Should fashion be dematerialized?

There is too much stuff. Practically nowhere in the world is untouched by trash, and one of the largest contributors is the fashion industry. This problem has sparked a growing discussion focused on less consumption and fashion dematerialization. Is that even possible, though? What would replace physical products like clothes, bags, and shoes? And should dematerialization be prioritized over other initiatives like environmentally sustainable production?

The constant consumption of material items has some believing that industries like fashion should consider dematerializing.

On November 26th, The Business of Fashion published an Op-Ed by fashion marketer and communication specialist Aaron Chamberland. The article's premise was: fashion brands need to focus on selling intangible products instead of material items like clothes and accessories. In a quote that could have been inspired by fictional character Andy Sachs, Aaron writes, "To be blunt, we're enticing people to spend more money on more things they don't need to create impressions that won't last on people they don't care about while sacrificing our world." His view is that the constant consumption that fashion brands, and, by extension, the fashion industry, promote is hurting the planet and ultimately harming us. He's not wrong. Fashion is an industry focused on material products, and for businesses in the industry to grow, more material products need to be sold. If fashion were dematerialized, a host of environmental and social issues could be solved, including waste, air pollution, working conditions for garment makers, and perhaps inequality between economic standings. The only problem is, an industry that so heavily relies on material products would need a replacement if it were to dematerialize.


Experiences and content could replace physical products, but only to a point.

In his article, Aaron suggested experiences and digital content should be used to supplement sales as fashion brands dematerialize their offerings. On the surface this seems like a good idea; intangible products can't go out of style the same way low-cut jeans did. Unfortunately, when every brand offers experiences, content, and community, it is no longer worth it for consumers to buy them. A brand like Gap could sell access to an exclusive community forum and find some success with the concept amongst their most loyal customers. But when H&M starts offering a subscriber-only newsletter and Gucci decides to host monthly in-store get-togethers, Gap's community forum is suddenly is a less profitable idea. First, consumers only have so much time, and when all their favorite brands ask them to participate in an event or read a newsletter, it becomes overwhelming. Consumers will choose between Gap, H&M, and Gucci, and very few will choose all three. Second, consumers only have so much money. The idea is that the money they previously spent on clothes would now be spent on non-material items, but in the end, most consumers are still going to buy material products.


In the end, consumers want material items.

The fashion industry is based on consumers' desire for stuff they don't need. Despite environmental sustainability and social equality becoming more important topics, shopping for new items has continued, even during the current economic downturn. Buying a new purse or jacket is not just about buying what you need to hold your keys or keep you warm; for many consumers fashion is about expressing themselves through what they wear. Even if a portion of shoppers starts consuming fewer material products, it is highly unlikely that every person worldwide will decide to purchase intangible experiences instead of new clothes. As long as there are consumers that want to materialized fashion, there will be brands that sell it.


Commentary:

The idea of buying less is not new. Aaron Chamberland reiterated a point that many in the fashion industry have been discussing for years. However, Aaron's piece was unique in that he called the focus on environmentally sustainable production, essentially a waste of time. The opening paragraph of his op-ed says, "[W]e need to dig deeper and see that it's not how we manufacture but why we manufacture that is the root of the problem." This sentence, and the article as a whole, was well-received by readers who agree with the need to produce less materialized fashion. Outside of this group of fashion-conscious readers, though, are billions of people who don't think about their new purchases' environmental impact. They will continue to buy cheap, material items, whether the brand they shop from offers dematerialized options or not. When Aaron writes that making clothing production sustainable is a waste of time, he assumes that the alternative — consuming less — is a viable option.

Also, suggesting that brands focus on non-material experiences instead of environmentally sustainable products is avoiding the central issue. Fashion needs to be investing in circularity and biodegradability and not just trying to convince consumers to buy less stuff. In the end, consumers will keep buying physical products. No matter how much brands, activists, and the media push for less consumption, there will always be a group of consumers that will use up more than their fair share of natural resources and dispose of more trash than the average person. Brands can't change consumer habits, but they can neutralize them by ensuring that the products available to shoppers don't hurt the planet.