It was spring and people were crowding into a vast auditorium space to shop. No, it wasn't the latest Sunday sale at your local big box chain store. People were combing for just the right item in a sea of stuff. The "stuff" was a vast collection of used and donated items in search of a second lease on life at a mega rummage sale of donated items piled high and wide. My purpose for being there was my mission to record the people and artifacts for a class project.
After walking around stunned at the sheer volume of discarded items, I began to realize that the heart of my question about unsustainable consumption is really not only about the "stuff" we crave so much as what motivated people to consume all of these things in the first place. At some point these items were objects of our desire. And then, we wake one day to ask the question, "Why in the hell did I buy this?"
I once spent a lot of professional time researching trends for where the "next great thing" was going to come from. Today, I strongly question why the world's response to many of its ecological problems is simply a "new and improved" soy or hemp version of the same old thing. I think I now know why I came to SVA to study Design for Social Innovation.
For too long, I have been looking at the problems with products and not the system that drives their consumption. What do things truly cost us? And why don't we respond to objective data telling us that we are headed full speed to a collapse of the natural systems that support life on this planet? Perhaps it is because we can't "see" the costs of our behavior. It's not enough to see viral videos of destruction and suffering in Bangladesh. Ultimately, we really just don't know those who make the things we buy. We long ago lost any relationship to those who produce the things we consume. If you ask most consumers how many hours go into sewing a shirt, for example, you will get mostly blank stares.
One trend reference point that holds promise for the future of consumerism is the local food/farmers market phenomena. Food consumption in the U.S. 25 years ago was not unlike what we see in clothing purchases today. Consumers assumed that value in what they got was based on price. Quality was viewed through a lens of consistent mediocrity accepted by consumers as "safe and clean." The transformation of consumer views on food is a game-changer because it has had large scale impact on how food retailers go to market.
Even the leader of retailing in mediocre products, Walmart, has been seeking ways to offer consumers "locally-sourced" produce. Although their business model does not fit with these aspirations, their interest shows the cultural shift in U.S. food consumerism. People will spend more time and pay marginally more money for food from local sources. The trip/visit to these food markets becomes a community event; a destination fulfilling a need that goes beyond the procurement of food. In a culture that now values celebrity chefs who romance the regional nuances of heirloom tomato varieties, I wonder how this local and sustainable focus on food might inform our behavior in other areas of consumption, including clothing.
When people watch something being made, it can transfix their sense of value and quality. Imagine finding yourself as a guest in a transparent factory setting. As consumers, may we one day discuss hand and feel of cloth with the same passion we share our thoughts on free range eggs?
The fashion world has long suggested that we should desire to have something special. The opportunity to know the designers and sewers of everything you wear could be an avenue back to a time when the face to face relationships of designer, producer, retailer, and consumer were strong. Reputation was based on the promise of quality for a fair price. Given that we now demand quality in our grocery cart, could the time now be ripe for a local and slow way of deciding what goes into the shirts on our backs?
Shopping image via Shutterstock