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A Lesson About Consumerism from my Grandma’s Closet

Aliyah writes about sustainable fashion choices, like finding vintage items that could be sitting unused in family closets.

When I was a kid, whenever it was time to visit my grandmother’s house, my mind would race at the thought of coming home with more clothes from her closet. Her closet has always been my favorite corner of the house. It’s located in a small hallway of her bedroom, the walls are replaced with closets made of glass sliding doors to display the clothes inside. I could sweep through a pile of clothes or shift the hangers on the rack of her closet all day and still, I wouldn’t get bored or exhausted. My eyes would scan every single piece of clothing and would hastily pick it up whenever I felt like it suited my own style. Up until now some of the pieces still exist in my childhood home’s closet. 

I was at the age that wished time moved faster until I became an adult, so trying to play the part by wearing my grandma’s clothes brought a form of satisfaction that brought me closer to being a grown-up. Hunting pieces that are not common for girls my age would wear, from jackets to dresses, I wanted them all. The many outfit combinations in my head begged me to pair them with the cool outerwear I got from her closet. I would always think that it’s cool to wear adult clothes until I learned that it wasn’t. 

I learned that buying new clothes is the coolest thing someone can do. Girls in my class would very proudly brag about the time they went shopping at brands like Forever 21 or Pull & Bear. They would never brag about the time they got a hand me down from their siblings or parents— bragging was only allowed when you shop at foreign fast fashion brands. The more clothes that you buy, the more jealous people become of you and try to jump into the bandwagon as well. So I did what any rational 11-year-old would do at the time, I followed what was cool to win the approval of my peers. Hello, fast fashion brands, goodbye hunting pieces from my grandma’s closet. 

Looking back at the phenomenon it’s a pretty foolish belief that we had, but I was not surprised looking at the circumstances that surround it. Youtube was just starting to grow as an entertainment platform for both creators and audiences, amongst those contents, are hauls videos. These videos really had their peak in the early 2010s, however, the number might show a significant growth remembering the constant rise of creators on the platform. In 2013 Youtube disclosed that there are more than 800,000 videos with the word haul in the title. As someone who just began to youtube around that time, I might’ve watched one or two videos about my favorite YouTuber doing these types of videos. Their influence was so paramount that I couldn’t help but also want to shop and purchase those items. 

Research in 2011 found out how much haul videos influence the viewers, especially young girls. Which highly convinces young girls to purchase these products to dress up like these influencers because it’s the thing that’s deemed cool by a figure of “authority” additionally the comments also encourages other viewers that it’s worth trying the product. 

Then began my short-lived obsession with purchasing new clothes from fast fashion brands. I remember keeping notes on my phone to see which of these stores that I haven’t bought from yet. In one instance, I really wanted to get my hands on one of the Bethany Mota Aeropostale lines; the only thing was that the brand was not available in my country. In the end, I had to fly to a neighbouring country just to step into the Aeropostale store. The trip ends up in disappointment when the store doesn’t even carry the Bethany Mota line (this was way before I knew how to shop online). 

Then it started, the mountain of clothes residing in my closet from the countless trips I make to the mall. My closet door was already broken at the time and the addition of new clothes is only making it worse. Even when I was a kid, trends pretty much came and went so I ended up just following suit. I remember when varsity jackets were all the rave and all of my friends were telling me to get one because it would look very cool if all of us wore it. Then the inevitable happened, that varsity jacket only lasted for about 3-4 months, before I moved on to another cooler and newer trendy piece of clothing. 

Looking back at it, I remember that I was never satisfied with any purchases I made; I was not fast enough to properly dress like the majority. It made me feel very empty, and I always had the urge to just have more clothes. Purchasing fast fashion clothes in Indonesia is already considered a luxury and privilege for some people since the prices are categorised as “expensive” here. Consequently, my money is being spent on clothes that will just sit prettily in my closet after a couple of months of wear. 

This is exactly how fast fashion companies guide their consumers to think and purchase, to get their hands on the latest clothing trends. Luxury and high-end brands who are much more “ethical” are often unattainable for some thus many turned into the easy, cheap, and accessible option provided by fast fashion brands. Due to the high rate of production and cheap clothes, environment, ethical and health consideration is out of the question for these companies. From low wage rates to high use of water is very common malpractice for any fast fashion companies production. 

With capitalism, these companies are expecting a high profit from their product attracting consumers with cheaper prices along with faster and trendier clothes. It’s really hard to resist the temptation of buying clothes from fast fashion brands, they will lure you in with discounts or sales and promo codes, ensuring you get the lowest price possible in exchange for new clothes on your hands. With such a scheme, it’s easy for these fast fashion brands to generate more profit, even at the cost of the environment and the poor working condition of the workers in the supply chain and it’s the only reason why they stayed on top. It’s hard to get accountability due to the existing laws and loopholes that prevent companies from getting the consequences they deserve. 

Nonetheless, there will always be a demand for fast fashion items that will always circulate the society. The fast-fashion consumers are most likely driven by social context rather than the pure need and want of a particular item. Celebrity and influencers played a vital role in instigating these purchases from modern men and women, reflecting the urge to dress like their favorite celebrities and influencers on a budget. Such consumption is a reflection of someone’s social aspirations through the image that they want to convey. Accordingly, these fast-fashion retailers will react quickly to trends worn and popularised by influencers and celebrities, feeding the consumers with the promise of looking just like these celebrities and influencers  

Just like that consumerism had become a very common practice in the fashion industry. Sites like Fashion Nova and Missguided can publish up to 600 to 900 different products each week feeding the consumers the desire to own the newest capsule collection. Giving them plenty of choices to shop cheaply, they are not playing for quality but they are paying for the sake of being in trend at the moment and disposable.

It’s no secret that humans long for validation and fitting in seems to be the main thing people search. According to Joanna Cannon, a Psychiatrist and the author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep told Psychology Today “Familiarity is the social glue that bonds people together, and we deliberately seek out the similar and recognizable in order to feel secure.” We don’t naturally seek to be the odd one out, being surrounded by those who look similar is very comforting, in return we feel validated. 

Even when the market demand has slowly shifted to become more conscious and sustainable, consumerism still pretty much exists. According to a McKinsey survey about fashion sustainability sentiment, about 67% of 2,000 respondents in the UK and Germany believe that sustainable practice to be an important aspect of a purchase. With consumers becoming more informed and conscious about the effect of fast fashion with social media playing an integral role in educating and raising awareness about fashion sustainability in general. The sector itself had reached a value near $6.35 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a rapid rate until 2023. Indicating the increasing demand of the fashion sector over the last few years. 

McKinsey & Company Survey

As a reaction many opt to purchase from ethical and sustainable brands, resulting in brands being more transparent upon their production to appeal to more consumers. The spotlight on sustainable and ethical businesses such as Patagonia or Alohas is currently at large, giving them the chance to really shine through the new demand for sustainable clothing. However, fast fashion is quick to come up with solutions to help their business be seen as “sustainable”. Brands like H&M had launched their sustainable line H&M “CONSCIOUS” implementing natural, innovative and sustainable fibers. Other fast fashion companies include Zara that launched their sustainability goals by 2025 (which had some skepticism) promising the use of organic materials which includes cotton, linen, polyester, and zero landfill waste. 

H&M 2021 Conscious Line

Aside from whether such claims were true or not, many seem to buy into the ethical and sustainable clothes trends even more than before. According to a Fashion Revolution survey in 2020 many would prefer brands that had openly talked about their sustainable goals and are being transparent about their production, so it would be understandable to start to see a rise in activity such as thrifting and buying secondhand. Ever since the pandemic started the rise of online thrifting has been huge, sites like Poshmark, Thred-Up and Depop are notorious for the variety of selection for second-hand goods. In return, the hype of buying ethical and sustainable clothes has really transcended to be the new cool. 

It’s interesting to see the dynamic of purchases and trends through these experiences, consumers would try to justify bulk buying through the label of sustainability or ethics. The narrative of buying secondhand or something ethical and sustainable is the ultimate loophole to buy more clothes without having to feel guilty. We want to make sure that our purchases are not going to cost anyone or anything along the supply chain, thus the constant buying of ethical and sustainable clothes makes us feel better. However, such action is still orchestrated upon the consumerism culture that is practically written into our buying habits.

The rise of thrift culture or buying ethical and sustainable in general is something captivating at least for me. Despite the rise of demand for sustainable and ethical clothes, it doesn’t change our buying pattern. We are still purchasing just as we used to, consumerism is still pretty much there and exists even when we are more conscious about the clothes we buy. The many social media infographics and influencers are encouraging their audiences to shop consciously, just like before with fast fashion people tend to get influenced to buy sustainable and ethical clothes. It is seen as impressive and trendy by most people to keep buying the sustainable and feels validated about their action.

I have personally seen people justifying buying secondhand or thrifting as something ethical and sustainable, but yet they had purchased such clothes from abroad. The action of buying second-hand definitely has some degree of sustainability or ethicality within it but ultimately they did not take into account the shipping journey that the package went through. Other times, people purchase as many second-hand clothes as possible, while leaving no stock for the next person to buy. Despite defending themselves by using our own money or if it’s ethical to do so, in the end, our consumerism culture perpetrated such actions even with buying a bulk of ethical and sustainable clothes. 

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Again it’s very interesting to see how the market shifts in under 10 years to become more conscious, despite the flaws in anything sustainable and ethical about fashion, it’s not what this piece is focused about. The phenomenon of consumerism culture is pretty much etched into everyone’s buying patterns, even to those who shop consciously. It is worth noting how the market shifts in the right direction and we are much closer to finding a much more rigid solution about sustainable and ethical fashion going into the future. Hoping that whatever we do now will help these companies to take action upon sustainable and ethical clothes production. 

Then I realise a couple of things from this whole experience; number one is how trends will always change. I know this particular point, but it never really dawned on me how it changed and really affected me as a person. Now every time I look at the displays of fast fashion brands, my eyes squint thinking about the journey that it went through and the hands that had helped to create these specific clothes. With that, I also come to terms with the things that I actually find interesting and worth trying. 

Which comes the next and last lesson from this whole lesson, my journey to find my own style. I tried to disassociate myself with such disposable trends and rather invest in pieces that I actually fancy and would sustain years from now. Which is something that I found bitter at first because I can’t look like the majority, coming to terms with the way I don’t have to win anyone’s approval to dress the way I like. Only then can we detach shallow trends from our closet, praying that we don’t have to keep spending money on new trends to be seen as cool.

Now that I’ve been in a pandemic long enough, one of the few things I wish is to just dive into my grandmother’s closet again. With a new perspective, I’ll find pieces that I would actually wear and fit my whole image. And when the time comes I shall spend the whole day there, curating those clothes to end up in my closet.  

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