Written by Sarah Malas.
The Consumer is not a Person. The Consumer is a role that a person plays. People are not what they own, or the number in their bank account. People live complicated lives playing many roles, including that of a consumer.
From a young age, students are explicitly taught about the role of a consumer through a first-person lens. The first time I ever felt like a consumer was through role-playing exercises in school. (students are given fake money to trade for treats or other “prizes.” Outside of school, I was taught budgeting from a very young age. My three sisters and I were each given 3 “money jars” each labeled “spending, saving, and church.” My childhood was filled with an idealized financial success. This unintentionally conditioned me to understand my future role under capitalism, to conform to the rules of capitalism without realizing it. While in later high school, the role of the consumer may be less idealized, and the problems but little to no solutions are provided. We are provided no other option than to be a consumer.
In fashion education, the idea of a consumer is abstracted. Through beginner level lecture courses like “user-centered design” we are focused on whether a garment was “usable” but not if it was “sellable” . While I agree with this ideology, it does not provide a practical sense of identity for the designer. Designers need to learn how to create for all people. Not themselves or the “consumer”.
When it comes to fashion, the distinction between “usability” and “sellability” is thin. With fast fashion, many garments are sold with the intention of only a few wears. In fact, on average an article of clothing is worn seven times before being thrown out. (The Wall Street Journal) How can people truly use an item of clothing if they are constantly purchasing new clothes and throwing them out? The volume of clothing is too high. The average amount of garments purchased by consumers had tripled since the 1980s. (The Wall Street Journal)
In design courses and studios we are taught an idealistic version of what being a “designer” is. Young fashion students exist in a state of delusion, assuming that their personal identity is valued above all else by the industry.
Valuing designer identity is good in theory, but with design being a less accessible career path, many designers do not identify with the majority of people that wear clothes, or the brands they work for. Many times, when designing in industry, the designer’s creative path for a garment is dictated by the sales team of the brand, and by trends. Most of the time sales gets the final say, and contributes to direction. The goal at the end of the day is to make a sellable product that people will find to be wearable.
The mass amounts of data that is collected through social media and consumer behavior does not define the person potentially buying the product. When researching for my Co-op at Natori, most of my time was spent coming up with an ideal consumer, or persona, to market to. I used a celebrity face, target gender and age, threw together some micro-trends and used a bit of imagination to create a consumer. This “persona” is not a person.
Brand identity is a tool used by the fashion industry to differentiate one brand from another. In today’s work of fashion this is necessary. Like in “The End of Fashion” there is no risk in modern day fashion. “Consumers” do not value identity, people do. Brands design for “consumers” to identify with that brand. All clothing looks the same now. Designers are designing for the “consumer” rather than for someone. Brands have no choice but to take risk since they entered the stock market. Since there is no risk taken, brands rely on micro-trends coming off the same basic silhouettes, to sell. In a mall, the only difference store to store is branding.
Although Hot Topic and Zumiez kind of sell the same sort of things, graphic tees, jeans, sneakers, etc. They have very different brand identities. (I haven’t been inside a mall in so long this is the best I can do) These places are differentiated by logos, music, and subculture. That is it. Period.
From a young age, we are introduced to brand loyalty, often wearing the same things as our friends during grade school. We are meant to identify with these brands marketed to us.
And it works, sort of. People, to some degree, can get a sense of identity from staying loyal to a brand. All through my adolescence, I was bombarded with “name brands”. These brands felt important. Without fully understanding why at age eight I understood that my friend’s name-brand crocs with the giblets were superior to my rubber clogs from target.
Brand Identity can force the role of the consumer onto a person. As social creatures, people have the natural desire to fit in. Capitalism instills a “we are what we buy” mentality.
How are we emotionally affected by consumerism in the media?
Under capitalism, we are often forced to equate worth with wealth. Our culture is obsessed with ownership and amassing things. Having many nice things can seem like a symbol of success and status. In America we see
Often, through the media, we are marketed to consume things out of shame or insecurity. We are told we can fix our problems by buying them away. If we fulfill our role as consumer well, we will be good enough by society's standards. In fashion specifically, it is not uncommon for clothes to me marketed as “figure-flattering.” Insinuating that your body can somehow be improved aesthetically be the garment.
It is impossible to exist on social media without playing the role as a consumer. Outside of sponsored posts on your feed, or shopping cart icons; your data literally makes you, as a consumer, the product. We follow creatives that inspire us, because we somehow identify with them or their art. Very soon we are being marketed to by these same people. Their role changes from consumer to marketer as they represent a brand, to a niche target market. This can make the consumer role hard to distinguish from personal identity.
People identifying as consumers in a free market
Consumption linked to patriotism
Ownership of “things” is linked to patriotism. The American dream is to go to school, get a job that makes decent money, have children, make more money, all for the purpose of things or status. The things that we consume give us a sense of identity.
The ownership of things can bring American’s the illusion of success. A nice car, white picket fence surrounding a nice house, are all status symbols in the minds of Americans. The accumulation of net wealth is a goal for most American families. This is a major piece of the American value system. But when do individuals feel satisfied with their means?
Capitalism has instilled individual greed in the minds of every American. The average worker is encouraged to work themselves to the pipe dream of a billionaire lifestyle. For many, the mass accumulation of wealth is the impossible dream most Americans pursue. We fetishize billionaires. The few who live lifestyles many of us will never come close to living, much less understanding. We invest in education, with the hopes of getting a well-paying job. We focus on our own careers, try to pay off debt, and create our own pool of wealth. We forget about our own neighbors struggling in our own city. When Capitalist Americans refute socialism, they often bring up the fact that some socialist countries have no selection of different brands at the grocery store, everyone buys the same thing. While there is nothing inherently wrong with having one brand of the same product, this is disturbing to Americans. Why? It takes away the illusion of competition between American workers. It starves the citizen of the “identity” they receive through purchase decisions. It feels unamerican and patriotic.