Fast, cheap and out of control: How hyper-consumerism drives us mad

Hyper-fast, hyper-modern markets demand more, new, now. But all this choice is inefficient and damaging

Published November 2, 2014 8:30PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Jim Young)
(Reuters/Jim Young)

Excerpted from "Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left"

Market capitalism has long been associated not only with rationality but also with the freedom of choice. By the latter half of the twentieth century, economic principles defined reason as much as reason characterized markets. Rationality came to be defined largely by what made economic sense, and what was not in a person’s, a company’s, or a country’s economic self-interest was considered irrational by definition. Choice, defined by economic logic, came to be widely considered an unquestionable good—the more choices, the better. Within this regime, freedom of choice is little more than the freedom to buy and consume. According to this logic, economic progress can be measured by the increasing number of choices that consumers have. Though rarely acknowledged, increasing the number of choices is really less about improving human well-being than it is about expanding the market.

Think of it: 48,800 items in the average American supermarket, 500 or more stations on satellite TV, 125 beverage options in a single Coke machine, 65 different styles with 140 color and fabric options—a total of 9,100 options from a single dress company, a new Nook with 700,000 Google apps. Does this endless proliferation of consumer products really give people more choices or just different variations of the same options? Is it really true that more choices are always better?

Modernization’s strategy of planned obsolescence, entrepreneurs’ insistence on incessant innovation, and modernism’s dedication to making it new intersect in the world of contemporary fashion to expose the irrationality and inefficiency of today’s markets. Modernism, we have seen, is defined by its thoroughgoing commitment to the new or, more precisely, to an endless process of renewal. Though rarely acknowledged, what artists promote as a stance of radical critique in the name of creative innovation turns out to reinforce the very economic forces many of them claim to resist. Since the new must always be renewed, something like planned obsolescence is intrinsic to modern art. While the avant garde endorses as an aesthetic ideal that which often seems utterly impractical, for industry and finance it is actually both practical and necessary for economic growth. If the market is to flourish, the excessive is indispensable, the frivolous essential, and the useless useful. This is not to suggest that the lines joining the avant-garde and expanding markets are clear or direct. To the contrary, much innovative modern art struggles to subvert market forces. Yet as we have seen in our consideration of hedge funds and private equity funds for art, the market has extraordinary recuperative powers that enable it to incorporate opposition and turn resistance to its own ends. When artistic resistance is transformed into economic promotion, high art is popularized and commodified and commodities are further aestheticized.

Nowhere are these dynamics more clearly on display than in today’s fast-fashion industry. If fashion is essentially modern, fast fashion is quintessentially postmodern. When the introduction of greater product differentiation and product cycles during fall and spring fashion seasons didn’t meet the endless demand for greater profits and faster economic growth, there seemed to be only one solution—shift gears yet again and speed up the engines of production even more. In her revealing book "Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion," Elizabeth L. Cline reports: “Fast fashion is a radical method of retailing that has broken from seasonal selling and puts out new inventory constantly throughout the year. Fast-fashion merchandise is typically priced much lower than its competitors’. The fast-fashion concept was pioneered by Spain’s Zara, which delivers new lines twice a week in its stores. H&M and Forever 21 both get daily shipments of new styles.” Fast fashion is high-speed, high-volume trading in the world of commerce. Just as financial firms can make a little money on a few bets or a lot of money on a lot of bets, so can those in the fashion industry make a lot of money on a few items, in couture, or a little money on a lot of items, with fast fashion.

Taking a page out of the playbook of industrial scientific management, fast-fashion entrepreneurs integrate supply, design, production, and distribution as tightly as possible. One important innovation in fast fashion is to reverse the trend of outsourcing production to distant countries in order to cut the time required to get products into stores. New technologies now make it possible to gather, process, and transmit massive amounts of data about consumer preferences at high speed, thereby enabling the market to adjust to demand faster than ever before. A Harvard Business School white paper, “Zara’s Secret for Fashion,” reports that “this ‘fast fashion’ system depends on a constant exchange of information throughout every part of Zara’s supply chain—from customers to store managers, from store managers to market specialists and designers, from designers to production staff, from buyers to subcontractors, from warehouse managers to distributors, and so on.” In contrast to distributed networks that have become so “fashionable” in the past few decades, Zara’s extraordinary success depends on a much more centralized network for managing both material and immaterial flows. The results have been impressive. “Zara’s designers create approximately 40,000 new designs annually, from which 10,000 are selected for production. Some of them resemble the latest couture creations. But Zara often beats the high-fashion houses to the market and offers almost the same products made with less expensive fabric at much lower prices. Since most garments come in five to six colors and five to seven sizes, Zara’s system has to deal with something in the realm of 300,000 new stock-keeping units on average, every year.”

If mass production had to produce mass consumption, fast fashion has to produce hyper-fast, hyper-mass consumption. The marketing strategy of the fast-fashion industry is to encourage the shortest of short-term decision making by encouraging impulse buying in two ways. First, items are priced high enough to maximize profit margins but low enough so people do not hesitate to make purchases because of price; second, merchants introduce and remove stuff so fast that customers worry that the item they are thinking of buying won’t be available the next day. As fashion seasons give way to incessant “innovation,” conspicuous consumption becomes constant consumption. The strategy of accelerating the change of styles to draw customers back to stores as often as possible has proved to be remarkably successful. The American clothing industry today is a $12 billion business and the average American family spends $1,700 on clothes. Cline observes, “Nowadays, an annual budget of $1700 can buy a staggering surfeit of clothing, including 485 ‘Fab Scoopneck’ tops from Forever 21 or 340 pairs of ladies’ sandals from Family Dollar or 163 pairs of seersucker Capri pants from Goody’s or 56 pairs of Mossimo ‘Skinny Utility’ cargo pants from Target or 47 pairs of glitter platform wedges from Charlotte Russe or 11 men’s Dockers suits from JCPenney or 6 Lauren by Ralph Lauren sequin evening gowns.” In much of Europe, where fast fashion started, the situation is even crazier. In an article entitled “Britain’s Bulging Closet: Growth of ‘Fast Fashion’ Means Women Are Buying HALF Their Body Weight in Clothes Each Year,” Paul Sims reports that the average woman in England has twenty-two garments hanging in her closet that she has never worn and will spend on average $201,000 on clothing during her lifetime.

In an effort to meet growing demand from people whose high-speed lives don’t even leave them enough time to shop, some companies are combining fast fashion and mass customization. According to Adeline Koh, a company named Stitch Fix combines algorithms “with human oversight to create a personalized consumer experience. When you sign up for Stitch Fix, you fill out a very extensive style profile along with notes about your own personal preferences. All this algorithmically generates some suggestions tailored for you. The results then go to your personal stylist, who takes these suggestions and any of your own detailed notes (e.g. you hate frills; you want something in stripes), skims through your online profiles for a sense of your style (such as your Pinterest boards), and finally makes a selection to send to you. Stitch Fix then sends you five items (clothes and accessories), in a ‘fix’ (or shipment).” Prices are not fixed but are customized to fit within each consumer’s budget. The company’s website boasts, “Our unique process tracks each customer’s preferences over time, making Stitch Fix the only shopping experience that can learn as much about women as their favorite shopping partners.” Style profiles provide valuable information that can be used in future advertising and promotions. For many people, fashion is as addictive as the technology that delivers it. To insure increasing product churn, Stitch Fix fixes can be scheduled monthly or as often as customers would like.

The trend of product cycle acceleration is not limited to fashion; it can be found in all sectors of the economy. In Japan, for example, the preoccupation with the new has led to inefficiencies that are creating problems for the country’s one-time leader in consumer electronics—Sony. In an article entitled “Fad-Loving Japan May Derail a Sony Smartphone,” Hiroko Tabuchi writes, “For years, Japan’s three largest mobile network companies have pressed phone makers . . . to update their handsets every three or four months. Phones with digital TV broadcast receivers were once all the rage; a phone without it was never going to sell. Then it was thumbprint scans; you’d be hard pressed to find those on many phones today. The same is true of swiveling screens, and to a lesser extent, electronic wallets.” Only four months after Sony introduced its highly touted Xperia Z smartphone, Japan’s largest mobile carrier, NTT DoCoMo, stopped selling it. Tabuchi explains, “Sony’s Xperia Z got caught in this marketing buzz saw. Phones, like fashion, have become seasonal and the seasons are getting shorter and shorter. DoCoMo started selling the Xperia Z in Japan on Feb. 9 as part of the carrier’s spring 2013 collection, replacing the Xperia AX of the winter collection. A month later, on March 15, DoCoMo announced its summer collection of 11 new phones, with the Experia Z replaced by the Experia A, which went on sale a month earlier.” At this point, the accelerating speed of turnover, which for awhile had increased profits, becomes counterproductive and even destructive. Yuichi Kojure, professor of information technology at Aomori Public University, admits, “Mobile phone makers are exhausted. . . . I think more people here [in Japan] are starting to realize that the way its mobile phone industry works is unsustainable.”

Errol Morris’s timely film "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" might well have been about today’s fast fashion, fast phones, and high-speed, high-volume financial networks. While the absurdity of the situation would seem to be undeniable, people who continue to believe that they are in control still insist that the only way to respond to economic slowdown is to push the pedal to the metal. But the constant acceleration of today’s economy and financial capitalism is reaching the limit where system failure becomes inevitable and a major crash is unavoidable. This limit is marked by three interrelated crises: choice, waste, and debt. In anticipation of issues to be considered in more depth later, I will consider each briefly here.

Choice. In books like "Capitalism and Freedom" (1962) and "Free to Choose" (1980), Milton Friedman expresses one of neoliberalism’s foundational doctrines, one that illuminates the crisis of choice. “What the market does is to reduce greatly the range of issues that must be decided through political means, and thereby to minimize the extent to which government need participate directly in the game. The characteristic feature of action through political channels is that it tends to require or enforce substantial conformity. The great advantage of the market, on the other hand, is that it permits wide diversity.” Diversity, in turn, is supposed to create a greater range of choices. But is this really true? Does the market actually permit or create a wide diversity of choices? And is it really true that the more choices we have, the better off we are? Genuine innovation is rare; most of what is marketed as the new is, in fact, a repackaging of the old, which results in the eternal return of the same. Same thing, different color, same product, different package. 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, 5.0. . . . More often than not, what are touted as more choices actually are a limited menu of options designed to meet the needs of business rather than the needs of people. What is surprising is that so many people still fall for the con. More choices are not necessarily better and often can make life more stressful. While too few choices can be discouraging or even depressing, too many choices are overwhelming. The increasing number of possibilities sometimes becomes paralyzing, and can actually lead to more anxiety and less freedom. The ideology of choice extends beyond products and investments to all aspects of life—abortion, guns, schools, health care, retirement, on and on and on—until choice overload creates decision fatigue. So many choices, so little time. This condition is not limited to adults—there is trickle-down anxiety from parents to children.

Waste. The fast-fashion and fast-phone industries serve as metaphors for all kinds of waste that plague the world today, ranging from human to atomic, economic, financial, and environmental. The problem of waste surely is not new. Like everything else, however, the production and accumulation of waste has accelerated dramatically during the past five decades. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that every year Americans throw away 12.7 million tons of textiles; this amounts to an astonishing sixty-eight pounds per person. Only 1.6 million tons of this waste are recycled or reused. The harmful effects of excessive production are not limited to material waste. Cline correctly stresses that the textile industry consumes excessive amounts of fossil fuels, energy, and water: “The process of making textiles has never been green. Avtex Fibers, one of the world’s largest rayon factories based in Front Royal, Virginia, was shut down in 1989 for poisoning the surrounding water and soil and is still listed as an EPA Superfund site. The technology and regulations to make textile manufacturing less environmentally harmful have improved dramatically in the United States, but the textile industry has largely moved overseas in recent decades to countries that are ill-equipped or simply too poor to reduce the impact of the fiber-making process.” In China, where 10 percent of the world’s textiles are produced, air and water pollution are at record high levels.

The situation with electronic waste, or eWaste, is even more dangerous. Each year the United States produces 5 to 7 million tons of eWaste, and this is increasing at a rate of 3 to 5 percent a year. Most of this waste is highly toxic, containing hazardous materials that include lead, beryllium, cadmium, barium, PVC, mercury, PCBs, and bromide flame retardants (PBB and PBDE). In recent years, the United States has enacted some regulations to control or prohibit the disposal of eWaste in this country. But this has merely shifted, not solved the problem by encouraging the export of eWaste to foreign countries, especially those in Asia, while at the same time opposing international regulations to address this global problem. Only about 20 percent of eWaste is recycled. The rest is sent to countries like India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and especially China, where there are virtually no controls on waste disposal. In cities like Shanton and Guiyu, dubbed China’s Electronic Waste Village, hundreds of thousands of workers labor for just $1.50 a day and are exposed to dangerous chemicals while they break down computers, mobile phones, tablets, and other devices in order to salvage minute traces of rare metals. The absence of adequate supervision and regulation has led to severe environmental problems. In Shanton, for example, the soil has two hundred times and the water two thousand times the accepted levels of lead. In addition, the burning of waste materials creates dangerous air pollution, which has resulted in widespread health problems. Once again, immaterial and material flows are inseparable—monitors from American computers whose screens are filled with lead end up in roadside ditches in what was until recently rural China. Waste and pollution, like money circulating in today’s financial markets, know no boundaries and never sleep. When everything is connected, other countries’ problems are our problems and vice versa.

Debt. What greases the wheels and heats the wires of today’s markets is debt—personal debt, consumer debt, credit card debt, student debt, corporate debt, and government debt at every level—local, state, and federal.

While the trends are obvious, the debt problem is even worse than these graphs suggest because it is compounded by the positive feedback systems operative in today’s complex financial markets. Accelerating compound interest on all kinds of debt makes it increasingly difficult to meet payments on time. Furthermore, as the economy slows or stalls, revenues decline, making it even harder to service debt. While economists and politicians argue about whether cutting taxes and austerity (Friedman’s neoliberal approach) or raising taxes and spending (Keynes’s liberal approach) is the better short-term strategy for addressing the debt problem, there is no doubt that in the long run, the current trajectory is unsustainable. With all the acrimony swirling in Washington, it is easy to overlook how much supposedly opposing parties actually agree about problematic assumptions. On the Left and the Right, there remains an unwavering commitment to the principle of economic growth as a measure of national and personal well-being. Furthermore, there continues to be an assumption that the best way for the economy to grow is to increase the efficiency and speed of production and investment and to encourage people to spend more money faster. If individuals and companies do not borrow and spend money they don’t have, and investors do not borrow and invest in securities and financial instruments that are more virtual than real, liquidity dries up and material as well as immaterial flows freeze.

Artful finance. Irrational rationality. Inefficient efficiencies. These problems have not befallen the economy and financial markets from the outside but are intrinsic to the very operation and logic of what capitalism has become today. On November 18, 1956, just three short months before his Kitchen Cabinet with Nixon, Khrushchev famously declared, “We will bury you!” Long before the Berlin Wall fell, it was clear that this prediction was fatally flawed. But the confident assertions of neoliberal economists and neoconservative politicians about the final victory of global capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union are premature. It is not communism or socialism that will bury us but ever-increasing speed, which continues to create more material and immaterial waste than we can process—waste that threatens to bury us all.

Excerpted from "Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left" by Mark C. Taylor. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright 2014 by Mark C. Taylor. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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