Misguided Values

Sustainable Fashion and Social Norms Part 2: Materialism

In the second installment of a three part series exploring Sustainable Fashion and Social Norms, NJAL CONTRIBUTOR Jess Montgomery explores the relationship between fashion and materialism. Moving towards a truly sustainable fashion industry will require systemic change, and this change begins by confronting and acknowledging the values that mainstream fashion would seem to uphold.

In Part 1 of Sustainable Fashion and Social Norms: Shifting the Conversation, it was argued that to truly reimagine a fashion system that is ethical and sustainable, we must first begin to treat the subject matter with respect. So long as fashion is treated as something that is frivolous, as a side interest or form of entertainment for the apolitical, we collectively deny the real (and far-reaching) impacts that clothes have in our day-to-day lives. And so long as fashion is merely entertainment, there is little reason to mobilize the pressing issues rampant within the global clothing industry—from unethical working conditions to environmental destruction, from cultural appropriation to the lack of diversity within the industry—to the level of critical mass interest to achieve a tipping point.

Shifting the Conversation traced a brief outline of the historical roots that have led, in the West, to a cultural disregard for fashion, and the tendency to write fashion off as silly, frivolous, or at least not in line with serious thought (particularly serious thought around serious global issues). Any cultural norm that has become ingrained over time becomes difficult to see objectively, and therefore difficult to dismantle. And yet, in the case of fashion, this is a particularly challenging undertaking when one takes into account that, for the most part, the face of fashion that we are most familiar with is one that is indeed superfluous. The fashion of pop culture—the fashion that we see in malls and in magazines, on billboards and the sides of buses and buildings and in popular blogs—is a version of fashion that sells itself through an unrelenting celebration of wealth, newness, excess, and exclusivity. 


In today’s consumer culture, fashion can sometimes seem to be the epitome of excessive consumption. When cultural critics discuss the rise of consumerism, the conversation will inevitably, at some point, turn to the importance of image, and inevitably one of the ways that image is felt to be expressed is through the acquirement of fashion goods. George Monbiot begins a critique of materialism in The Guardian by describing images found on Rich Kids of Instagram—including “photos of a young man wearing all four of his Rolex watches” and another photo in which a “girl’s head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she has piled on her vast bed."

In Lauren Greenfield’s documentary Generation Wealth, she interviews women who collect designer handbags, one of whom claims to own a Birkin (a classic Hermes handbag that traditionally retails for a minimum of $10,000 US but will often run into the hundreds of thousands) in every colour. Global branding guru Martin Lindstrom writes in his books Buy-ology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy and Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy about his experiences using neuromarketing, and how tracking brain patterns can reveal the more subconscious (or potentially socially frowned-upon) reasons that we are attracted to specific brands and products—and often, when it comes to fashion goods, our choices are image based. In one instance in particular, Lindstrom describes a study in which a number of loyal Louis Vuitton fans were asked about what drew them to Louis Vuitton handbags in particular. While gathered together in a focus group, the subjects discussed the quality of the bags, the leather and zippers, the history of the brand. Meanwhile, brain scans revealed that what most appealed to the subjects was the perceived “coolness factor” of the bags (Brandwashed, 117-118).

Granted, it must be acknowledged that fashion goods are not the only means of communicating wealth—cars, homes, even the food we buy and lifestyle choices we make can equally be dissected for the role they play in consumerism. And it must also be acknowledged that within the above examples, the focus is exclusively on luxury brands. But at issue here is the role that fashion plays within consumer culture, and more specifically, as a marker of materialistic values.

In her book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, author Dana Thomas outlines the history of the contemporary luxury goods market. Despite a slight resurgence in the haute couture market (in the West) in the hopeful post-war years, by the 1960s and ‘70s couture had come to be seen as stuffy, old-fashioned, and out-of-touch by the hip, younger generation who were more interested in free love and egalitarian ideals. By the 1980s, as couture houses and luxury brands were struggling to stay afloat, a number of young, ambitious men with the wisdom of business school still fresh in their minds were brought on to resuscitate the fading brands—and thus began the age of product placements, luxury-brand sponsorship of car-races and golf tournaments, and the emblazoning of luxury brand logos everywhere. For the average consumer in the ‘80s (young, educated, unmarried, career-focused) luxury brands ceased to be associated with out-of-touch and old-world values, but rather with the hopefulness and independence of a prosperous and expanding economy.


By the mid-1990s a large number of luxury fashion brands had been brought into the fold of large luxury conglomerates, namely Bernard Arnault’s LVMH or Francois-Henri Pinault’s Gucci Group (now renamed Kering Group, in a nod to a more “sustainable” branding strategy). The result being that the sole focus for each individual luxury brand became profitability. As a means of more accurately measuring quarterly success, the two-season fashion calendar (Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer) was expanded to include Pre-Fall, and Resort. Greater focus was placed on the sales of cosmetics and accessories, as well as the release of sister-brands at lower price points, while massive budgets were allocated towards extravagant runway shows as a means of creating buzz, and feeding the fantasy and mystique of the brand (this mystique then being translated into the sale of lipstick and perfume, handbags and sunglasses). 

Fashion as a means of communicating social status is nothing new. As touched on in Part 1, following the change in inheritance laws, fashion became a way for the non-inheriting sons of titled families to communicate their status and worth. And with the end of feudalism and the rise of the merchant class in Western Europe, many countries created sumptuary laws outlining who could wear what, as determined by social class (higher quality or more rare materials restricted to the elites). As the laws were deeply ineffective and nearly impossible to enforce they were eventually overturned, and yet this history speaks to an ongoing association between access to luxury goods, and class.

In a 2004 interview, economist Juliet Schor describes how in general, we “form [our] aspirations about consumer goods and lifestyles by looking at [the people around us].” In the post-war years, people tended to look towards their neighbors and friends, who in general would represent a group of people of a similar socio-economic status. There was a tendency towards upward mobility, but in line with what that particular socio-economic status could allow for. Since the 1990s, “people are increasingly defining their consumer aspirations by looking to the lifestyles and consumption habits of the top 20% of the income distribution.” In the US today, the top earning 20% of the population hold 85% of the nation’s wealth—and therefore, logically, subsist on a lifestyle that the rest of us could never begin to emulate.

Tim Kasser, an expert in the psychology of materialism and well-being, has written extensively on the negative psychological effects that materialistic values have upon us. Materialism is a system of values that prioritizes wealth, power, image, and status, and the material goods that represent these values. In a meta-analyses conducted by Kasser and his colleagues, it was found that even when controlled for age, income-level, and nationality, around the world people who report a greater importance placed upon materialistic values also “report lower life satisfaction, suffer more depression and anxiety, feel sad more often, experience less joy and pleasure, smoke and drink more, and have lower self-esteem."

In addition, it has been found by those who study values that there are general human values, such as “the pursuit of pleasure, security, self-direction, achievement” and so on. Certain values are experienced as being correlated (achievement and power, for example, or the pursuit of pleasure and stimulation), whereas others are experienced as being in conflict (such as self-direction and security). Where values are in conflict a see-saw effect is enacted—the more one set of values is reinforced, the more the opposing values are diminished.

Materialistic values (power, status, image) are experienced as being directly in conflict with universalist values—namely, protecting other people, and the planet. Therefore, the more that the pursuit of materialistic values is encouraged, the less likely people are to truly prioritize the needs of others, and of the planet we share. And one of the industries most deeply entrenched in upholding and promoting the allure of wealth, status, exclusivity, and personal reward is the mainstream fashion industry.


Indeed, just think back to the public outrage over Burberry’s practice of burning unsold goods as a means of controlling the “exclusivity” of the brand. And although Burberry has announced that it will discontinue this practice, it is but a small drop in a large pond where maintaining the perceived exclusivity of a brand (and logo) is deemed just cause for destroying unsold goods. And it is not just luxury brands guilty of this practice, but also retailers like H&M, Urban Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret, J.C. Penny, and Walmart. As Timo Rissanen, Associate Dean at Parsons School of Design, points out in an interview, “The retail price of a luxury product has nothing to do with its actual value. When you buy something from Chanel or Gucci and you pay full retail, that money is actually paying for the massive advertising campaigns. If Chanel destroys a dress it tried to sell for $1,200, it hasn’t really lost $1,2000. I don’t think Chanel even paid $100 [to make] that dress. And the money they’d lost would probably just be recouped through fragrances."

Luxury brands sell perceived notions of exclusivity, and the corresponding attributes of wealth and status. But high-street brands follow a similar model. And fast fashion brands, though celebrated for their “affordable” price points, have a well-documented history of directly copying styles and trends seen on the runways of luxury brands. Indeed, the rise of fast fashion brands in the 1980s and ‘90s happened at precisely the same moment that luxury brands were being revitalized, purportedly as a means of “democratizing” fashion. In a further altruistic step towards democratization, it is the very same “affordable” brands that have offered exclusive collections from luxury brand designers—including Karl Lagerfeld, Versace, Jimmy Choo, Stella McCartney and Marni at H&M, and Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, Alexander McQueen, and Missoni at Target. The designer collaborations generally offer recognizable brand silhouettes and styles, acknowledging savvy fashion consumers’ familiarity with iconic brands, but also subtly reinforcing an unspoken message that the luxury brands at the ultimate in covetable fashion. Meanwhile, by offering on-trend clothes at discount prices fast-fashion retailers may not quite hold the same prestige as luxury brands, but they do offer the equally desirable appeal of unlimited quantity.

To move towards a more sustainable fashion system requires an acknowledgement of the role that fashion goods play in manufacturing and encouraging materialistic values. Certainly this means continued support of innovations into closed-loop systems, alternative textiles, non-toxic dyes and manufacturing processes. To quote Juliet Schor once more, “Solving our problems in the time we have available is not possible if all we do is change our technology. We will not arrest ecological decline or regain financial health without also introducing a different rhythm of work, consumption, and daily life…” (Plenitude, 2). To create the systemic change that will result in a fashion industry that is truly ethical and sustainable demands the hard work of investigating on both an individual and a collective level what it is that we truly value, why we hold those values, and how we express them.