What is Really Behind Fast Fashion, ‘Mad Men’ Execs and the H&M Trend Craze?


ColumnFast fashion has ramped up the cycle of consumption to head spinning levels of (economic) efficiencies. Despite multinational corporations fueling boatloads of money into glossy marketing campaigns to keep us buying more, trends no longer represent an era of style and fashion, but one of profit. And now, the new trend is “conscious.”

Decades from now, when future generations look back on our times they will see profit was the trend. We can’t pinpoint a general style trend of the ’00s because the concept of fashion is so wrapped up in driving sales.

It wasn’t always that way. Looking back, fashionable style unraveled a rich history lesson. In all it’s grandeur, Style of the Decades was a lens to understand the zeitgeist of the times. The 1890s Gibson Girl, the 1920s rebellious flapper, the 1950s bourgeois housewife, the 1980s powersuit for work, and neon spandex for play — all allow us to sketch a silhouette and describe an era through fashion. Sure, we can certainly describe our era though fashion style, but today, instead of a silhouette, there would be a dollar sign.

Trends are tripping over themselves: Bell-bottoms to skinny jeans,  A-line dress to shift dress, above the ankle pant legs to palazzo pants, wedges to stilettos. The trend-mill of fashion is overwhelming, unfulfilling and has 99 problems — the overflowing closet being one.

What do we do with all this stuff? We put it in storage units. “There’s a lot of them. 2.35 billion — with a B — square feet in the United States, according to the Self Storage Association,” says Ira Glass in Act One of “This American Life: Contents Unknown.”

“That, in case you’re wondering, is 7.4 square feet of self storage for every man, woman, and child in this country, meaning all of us, all of us, could stand inside self storage at the same time.”

We are now surrounded with more stuff than ever before, but are undoubtedly less happy because of it. In the U.S., we spend three to four times more hours shopping than our counterparts in Europe do, says Annie Leonard of the Story of Stuff. Yet, we rank 17th in the World Happiness Report.

The newly published book, “Stuffocation” by James Wallman, closely examines the hard research and psychology on the ultra importance of why now we need to spend our money on experiences more than ever.

So if we know this stuff isn’t making us happier, why do we keep buying?

To understand we’ve got to look back. Throughout the 1950s, as consumerism began to run rampant, TV dinners, laundry machines and the hamburger swept the United States. The key to this wave of efficiency could not have changed family lives forever without the skilled help of the “Mad Men”; the men of advertising that oh-so-suavely sold us polished shit, and called it gold.

The psychology of advertising, both then and now, is so good it’s scary. Campaigns expertly poke and stroke our the deepest folds of our subconscious to sell us goods we don’t need. Just like over the decades we’ve slowly been sold the idea buying more clothes is better than buying well made clothes.

“No matter how contrary, rebellious or bloody-minded you are, it is a virtual impossibility to escape the constant, dedicated, ubiquitous onslaught of marketing, and the collective mindwarp it wreaks upon society, in subtle and pervasively corrupting ways.” says Olympian wordsmith and fiery writer Cintra Wilson. “The marketplace is now so devastatingly effective at turning our desires on and off that we virtually have no unpolluted pathways through which to experience love, sex, work, family, ambition, community, identity.”

Take Febreze for instance: During the first market testings of Febreze, nobody found a habitual continued use for the product. Procter & Gamble’s heads were spinning as to why this revolutionary product wasn’t of interest to consumers. How to get it to sell? They realizes they had to make Febreze part of the cleaning routine, and change people’s habits. So Febreze was advertised as the icing on the cake after you cleaned your house — the final touch, the cherry on top. It was a matter of leading the consumer in the right direction, to sell them the illusion of completion.

Now, sixty years since the peak era of “Mad Men”, the United States is trying to cling on to meaning again. On top of the skewed relationship between our happiness and accumulation of stuff, add on environmental degradation and climate change and we don’t know where to turn.

So, how are modern companies reacting to the dismay? The multinational corporations, fast fashion chains included, are soothing our frantic conflicted conscience with “conscious” products.

I can’t help but feel manipulated by H&M’s new Conscious Collection for hitting the soft spot of the emerging value-based customer. I found myself (a true anti-H&M-er) entertaining the idea I might buy a new pair of shoes from the new ‘conscious’ collection. WAKE UP. Its business is to play on our most subconscious desires. In this case — spend as little money as possible to look like you can afford better. Add on Miranda Kerr wearing a $4.95 T-shirt; the tattooed, toned David Beckman running in boxer briefs; and now the Conscious Collection, and you’ve whipped a pleasure sensory experience for everyone. H&M is capitalizing on the current atmosphere of the market to put itself ahead, and it is a great marketing strategy. But are its seven commitments enough? Do they address the systemic issues for fast fashion, or is it just a patchwork approach? I don’t think a fast fashion company like H&M can ever be sustainable.

Plus, H&M just took second place in Ethisphere’s Wold’s Most Ethical Companies for apparel in 2014! Do you agree?

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right? And undoubtedly, our choices (our vote, our dollar, our decisions on where and how to shop) can affect directly thousands of people.

So what are companies like H&M’s modern solutions? Many are running conscious collections, yet still employing the same exploited workers to make the garments. Giving the buyers the illusion of providing them with greater values than are actually being given, and with little to no concrete social changes to their business structures.

I can hear the ad execs soothing me now:

You’re right darling, consumption is not helping us… the environment… or the poor people who put the crap together for no money or respect. But consumption is at the heart of America’s soul, isn’t it? So it’s easy, now shop over here, it’s made with a conscious.

Fast fashion wants us to keep buying clothes with the illusion that; a) new is better, and b) the new trends that spring up every two weeks are what you need to be cool, connected and authentic.

Let’s keep it real. If we know more things don’t make us happy, then DO something: Look into the tactical marketing campaigns of companies like H&M — are the seven commitments enough or is it just well-spoken lip-service?

Wilson said it best: “If you aren’t consciously using fashion to empower yourself, fashion is mostly likely using you to empower a brand.”

Keep in touch with Juliette on Twitter @spadesandsiLK

Related on Ecosalon:

7 Clues To Tell If Your Garment Is Really Sustainable: Eco Fashion Dissected

Popular Fast Fashion Brands Caught Selling Lead-Tainted Purses, Shoes and Accessories

Designers and Makers, This is for You: ‘Made in the USA’ Accelerator Program

image: pennuja

Juliette Donatelli

Working in the field of sustainability for over seven years, Juliette is passionate about its intersection within the fashion industry. Juliette began studying ecological conservation, and led consumer awareness campaigns around the world from water usage in southern California, riparian restoration in South Africa, food distribution in Paris and bison habitat in the Great Plains. She has launched her passion--consumerism and sustainability--into a place where it hits home--fashion. Juliette is the founder and editor-in-chief of spadesandsilk.com, Director of Sustainability at Manufacture NY, and loves to read, dance, swim and enjoy the occasional glass of champagne.