We tend to lament the fact that our mobile phones are seemingly built in a way that their peak performance will expire after about two years. Officially, there’s a term for this: Planned Obsolescence. Anyone notice how our clothes’ vibrancy and quality don’t last, either?
1340 words; 6 mins read
Updated 5 Nov 2018
Last week, French consumer protection authorities initiated an investigation in response to reports that Apple deliberately shortened the life span or effectiveness of its products in order to prompt increased consumer demand to replace them.
In December 2017 Apple acknowledged it intentionally slowed down iPhones with older batteries, but said the move was made to extend the life of its products.
In reality however, planned obsolescence is not a new concept.
Planned obsolescence occurs when a product designer creates a design that is meant to phase out after a certain period of time. This makes the product have a lifespan of a limited duration, often influencing consumers to upgrade to a more expensive or newer model.
For example, light bulbs may burn out right after their warranty period, non-removable batteries may be used on certain electronics, spare parts may not be available for certain vehicles, and fashion trends may make clothing quickly come out of style.
What’s bad about Planned Obsolescence is that it makes it obvious to the consumer that products that we buy cannot be considered a ‘forever’ investment, but as a ‘good for a few years’ kind of purchase. As a result, we have to fork out more of our hard-earned money to buy more new things, even if the product or a part of the product is working completely fine. Think about the amount of energy, resources and money that all of this needs. Not to mention the amount of waste that we as a society generate from this model. The reason? For companies to make moolah, simple as that.
On the plus side, our disposable habits sustain jobs for people who design and produce stuff. But does this mean this is the right thing to do?
The right thing to do is to keep honing and at the same time nurture the right skills. Skills from people who repair stuff. Yup, we need to mend things more – clothes, shoes, buckles, buttons. Fix things by servicing, give parts some lubricant, change over mechanism, replace the inner workings of a computer or fridge or clock. Yes, at some point things do break down. But they should really be designed to last forever. In the case of buying software, for example, the argument to support buying a new version of Microsoft Office for light personal use, is less than compelling to me.
It’s funny that some things we want to last forever – like diamonds, and Rolex watches and grandma's vintage wedding gown. But some things we don’t give a stuff about. Why is this? Why can’t we appreciate things that we have now, tomorrow? Or twenty years from now? Or fifty?
We’ve been conditioned to think this is the way things are, so we accept it, but I can tell you – it wasn’t always like this. It all started with the American automotive industry back in the 1920’s. Read up on this topic on Wikipedia.
What’s tragic about this whole concept is that there are two dimensions to it: The functional obsolescence of a product, and the perceived obsolescence of a product. In the world of electronics and some moving parts, there may be an argument that obsolescence is necessary, but it’s really limited to innovation (and even so, one may argue this isn’t genuine innovation) and so-called product improvement.
In the world of fashion, it’s obvious the reason we buy new clothes more regularly than our previous generations was because of the heavy influence of ‘trends’ and the affordability of ‘not made to last’ garments – hence, ‘perceived’ obsolescence. I admit, I still have many friends who shop for function and purpose. But a growing number of young people are buying clothes to get a kick out of having something new, not necessarily because they actually need it. Planned Obsolescence that play with our minds; the psychological form of it. We wear clothes to protect our body from the elements, to play sports, to go to work. There are functional elements to these. But buying clothes when your wardrobe is still full of items you hardly wear? There’s no real necessity.
This 2012 published paper by several authors from universities in USA, Canada and Hong Kong has looked into the rise of Fast Fashion and how this new wave of consumerism makes a case for Luxury Brands to champion the sustainability movement in the industry. (I shall touch on sustainability leaders in the fashion industry in later weeks.)
In it, a number of participants, aged between 21 and 35 were surveyed about their purchasing habits in relation to their personal values. It summarises that even though some participants have an increased awareness of environmental issues and aligned their actions to positively impact the cause, they don’t relate consuming cheap chic as a contributor of environmental monstrosity.
The study also confirms the unnecessary consumption of fashion due to purely aesthetics reasons. As one student participant eloquently puts it, “…when I see it on the catwalks or in magazines, I want it immediately.”
On perceived obsolescence, the study quotes Abrahamson (2011), in that he observes "Fashion, more than any other industry in the world, embraces obsolescence as a primary goal; fast fashion simply raises the stakes.”
"Fashion, more than any other industry in the world, embraces obsolescence as a primary goal; fast fashion simply raises the stakes.”
Is there a case for making products that last, though? Of course! Encouragingly, there are brands out there that have garnered true fans from around the world by being ‘forever’ brands that consumers can rely on, even with normal wear and tear of their products. Case in point: Osprey, the bag/backpack manufacturer, whose “All Mighty Guarantee” promises their customers that “..they will repair any damage or defect for any reason free of charge – whether it was purchased in 1974 or yesterday. If we are unable to perform a functional repair on your pack, we will happily replace it.”
Here is a link compiled in 2016 of brands that have lifetime or limited guarantees on their products.
Have you heard of Fairphone? It’s second-generation mobile phone, which was released in 2015, made a virtue of having components that could be easily swapped out by the device's owners, even if they had no technical skills to speak of. By making a device with simple-to-replace parts, Fairphone is well on its way to reverse the Planned Obsolescence strategy; by extending the lifetime of its smartphones by fixing what’s broken only.
In a way, this notion of thinking about the lifecycle of a product can be attributed to extended producer responsibility (EPR), or product stewardship.
In the meantime, we have to change our own ways of thinking. Green Alliance, a charity and independent think tank in the UK, encourages a #circular economy where people repair, sell, and re-use devices – check out their 2015 report on opportunities in the UK, USA and India for the technology industry here. Perhaps the fashion industry needs a similar alliance!
Hopefully you as a consumer are wise enough to understand that even though we are part of this wheel of mass consumption, we can break away from it, little by little with the value of every dollar spent. Spend it on the things you absolutely need, and on brands that will value you.
From now on, every time you’re faced with an impulse to buy a dress off the racks just for occasional use, just think out loud: will you be tricked again? Dollars speak volumes. The signal you’re sending to Fast Fashion will be much louder, and clearer.
Join us in our Slow Fashion movement with the hashtag #ConscientiousFashionista and #wardrobetruths on Instagram, and follow us at @fashinfidelity.
Tags: #conscientiousfashionista #fastfashion #slowfashion #ethicalfashion #wardrobetruths #fashioneducation #obsolescence #plannedobsolescence #fashionisnolongertrendy #tricksofthetrade #fashion #gadgets #technology #circularity #circulareconomy #plannedobsolescence
Abrahamson, Eric (2011) “The Iron Cage: Ugly, Cool and Unfashionable.” Organization Studies 32: pp615–29.
Why It's Normal That Stella McCartney's Latest Campaign Was Shot In A Landfill (web), last accessed 16 Jan 2018.
Increased fetishising of cheap clothes has led us to prioritise quantity over quality. With this degradation in the fashion landscape, has fashion itself lost its meaning? Grandma might have a thing or two to say about it.
1529 words; 7 min read
Updated 5 Nov 2018
The phrase “fast fashion” refers to low-cost clothing collections that mimic current luxury fashion trends. Fast fashion helps sate deeply held desires among young (and not-so-young) consumers for luxury fashion, a world that embodies pieces of clothing, high-end jewellery, and jetsetting lifetyles that is unattainable to many.
The changing fashion landscape, however, has undoubtedly led to the degradation of society as consumers. And we’re not wholly to blame for it. Read on to understand why.
There used to be structure in fashion
Believe it or not, once upon a time, there was structure. The production model was based on a critical distinction between 'fashion' and 'garment'. At the top of the tree was couture. Its unique selling proposition (USP) was the amount of skilled labour inherent in every piece. The look was in the hands of the #designer and creator, and the volume of repeated pieces was limited to tens at the most. Final finishings were typically #handmade, and the buyer might not see the finished product until the very end of the process. Guess where the fashion weeks come from? You guessed it, and this cycle occurs twice a year only. (Check out this great low-down on Haute Couture by British Vogue.)
And then there was Ready to Wear, or Prêt-à-Porter. Ready-to-wear has rather different connotations in the spheres of fashion and classic clothing. In the fashion industry, designers produce ready-to-wear clothing, intended to be worn without significant alteration because clothing made to standard sizes fits most people. They use standard patterns, factory equipment, and faster construction techniques to keep costs low, compared to a custom-sewn version of the same item. Some fashion houses and fashion designers produce mass-produced and industrially manufactured ready-to-wear lines but others offer garments that are not unique but are produced in limited numbers (industrialised limited cuts.)
And then there are the basics. Like your jeans, your t-shirts, and undergarments. This is the structure.
Fast-forward to now, Fast Fashion has unsustainably fed our wardrobes by linking everything we buy to have a direct lineage to the runway somehow. We've entered a new era of consumption (or, as you may recognise as 'fashion') where we can now 'design' styles inspired by the runway and hang garments in a shop rail in as quick as three weeks. Even wardrobe basics are expected to be infused with the aura of big design and big designers. So-called style trends followed, once we kept up with more carbon copy production and consumers started purchasing and wearing the same pieces.
“We live not according to reason, but according to fashion.” – Seneca
The degradation of the fashion landscape
It’s genius, though. For consumers, not for the environment. As stated above, most people see high end luxury as something unattainable. This world conjures up images of exclusivity, beauty and art, and dream-like settings. In a way, Fast Fashion fills that void in that our fantasies can now come true.
Our thirst to fulfil this dream is so big though, that it cannot be fed completely, and it’s ever-lasting. The couture houses are now seemingly perpetuating the problem, too. Instead of only producing two seasons’ worth of collections, we now have other ones gracing the runways – ‘capsule collection’, ‘resort collection’, 'pre-fall', and similar.
The Zara production model for example (I'll discuss this later on) focuses on the creation of smaller-than-average production batches to overcome the dizzying rates at which trends evolve, which in turn provides for limited floor stocks for its designers' creations. As a result, the average consumer, seeing the last pair of size 8 blazer on the shelves that fit her, is then tricked into thinking affordable 'fashion' will be gone forever if you don't snatch it now. Harvard researchers (2004) have described this drives a sort of hunger... 'a sense of tantalising exclusivity.'
What this means for us
There's a sweet irony to all of this. The industry's foray into 'dynamic' fashion has created a consumerism monster – and as a consequence, they are constantly chasing their own tail. This pandemonium is what ultimately keeps the weaves turning.
It is then fair to observe that the industry's meteoric rise due to Fast Fashion has peaked, and it's on a spiralling comedown. Fast Fashion has become a bit ugly, and tacking it is like getting into an argument with someone who's physically bigger than you, that is difficult to neutralise.
In the meantime, in people's homes all around the industrialised nations, this is the resultant reality we're faced with. Picture this: your burgeoning wardrobe with clothes hanging out of them with tags still on. The rush of people busting at the doors at Boxing Day sales. The way we simply just throw away our clothes because they were a 'bargain' discounted buy, purchased for a mere $5.
The problem with attainable cheap ‘fashion’, is that you have too much choice. Ask yourself this: despite your hard to shut drawers and fat wardrobe, philosophically speaking, it is highly likely you won't be happy with what you got. Essentially, how many mornings you do wake up to go to work, a party, a wedding, a dinner date… Thinking you can’t find ANYTHING to wear?
"Maybe all your clothes should past the Grandma test."
All is not lost, however.
I remember my conversations with my grandmother when she talks about how she bought her washing machine two decades ago and it’s still going, after about three repaired breakdowns. She comes from a generation that repairs and mends things, not throw them away because they’re a little troubled. I always thought grandma’s philosophy of quality over quantity was potent advice that made sense. Her words of wisdom have stayed with me and have gotten me through lots of hype over my growing up years.
Maybe all your clothes should past the Grandma test.
Grandma’s right though, isn’t she? Quality always wins over quantity. Except for children’s clothes, I get that (in some cases though, not all.) In grandma’s world, the hand-me-down philosophy makes perfect sense for children in a family. I never wore new clothes when I was younger. I always wore dad’s daggy work pants that he stopped wearing, the ones with the pleats. And did I end up an adult with negative scars from my ‘styling’ sense? I don’t think so.
I am nowhere close to say I can conjure up Grandma's memories and things that bring her nostalgia. She'd been through the war so I have no authority whatsoever on the topic. But I don't think it's quite a stretch to say I am sick of mass consumerism. Can we bring art, beauty, dreams, and exclusivity back please? I’d really like to see the end of Fast Fashion, pronto. How many times have you walked in a clothing shop for a browse, and thought to yourself: Wow, these cheap, polyester blend clothes on the racks are so….. unattractive! And uninspiring! And quickly thought that window shopping idea was a bad one?
Grandma doesn't go out anymore because of her bad legs, but I'd be ashamed to take her clothes shopping at the mall. It's beyond embarrassing. She taught me lots, and I can attribute my sense of style to her. She instilled in me that we can have our own luxuries in life – from the few 'good' things we own – that we will treasure forever. That's why we appreciate the clothes from their era so much. The fabric, the stitching, the way the seams were put together. You can actually feel the luxury.
When grandma reminisces on the good ol’ days and you see that spark in her eyes... you know she means better quality products, better quality clothes, better quality furniture. Yes, contrast this to the story about the burgeoning wardrobe above.
Which brings me to this: are we only pretending to feel good in our cheap clothes?
Well, maybe you can change that today. Try buying quality-made products that lasts you more than thirty wears. Can we look at buying clothes a bit differently from now on? Be a little rebellious. Invest in something you really love when you're next at the shops, something that would make your grandma proud.
Stay tuned for the next write-up!
Join us in our Slow Fashion movement with the hashtag #ConscientiousFashionista and #wardrobetruths on Instagram, and follow us at @fashinfidelity.
Tags: #createyourtrend #styleoverfashion #liberation #freeyourself #fastfashion #slowfashion #ethicalfashion #responsiblefashion #intentionalpurchasing #fashioneducation #wardrobetruths #whomademyclothes #fashionisnolongertrendy #grandmaknowsbest
References: "Rapid-Fire Fulfillment," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 82, No.11, November 2004.