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Marketing is killing us (Part II): the case of fashion

When we buy a pair of jeans, sunglasses, or trainers, we are never buying for ourselves, but for others


Last week I put on an orange dress, and wore it for four days in a row. As it gradually succumbed to the vicissitudes of the week – Weetabix, the paw prints of children, hastily discarded toothpaste – the reactions of my fellow clothes-wearers subtly but definitely changed until the person in the Centra gave me that ‘is she going to steal something?’ look. In this article on fashion marketing, I examine not just how we have come to buy more and more clothes, but how our practices of wearing it – buying it, washing it, photo­graphing it, disposing of it – have sped up too. The intensity of this cycle has profound economic, environ­mental and psychological effects.

As the third largest industry in the world, the global fashion market generated a turnover of €2.5 trillion last year. Ireland is the largest export market for the UK’s €72bn clothing industry, oriented as we are to high street British fashion brands. Our consumption of fash­ion has changed unrecognisably from even 20 years ago. In 1996 the average 20-year old in Ireland owned 4 pairs of shoes; in 2016, it was 12. This expansion of our wardrobe reflects a global phenomenon, where the average Western consumer owns 103 clothing items. While ‘bad consumers’ are usually blamed, there is really one reason why: fashion brands have intensified their campaign to change the perception of clothing – from a functional investment in practical shelter to a vital projection, extension and affirmation of one’s very identity. This is a phenomenal achievement that entailed a number of operational, economic, and psy­chological adjustments to guarantee a 400% growth in the industry in the last 20 years.


The first adjustment demanded a shift in manufac­turing and delivering: to fast fashion. This was spearheaded by the Italian design house Benetton, but perfected by fashion brands Zara, H&M and Forever 21. Fast fashion mimics luxury fashion trends at very low costs. What this effectively means was that when I was a student in Dublin in 1996, a trip to TopShop on Grafton Street was quite boring: the same tops, handbags and jeans would be on the rails for one month at a time. Now the traditional seasonal divisions in the fashion press has been replaced with a marketing model of micro-seasonality (TopShop introduces 400 new styles a week to its website). Of course, the brand’s standard response to this would be that it is responding to the needs of consumers by creating greater efficiency in its production system. But what goes unsaid is that increasing efficiencies in produc­tion systems lead to increasing inefficiencies in consumption systems, as we will see in a moment.


The second adjustment entailed a shift at the level of product design. Let me digress slightly: there are two principal ways in marketing to stimulate what is known as ‘psychological dissonance’ – the uneasy feeling that your laptop, car, trainers or coffee machine is no longer right. These are known as physical obsolescence and psychological obsolescence. We marketers achieve physical obsolescence by down-grading the quality of product. In the case of fashion marketing, shoes in Urban Outfitters are no longer made from leathers, rub­bers and metal, but ‘pumps’ – a composite of reinforced cardboard, glue, and a fabric base coated in plastic. Psychological obsolescence on the other hand is attained through the acceleration of what’s known as the fashion cycle: the social phenomenon whereby a design moves through bleeding edge to mainstream to despised mainstream, like the Michael Kors handbag. This acceleration happens in very diverse ways: every time the Irish Times produces a ‘What’s Hot and What’s Not’ list; every time a celebrity wears a new outfit; every time a fashion blogger posts a video of how ador­able the new crop tops are in Penney’s.


The third adjustment has been perhaps the most subtle though important one: to make clothing a vital prop that is needed to create authentic sense of who we are. Fashion marketing never produces an image of a pair of jeans, a handbag or a hoodie in splendid iso­lation: it sets them in a powerful social scenario, where the viewer immediately steps into the shoes of the pro­tagonist: the Chanel-clad Parisian on the rain-soaked cobbles of a Montmartre morning; the sweat-soaked Nikes of a determined athlete in an empty basketball court in the Bronx. These images – the background wallpaper to the city’s streets – are today disseminated through Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr. This third adjustment is so pervasive that it constitutes a verita­ble psychological assault from which no one is immune. Every single person cares about the clothes they wear.


The moment that I say that fashion brands do not affect me is the very moment that they have: this is because marketing does not ever seek to make us feel like dupes, or feel like we are being marketed to: such a feeling suppresses spending. Advertising images are secular magic: they induce a powerful desire to indulge in the fantasy of being a solitary and steely-gazed ath­lete, a sophisticated and urbane Parisian girl. This pleasurable daydreaming is innate to us all, and it’s important to know that, because it can give us a clue as to why simply removing fast fashion or telling people the conditions in which their clothes have been pro­duced will not effect real change.


Piles of donated clothes


The fourth and final adjustment that was required has shifted labour power structures and altered the natural environment forever: to re-categorise clothing. Perceptual categories are critical to marketers. A lot of the work we do is to move some product or service into mental boxes that permit it to be treated differently by the consumer. For example, tourism brands worked hard for decades to change the idea of a holiday abroad from the category of luxury to that of necessity. Clothes have moved from long-term investments, often handed down or kept for the next generation, to the status of a coffee to grab and go. How is this final adjustment achieved? Well, primarily by what I call equivalencing: the degraded quality of the garment allows a decrease in the price – if a dress is €15, it creates an equivalence to three pints, or enough to get into Krystal. This eco­nomic equivalencing has a powerful psychological effect, which is compounded by the retailscape: shoes in Forever 21 are sold on rails like packets of sweets; H&M offers T-shirts in basins at the check-out.

Marketing is often a practice of breaking taboos

– breaking them almost guar­antees brand success. But the two taboos that market­ing never breaks are to show the conditions of production or the consequences of con­sumption. Because clothes are bought at increasingly accelerated rates, they are disposed of in ever faster cycles. The fashion market employs about one billion people – a sixth of the world’s population. In the 1960s, the American fashion industry produced 95% of what its internal market demanded. Now that figure is 3%. Bang­ladesh, India, Cambodia, and China are the ‘garment ghettos’ of the world, where well-known retailer brands like H&M, Primark and Urban Outfitters exert pressure on manufactur­ers to drive down the most flexible cost – wages. The ecological cost is also extreme: the average westerner throws out 37kg of clothing per year 10% to thrift, 90% to landfill. A brand is able to sell a prom queen mini-skirt for €15 because it has not paid for it in the first place – it external­ises environmental costs and pressures manufacturers in garment ghettos to drive down wages…at the same time as producing ‘conscious collections’ within its own range.


Rana Plaza in Bangladesh: exploitation


But there is a psychological consequence too our cheap clothes haunt us and burden us: when the sheen fades from them after the first wash, they gaze up at us as the reality behind our Parisian or Bronx fantasies. We spend our weekends shopping, washing, drying, folding, ironing and fixing our clothes. The reason why I was stared at for wearing a slightly soiled dress is not because we consumers collectively decided that it is morally wrong to wear less than perfect gear. Rather, detergent, apparel, car or cosmetics brands produce the mono­lithic, repetitive idea of ‘clean flawlessness’ that infiltrates our value systems. The clothes that are psychologically and physically obso­lescent occupy the shadowy spaces of our wardrobes until we throw them into the vortices of the bin, the charity shop or the attic.


The Italian designer Alberto Alessi once pro­posed a vision for garments that would last a very long time; he must have understood this haunt­ing and burdening that clothes ultimately impose on us. But he misjudged the solution. Ask anyone to give a definition of clothes and they will likely say that they are textile materials that we use on our skin to provide protection from heat and cold. Ask a marketer and they will tell you that clothes are portals to different realities. When I put on a pair of Under Armour trousers, I really feel I run faster; when I carry a Coach handbag, I really feel like I gave a more professional presenta­tion. The psychologists Adam Hajo and Adam Galinsky have understood the way clothes allow us to take up certain social roles more authentically by calling this phenomenon “enclothed cognition”: namely the influential way clothes change psychological mood.


Marketing creates a visual image to these role fantasies and changes the props that are needed to perform them. Marketing performs best when it can detect a deeply-held, universal and mostly unconscious desire and convert it into some­thing that a product or brand can sate. In this way then, Alessi was wrong: fashion is social (its Latin root factio means a group of people acting together). When we buy a pair of jeans, sun­glasses or trainers, we are never buying it for ourselves, but for others. It is what the philoso­pher Charles Cooley meant in 1902 when he coined the term ‘the looking-glass self’ – when I look in a mirror, I don’t see me, I see how others look at me. I use clothes as a social grammar to communicate with these others. This is an exhil­arating and terrifying feeling, one that, if a universal clothing were to be introduced, would remove one of the primary ways in our culture that we have for expressing ourselves, and hence a vital part of what makes us human.


This pleasurable and painful burden of self-expression is running against psychological, environmental and ethical limits. Dismantling the fast fashion system is imperative. But what many of us do not yet understand is that fast fashion, like so many other capitalist inventions must be replaced by something even more pleasurable in order to work in the long term. Simply exposing the reality of our fashion marketing systems – through engaging docu­mentaries like ‘The True Cost’ (2015) – does little to curb our desire. After the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh (when more than 1100 garment workers died), Primark sales went from strength to strength. Walking down Grafton Street with a bag from Cos (a brand owned by H&M), comfortingly heavy with clean and bright new clothes, is a manifestation of a deeper yearning – to be stimulated by beautiful objects, to communicate with others, and to indulge in hedonistic daydreaming. We need to change the manifestation rather than deny the yearning. To this end, I propose the following interventions:

The cultivation of a slow fashion movement, which entails the re-categorisation of clothing back to investment in long-term, high-quality items. Wardrobes would have less range (i.e. we would wear the same clothes a lot) and more depth (these clothes would be actually warm, waterproof, well-fitting).

  • To do this, the government should fund a dedi­cated fashion lobby which targets celebrities, fashion bloggers, and designers to break the spell of accelerated fashion cycles and pro­mote an alternative aesthetics of long-term, repeat wear.
  • Fast fashion retail brands need to incorporate the costs of production and disposal. They should be obliged to share the details of their contracts with manufacturers in a common database. Their supply chains need to be shorter and more transparent.
  • Fast fashion retailers must be obliged to inte­grate their operations forward to encompass disposal. Essentially this would mean that each brand must make available a facility to collect and dispose of its worn items from con­sumers.


Norah Campbell is assistant professor of marketing in Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin

Field Day is presenting the Seamus Deane Annual Lectures in two venues next month. On 14 October 2017 in Galway, Judge Bryan McMahon will speak on the theme of direct provision. And on 20 October 2017 in the Playhouse in Derry, Conor Kenny of Médecins Sans Frontières will discuss his first-hand experience of EU migration centres in Greece. For updates on these events and details about how to book, go to