve everything. If we work for it, save for it, look at it, even touch it, it can be ours. Where once a computer was a family luxury perhaps stored in the modest bedroom of yore, nowadays they are on everyone’s laps. Same goes for winter coats, summer dresses, and leather shoes – we all have multiple. But do we really need multiple?

We can look to the internet for an answer to this question. A top example of overconsumption comes in the form of carefully edited ‘haul’ videos on YouTube. Created primarily by beauty, fashion, and lifestyle vloggers, these videos feature individuals showing viewers what they’ve purchased, usually en masse, and can include anything from lipstick to leotards. Sometimes they’re themed by holiday: Valentines Day hauls, birthday hauls, Christmas hauls. Sometimes by store: Topshop, Zara, Forever21. If you type haul into YouTube, 14.5 million unique videos pop-up, and despite varying content, what they all have in common is the promotion of over consumption. YouTubers like Bethany Mota, Zoella, and Carli Bybel have no real need for the products they buy. When describing each item, popular phrases include, “I just loved it,” “It was too cheap to leave in store,” or “Isn’t it cute?!” Videos like these are so popular that their creators have millions of subscribers across various social media platforms. Brands have caught onto this trend and often ‘sponsor’ videos to promote their products or services. I don’t want to sound like the shopping police here, but this habit of ‘hauling’ goods just for the sake of it sounds like a slippery slope that we shouldn’t be teetering at the top of. If one were to do some simple math to see how many products were purchased because of these hauls –let’s say, five items per video, on average, and usually more—they would find that the people on YouTube have bought 72.5 million consumer goods. That’s a crazy amount of shoes, tops, and scented candles.

Nowadays, shopping is a leisure activity – especially online, where looking at retail products can quickly turn from speedy search to a multi-hour browse. A hefty 45% of millennials are guilty of spending more than an hour each day looking at retail sites for no real reason other than finding it fun. It’s entertainment. My first year of university I would go back to my dorm room after class and sit for two, maybe three hours just looking and looking at sites and never buying a single thing. And even in the real world, it’s hard to escape the lure of chic storefronts or modern shopping meccas. Meeting friends at the mall or going shopping in quirky neighborhoods are top-rated pastimes for modern youth. And don’t get me started on outlet malls. A trip to one of these is a holiday in and of itself – in fact, factory outlets are America’s #1 tourist destination. Carefully placed miles outside of city centres, outlet malls are the breeding grounds for unnecessary consumption. Oftentimes they don’t even provide a ‘good deal’, but still shoppers flock to them. Retailers stock a few items from regular stores—the things that didn’t sell—and then fill the outlets with cheap products that only resemble the brand because of the logo. From the internet to the outlet, we are surrounded by low prices and cheap products day after day. But after we’ve snagged ourselves a bargain on clothing or products we think we want, and supported those retailers who are constantly outputting new products daily, what happens to our rejects?

When asked this simple question most consumers will say that they donate their old clothing to charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, and even Value Village, and they feel good because they’re helping clothe people who can’t afford new clothes, and also prolonging the lifecycle of garments and keeping them out of their trash cans. What most people don’t realize, however, is that donated items don’t simply appear on the sales floor after donation – there is a long process these items go through before reaching the racks, that is, if they even make it there.

In fact, only 20% of donated items are actually resold in store. Employees are trained to recognize quality, brands, vintage, and even to follow trends, so that the items stocked are desirable to thrifty customers. A warehouse in New York that manages donations for eight thrift stores in its area picks exactly 11,200 items daily. No more, no less. And they never run dry.

What happens to the items that aren’t chosen for resale is a little less apparent. The garments in poor condition are either turned into rags, or simply disposed of. The remaining items are squished and stamped into huge cubes, and shipped to continents with weaker garment industries, such as Africa, where they become part of a cutthroat secondhand fashion industry. While we can imagine there are underdressed African children desperate to wear our discarded graphic tees and khakis, the reality is a lot less heartwarming. With technological advances and the widespread availability of the internet and cell phones in Africa, these consumers have become much more picky and fashion-forward. Economic development has begun to raise household incomes, and an influx of available cheap, new Chinese-made garments requires those in the secondhand industry to be more conscious of style, trend, and brand when deciding which giant compacted cubes to purchase. While this ‘solution’ to our increased consumption has been working, it is not the answer. Our consumption rates are only rising, and the demand for our rejects in developing countries is diminishing quickly.

The simple solution to this problem of over-consumption is to just buy less stuff. The economy is not going to collapse if you go a few weeks without buying a new outfit. It can be hard to do, but developing a strong inner voice—do I really need this?—regarding purchasing decisions can do a world of good. You could also consider checking out a thrift store or two – the things you can find there are inexpensive, environmentally friendly, and keep profit in the local community. If demand increases for secondhand items, then perhaps the industry could divert more of its stock away from the overseas resale industry to re-circulate within our own economy.

Some people may argue that if we all stopped buying new things and only shopped secondhand, we would just run out of stuff. The point is not to stop producing products altogether, but to shift the focus from fast, cheap fashion to a slow fashion cycle. Spending more on less seems counterintuitive, but yields fantastic results. Supporting craftspeople, local designers, and ethical or environmental brands is well worth a higher price, because this insures the production of quality goods over time. You vote with your wallet, so why line the pockets of cheap discount and fast-fashion retailers when you can invest in products made by people you know and trust? This reduces the number of goods being produced, reduces waste, and benefits suppliers directly. Plus, you’ll love every item you buy because you’ve put the thought, care, and money into being more conscious of your purchasing decisions.

And as much as we would like to think implementing sustainable and ethical practices in the current fast fashion framework is enough, the simple fact is that we are consuming too much. H&M may be the top user of organic cotton in the world, but that still means that the company is using a lot of cotton. The industry operates on supply and demand – if we, as consumers, demand a change from a lot of cheap things to a few quality products in our everyday lives, the industry can do nothing but supply what we want. With knowledge comes power, and I hope that this has given you something to think about the next time you’re waiting at a checkout to buy a cheap top you find you may not actually want as much as you thought, after all.

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