Spread of fashion undermines sustainability

One of America’s foremost critics of our consuming ways is Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak this week in Portland.

Among the many observations that jumped out at me in her lecture was what she called “the aesthetization of American life.” Not sure that’s a word, but the point is fast-changing fashion, long the staple of the apparel industry, is now central to the selling of many retail products. In recent years, furniture, cellphone, home electronics and other manufacturers have joined clothing makers in emphasizing the design — or aesthetic appeal — of their products. A New York Times piece yesterday, appropriately headlined “Hoping to Make Phone Buyers Flip,” helped make Schor’s point:

Like fashion or entertainment, the cellphone industry is increasingly hit-driven, and new models that do not fly off the shelves within weeks of their debut are considered duds.

I like attractive, well-designed products as much as the next person. However, when it becomes industry’s prevailing practice to change product designs with the season and encourage us to discard perfectly good items because they are no longer “fashionable,” then we have a problem. Making more of the products we buy fashion statements only encourages us to purchase more. This may bolster the financial bottom lines of producers and retailers. But it puts the world’s environmental bottom line further in the red.

To illustrate her point, Schor projected a graph from the World Wildlife Foundation’s Living Planet Report 2006. You can access the report here. According to the WWF:

The Living Planet Report 2006 confirms that we are using the planet’s resources faster than they can be renewed — the latest data available (for 2003) indicate that humanity’s Ecological Footprint, our impact on the planet, has more than tripled since 1961. Our footprint now exceeds the world’s ability to regenerate by about 25 per cent…This global trend suggests we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history…Effectively, the Earth’s regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand — people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste into resources.

WWF offers several alternatives to our unsustainable (and potentially catastrophic) “business as usual” course of human development. If you’re wondering what you can do, start by examining your consumption choices. Resist the urge to stay at fashion’s leading edge, no matter the product. Buy less stuff. When you do make purchases, reward producers and retailers who embrace sustainability.

And if it’s aesthetics you value, ask yourself this: What better designer than Mother Nature?

March 1st, 2008

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