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Born to buy? From consumerism to slow fashion and self-love

Anna & Polly 16 Nov 2021 Born to buy? From consumerism to slow fashion and self-love

Put your safety helmets on, make sure to take an extra first aid kit with you and tell your loved ones to call the police if you’re not back home by Sunday, because we’re going on an all-out shopping spree this Black Friday!

Just kidding. We’re not. Instead of risking our lives on Discount Battlefield, we’re taking you to somewhere more peaceful.

An idyllic place where sustainability experts take you by the hand and share their knowledge, where self-confidence is free and memes are abundant. A place where you buy less, but care more. Are you ready?
 

In this article:

Unpacking overconsumption: how it all started

Overconsumption can be understood as excessive consumption that creates a situation where we use more natural resources than the sustainable capacity of our planet.1,2

It's basically feeling hungry for more stuff – stuff that we don't need.

Think of the times when you told yourself that you had nothing to wear, so you bought new clothes. And then you realised that there was no place for them in your closet anymore.

Or maybe you were shopping on Black Friday, in need of only one T-shirt, but since you could get three for the price of two... Your shopping bag became a bit heavier than expected.

Our own experiences with overconsuming stuff might be a bit different, but there's a pretty big chance that you can relate to these stories. Been there, done that, and actually bought the T-shirt too.

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A quote from the movie Fight Club (1999) that reads We buy things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like.

Dead-on quote from the movie Fight Club (1999).

But how did we get there?

Wants created and obsolescence planned

We have always consumed the essentials, from food to clothing – but it was around the 20th century when capitalism turned a regular person into a consumer.3 For that, created wants (things that are unessential for our existence but provide us with luxury and prestige) were developed.4

We were told by the industries as well as our governments that we needed to seek our fulfilment in buying stuff.3

Next to continuously persuading people to consume, the concept of planned obsolescence also played a role.

Both functional obsolescence (making a product unusable within a known period of time) and psychological obsolescence (consumers believing that the perfectly functioning product is unusable because they perceive it as unfashionable and undesirable) became common marketing strategies.3,5

As retail analyst Victor Lebow said in 1955:

"We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate."

And that's the (very simplified) story of how we got to a throwaway society that can't stop overconsuming.

But what does our overconsumption actually do to us, the (over)consumers? And what does it do to our planet and the workers in the industry? Is there a way we can resist the pressure of the industry and stop this overconsumption? Let's hear what our experts on consumerism, sustainability and ethical consumption have to say!

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Desires and fears of the yuppies: a conversation with Jonas Kooyman

Jonas Kooyman (32) writes about city life and the luxury industry for Dutch Newspaper NRC. He’s also the man behind De Havermelkelite: a popular newsletter and satirical Instagram account about our zeitgeist and city life.

Jonas, what makes the topic of Young Urban Professionals and their consuming habits so interesting to you?

“I’m fascinated by the connection between consumerism and identity. People express their status, or their aspired status, through the stuff they buy and the way they consume.

For instance, it’s quite common among millennials from Amsterdam to order their cappuccino with plant-based milk instead of cow’s milk.

They can do this for sustainability reasons of course, but it’s also a cultural code. A way to distinguish themselves from others and find belonging within their own group at the same time.

The urban jungle is another example. All of a sudden all the yuppies in Amsterdam were buying plants to decorate their living room.”

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This is Fine meme, plant edition.

The ‘urban jungle’ edition of 'This is fine' by KC Green.

And all the time we were thinking this generation was fed up with drinking cow’s milk because they care for the planet and baby cows!

“Modern-day yuppies have the image of being aware of sustainability, but I think that’s a bit of a misconception.”

"Constantly looking for new trends and new stuff to buy can’t be that sustainable."

“These people, including myself, really want to do better for the climate and the world around them, but feel the desire to consume a lot at the same time. We still want that next new thing to hang in our closets. This inconsistency can invoke feelings of failure.”

Can you tell us what’s hip and happening now in the world of consumerism?

“One of the trends I’m interested in is ‘premium mediocre’: luxury products for the shrinking middle class. Think of an inflatable bathtub. Young people in the big city don’t have room for a real bath or the money to remodel their bathroom.

An inflatable bathtub has the air of luxury for people who can’t afford the real thing, while they think they should. The fear of not performing and earning enough is called ‘class anxiety’. An inflatable bathtub can give you the feeling you achieved the middle-class dream.”

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photo of Jonas Kooyman

Jonas Kooyman

All the while, social media contributes to the ‘need’ to consume more. What do you think about that?

“When I was young I used to watch MTV Cribs: the rich and famous people showing off their huge refrigerators and car parks. That was obviously out of reach for us, the kids at home. That was TV and these people were celebrities, an exception, not real life. But social media changed that.

Now we’re dealing with influencers, people like us, having the latest and most expensive stuff. From what they eat to the products they have in their bathroom, we see it all. That stimulates a desire: I want that too.”

“I don’t have problem areas”: Marieke Eyskoot telling it like it is

We can buy ourselves happiness and self-confidence: Marieke Eyskoot (44) knows all about the delusional promises of the industries. She is a sustainable fashion and lifestyle expert and her book This is a Good Guide – for a Sustainable Lifestyle is filled with practical and positive tips on fashion, beauty, food, home, work and leisure.

Without comparing ourselves to garment workers in China or Bangladesh who have to work long hours for not even a living wage, we as Western citizens are also being used by the consumption industry, you argue. Can you elaborate on this, Marieke?

“We are constantly being sold a narrative that we are not good enough or we don’t belong. We’re not beautiful enough, we’re not skinny enough, we don’t wear the right outfit or watch. And, surprise, we need to buy a certain product to fix this. We’re talked into having a problem so businesses can sell more stuff. I call this ‘shaming for profit’.

We all age, we wrinkle, get grey hair and we all sweat sometimes, it’s natural. But if the industry can make this a taboo, then they can make a lot of money.”

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Meme from Toy Story that reads 'Consumerism, consumerism everywhere.'

Buzz Lightyear shows Woody that consumerism is, in fact, everywhere. (Toy Story, 1995)

What is the impact of this type of marketing strategy?

“First of all: many of us have regularly felt bad about ourselves and the way we look for a big part of our lives. This goes for everyone, but especially for women and even more for women of colour and normal-size women.

Because we’re told by adverstisements and commercials to look like a white, thin, blonde, young model. The ideal we have to live up to in the lifestyle business is ridiculously limited, even though things are changing a bit.”

"Second, this shaming us into feeling we're not good enough is making it extremely hard to behave sustainably, because we need to keep buying and buying in order to belong.This is not just bad for us, but also for the planet."

Is there something we can do about this?

“We need to be aware of this tactic and recognise it. Whenever an influencer or an advertisement makes you feel you’re not good enough or you need to change something about yourself, know that this is not the truth. This company or product has nothing to do with your self-worth. Nothing. So don’t buy into that narrative.

I recently read a magazine article about makeup for your body. You can use it to contour your ‘problem areas’. I don’t need a product to cover up my problem areas. Because I don’t have problem areas. We shouldn’t be pushed into buying more things we don’t need. On the contrary, we should buy less and better.”

Taking all this into account, what does Black Friday mean to you?

“To me, Black Friday represents everything we shouldn’t want. Yet, it can be an important day for people who don’t have a lot to spend and can finally buy something they need.”

"We need to be aware of not being elitist about denouncing sales. But the issue of income inequality needs a different approach and solution. Black Friday is not the answer."

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Photo of Marieke Eyskoot

Marieke Eyskoot. Photo credit: Melody Lieftink

Buying a new gadget? Computer says no

The organisation Think Big Act Now was founded by Babette Porcelijn (48) with the aim to make our society more sustainable in an effective way. The team provides workshops, presentations and consultations concerning sustainability. Their main focus is ‘the hidden impact’ of common activities and daily used products on our planet.

Which of the habits of Western consumers (in this case the average Dutch person) has the most environmental impact?

Taking a plane to a tropical destination? Driving a car? Eating meat? Well, you can find all of these habits in the impactful top 10, but the ‘honour’ of first place goes to: buying things.

Number 1 impactful habit: buying things

Yes, that’s right. Stuff. From electronics to toys and from clothes to gardening tools. The mining, production, transportation and waste of all of the stuff we buy have an enormous impact on the world we live in.

Since ‘things’ still might be a bit vague, let’s be more specific. Over the last few years, there’s been a lot more awareness about the damaging effects of the fast fashion industry.

Thanks to activists, journalists and responsible fashion entrepreneurs, more people than ever know that garment workers in the Global South are often underpaid and that cotton, silk and wool are not exactly eco-friendly fabrics.

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Photo of Babette Porcelijn

Babette Porcelijn

But the ‘stuff’ that’s even more harmful, both to the workers as well as to the environment, is electronics. You probably wouldn’t have guessed that (neither would we!), because this is still very much underexposed.

Mining: unethical pollution

Babette from Think Big Act Now: “Gold and copper for instance, which are needed to produce laptops, are mined in countries such as Congo and China. Mining is a gigantic industry where exploitation and modern slavery are common, and also incredibly polluting.”

What can we do? Buy small devices and put off buying new ones for as long as possible, says Babette. Buy only what you need and give the electronics you no longer use to someone else.

(A great example of raw materials being reused: sustainability-savvy entrepreneurs like our seller Nowa ( “No Waste”) have been tackling this very problem, by choosing ‘urban mining’ and recycled materials only for their jewellery.)
 

Shopping trivia about the experts:


What are your plans for Black Friday?

Jonas: I don’t have any plans yet. I don’t think I’m going to stand in line somewhere for some discount. But don’t get me wrong, I like discounts!
Marieke: I’ll probably aim to create some awareness around these issues with my movement #SustainabilityAgainstShame, do join me on Instagram!
Babette: I don’t even know when Black Friday is! No really, when is it?

What was your biggest bad buy?

Jonas: When I'm abroad I like to buy notebooks with stylish covers. I have the romantic notion that I will use them as poetic diaries. However, they somehow all end up unused in a closet.
Marieke: I’ve bought too narrow shoes in the past. My feet are quite wide, so shoes usually are tight. But nowadays I know which brands fit me, and I often buy shoes second hand, they’re already stretched, haha!
Babette: Shoes! They’re either too cold, too narrow, too sweaty, you name it.

For which luxury product do you hold a soft spot?

Jonas: I’m completely sucked into the skincare hype. I have all these products in beautiful bottles and an app that tells me which ones to use that day and in which order. It’s a kind of ritual to me. I love it.
Marieke: Red lipstick (but organically certified).
Babette: Pretty dresses and avocados.


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Illustration with a cat throwing stuff off the table that reads 'It's called minimalism.'

All this time our cats were giving us declutter advice! Illustration by They Can Talk.

“A humanitarian crisis”: Aja Barber shows the bigger picture

Aja Barber is a London-based writer, consultant and stylist whose work focuses on the intersection of sustainability and the fashion industry. Her work builds on ideas behind privilege, wealth inequality, racism, feminism, colonialism. Recently, she published her (must-read!) book Consumed: The Need for Collective Change; Colonialism, Climate Change & Consumerism, in which she dives deep into the topic of overconsumption and its consequences for everyone – you, me, garment workers and the planet.

Overconsumption and overproduction harm the garment workers in the fashion industry

“Everything is happening quicker, everyone needs more of it, and it all needs to be at the cheapest price point for the consumer”, Aja writes. “Of course, something has to give. We can't accelerate to satisfy our needs this quickly without someone bearing the brunt.”

Aja refers to the book To Die For by Lucy Siegel, in which it is explained that in the past, a garment factory would receive an order for 40.000 garments to be manufactured in a couple of months. Today, such a factory receives a last-minute order for 30.000 garments. As the order grows, the supplier realises that the order will be more difficult to fulfil as all garments are made by someone's hands. The supplier fears that the order will not be delivered on time which could result in the brand walking away, without paying for the fabrics, and therefore, in the collapse of the business and people's jobs. So, the factory owner is forced to outsource part of the order to another factory. And of course for a smaller price.

“This outsourcing makes the target more achievable, but there is no information nor time to find out whether this factory pays its workers or cares for them in any way.”

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The cover of the book Consumed by Aja Barber

The cover of Aja Barber’s book Consumed.

“We didn’t know...”

“So, when it comes out that this second factory actually did not pay its workers and used children to do the job under brutal and dangerous conditions, yes, the big brand can claim that they didn't know that outsourcing would happen, but they DID know that asking their factory to deliver hundreds of thousands of pieces in an impossible short turnaround was, well, impossible.”

"And they DID know that somewhere down the chain there would be a cost. A human one. The most vulnerable would be paid the lowest wage, so the brand could keep its turnover as high as possible."

In her book, Aja plunges into many different aspects of our overconsumption. Whether it is the fact that many people deal with a shopping addiction, the fact that we dump our clothes to the Global South, harming their local economy (amongst other things), or that the most vulnerable people who contributed to the climate crisis the least are the most affected by it.

"All this clothing has become both a humanitarian and an environmental crisis."

The summum of consumerism: Black Friday

When you think of Black Friday, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Busy streets, massive discounts, overconsumption? Makes sense, because this 'holiday' was created with such intention.

Since the mid 20th century, Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving in America – has been considered the official start of the holiday shopping season.The reason why it is called Black Friday is that the financial years of retailers would start being profitable about this time – going from 'in the red' to 'in the black'.

Nowadays, we know Black Friday as the day (or sometimes, even a week) of huge discounts being advertised in both the off- and online world.

Maybe, you've wondered how these massive discounts are even beneficial for businesses. The short answer is: overconsumption.

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A meme from Pulp Fiction (1994) that reads 'Say Black Friday one more goddamn time.'

We guess Jules from Pulp Fiction (1994) wasn’t that big of a fan of Black Friday either.

They count on us, the consumers, to visit their stores or websites and be seduced by the irresistible sales and sense of urgency (75% off – today only, so don't miss your chance!).

And by overconsuming stuff we don't need and we've never even thought of buying before, Black Friday becomes a wonderful holiday for corporations, and a bleak day for the rest of the planet.

"Black Friday is a scam. It’s one more way to get citizens to think they are finding a bargain, when in fact they are hunting an illusion. Black Friday is about the rush, the speed, the compulsion. [...] we are asking you to stay conscientious and to buy with purpose."

Orsola de Castro, Fashion Revolution co-founder and creative director
 

And that is why our response to Black Friday is… drum rolls… Bye Buy Friday!

Our campaign: Bye Buy Friday!

On Friday, November 26th, it's #ByeBuyFriday. It's not a day of massive discounts. It's a day when we raise our prices by 10%. These proceeds will be doubled by us and donated to Fashion Revolution, a non-profit organisation working to secure radical change in the way that our garments are produced, sourced and consumed.

On Friday 26th only, so don't miss your chance. 😉

Kim van Langelaar (30) is the co-founder and content director of Shop Like You Give a Damn and our own expert in slow fashion (and vegan restaurants and senior cats).

Kim, how did you come up with the idea of the Bye Buy Friday campaign?

“We had a heated discussion about Black Friday at the office last year because we were completely fed up with all the aggressive end-of-year marketing.”

"That in-your-face: ‘DON’T EVEN CONSIDER WHETHER YOU NEED THIS OR NOT, IT’S SUPER CHEAP SO BUY THIS NOW!’ is everything the world doesn’t need. We have enough."

“Not knowing whether to cry or laugh at a certain point, we decided it was time for a countercampaign. We were brainstorming and asking ourselves how we could make an impact on that day too.

It was then that Stephan (note: fellow co-founder and Kim's husband) came up with the brilliant idea to simply do the opposite of what the industry was doing. Not lowering prices, but increasing them – by 10%. We decided to double the proceeds of that extra 10% and donate the money to an initiative that has the platform to affect actual change.

Just as absurd as Black Friday, but then for the better. And it was a hit.”

Is it difficult for a small business to go against the grain and not participate in Black Friday discounts?

"Well, not participating requires no effort at all. So it isn’t difficult in that sense."

“However, most uninformed consumers and some people who really need the discount and have been saving up for this day to finally be able to buy that one thing, will look for the best deals. People won’t look for no-deals on this day.

So, not participating in Black Friday promotions doesn’t only mean you won’t get any extra orders that day, it also means your customers will be actually shopping somewhere else for better deals and that they won’t discover your brand like they would, if you'd shout as loudly as the rest of them. And that is of course quite an impactful decision. The pressure is high.”

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Photo of Kim van Langelaar

Kim van Langelaar, co-founder of Shop Like You Give a Damn

It’s not just overconsumption, but overproduction too

But it's worth it. According to Fashion Revolution, Black Friday represents the problem of systematic overproduction in the fashion industry, with big brands thoughtlessly churning out new products at the expense of people and the planet.

“Brands get away with this wasteful business model because cleverly marketed seasonal markdowns mean their customers help them get rid of unsold stock.”

"An estimated 100 billion pieces of clothing are made each year, but according to our 2021 Fashion Transparency Index, only 14% of major fashion brands publish the quantity of products they produce."

“​​We want to see an end to this hyper-discount culture where there is so little value placed on clothing, the resources used to produce it or the people who make it. We, as consumers and as global citizens, deserve better from our wardrobes.”

"The majority of the people who make our clothes live in poverty. In fact, Oxfam estimates that it would take a major fashion CEO just 4 days to earn what a female garment worker in Bangladesh will earn in her entire lifetime."

Read more about our #ByeBuyFriday campaign & the shocking facts about Black Friday and the fast fashion industry.

Words to live (and shop) by: 8 pieces of advice

OK, that was a lot of useful information. But how can we make all this information into a practical part of our daily lives? Experts, can you hit us with your wisdom one more time please?
 

About self-love

Marieke Eyskoot:

“It’s okay to love yourself – don’t let this world pressure you into believing anything else.” 

“Make a list of things that make you happy. Make a list of what you do every day. Compare the lists. Adjust accordingly.”

Aja Barber:

“You are enough. What you wear doesn’t define you. What you do does.” 

About conscious consumerism

Aja Barber:

“Don’t go shopping when you’re feeling bad about yourself or wearing clothing you don’t love.” 

“Being the perfect ethical consumer isn't the point. Thinking about your consumption is.” 

“Sustainability is questioning whether you actually need a new dress or if you want a new dress.” 

Babette Porcelijn: 

“Consider sustainability as your starting point. Make it a top priority, not just a ‘feel good extra’.” 

And of course there's our co-founder Kim's '7 tips voor een duurzamere kledingkast'! The woman knows her stuff. From a fall cleaning Marie Kondo style, to buying less and more thoughtfully. She explains in what ways to be critical, talks slow fashion, taking good care of your clothes and repairing them – and that pre-loved or renting isn’t just for flats and cars.

Stay in touch and get inspired

As we’re wrapping up our Born to Buy blog, let us seize the opportunity to thank you.

Thank you for joining us in our never-ending endeavour to do better and to consume more consciously. Thank you for joining us in our pursuit to put the scam called Black Friday upside down and make Bye Buy Friday a day of solidarity instead.

You are awesome.

Can’t get enough of our experts and their words of wisdom? We feel you. Here’s how to find their books, newsletters and social accounts. Tell them we said hi!