Has shopping died?

Now should be a great time for retail. So why are shops like Forever 21, Topshop and Barneys filing for bankruptcy?

In the autumn of 2018, Laura Karup Frandsen, a student at London’s prestigious Royal College of Art, decided to take a year off studying for her master’s degree in womenswear design.

I was in complete despair,” she says. After the IPCC report came out (the report summarises the consequences should climate change rise above 1.5 degrees), I literally couldn’t find any reason to continue studying fashion design.” Frandsen spent the year stewing in a deep depression while questioning the meaning of her chosen profession, but found purpose once again when she discovered Extinction Rebellion (XR), a global activist movement demanding governments both acknowledge and take steps towards solving the climate crisis. 

Frandsen joined XR’s fashion working group, whose main activity is the promotion of a shopping boycott, in which consumers pledge to abstain from shopping for an entire year. (Admittedly, it’s no easy feat.) So far, close to 2,000 people have signed up. We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible,” she says. To Frandsen, the boycott is less about being a conscious consumer and more of a last-ditch effort to stave off the threat of human extinction.

Though Extinction Rebellion’s heavy-handed symbolism isn’t for everyone, in September, they staged a mock funeral for London Fashion Week while wearing alabaster masks and cult-like scarlet robes, the group’s visibility in the press is indicative of a wider shift in attitudes that is affecting the fashion industry on a broader scale. Prada’s profit margins have been in decline since 2012. Barneys, the taste-making department store once praised by Sarah Jessica Parker (“If you’re a nice person and you work hard, you get to go shopping at Barneys”) filed for bankruptcy protection in August. Forever 21 and Topshop have gone from fast fashion behemoths to financial freefall, liquidating numerous US stores in the process.

  • Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.”  Everyone has studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.” 

The current – and future – state of retail is looking more and more like a mysterious fairy tale bog: murky, ominous and probably full of dangerous, hostile creatures.

According to a McKinsey report, now should be a great time for retail. Consumer confidence has finally returned to pre-recession levels and disposable income for Americans has risen by 20% per capita since early 2014. And yet, profligate Carrie Bradshaw-esque spending habits have not returned. Thanks to the popularity of Goop and its ilk, the burgeoning wellness industry – projected to be worth $6651) billion by 2022 – may demonstrate that people are simply spending their money elsewhere. But this lack of spending can also be traced to a fundamental lack of security. Part of this could also be attributed to a complete lack of security in most people’s lives. The cost of housing, food and general living expenses have risen so high in some places that disposable income tends to disappear before one can even consciously decide what to do with it. By doling out poverty wages to most workers while simultaneously requiring those individuals to spend in order to stimulate the economy, capitalism has truly played itself.

Investment bank Piper Jaffray’s biannual report, Taking Stock with Teens, determined that teen spending is at its lowest point since 2011, and spending on handbags in particular has hit a 38-year low. In the US, women’s handbag sales are down by over 20% for the first eight months of 2019, compared with the same period three years ago – a fateful sign considering accessories have historically been the cash cow of luxury brands, profitable enough to subsidise the more glamorous than lucrative apparel side of the business. This is clearly not a blip – it’s a major shift,” suggests NPD executive director Beth Goldstein.

Frandsen didn’t just eschew shopping when she joined XR’s fashion boycott – she gave up her lifelong dream of becoming a fashion designer. For so many of us, [joining the boycott] is a great loss and offers a sense of grief. It’s something we are letting go of,” Sara Arnold, one of the organisers of XR’s fashion boycott, explains. Everyone in the [XR fashion working group] has worked in the fashion industry or studied fashion design and we all thought we could make the fashion industry sustainable before we came to the realisation, very sadly, it’s all too late.” (In a story published last month, an assistant professor of fashion design, ethics and sustainability at Ryerson University stated that any progress the fashion industry makes towards becoming more sustainable is cancelled out by the speed at which the industry is growing.)

Sustainable fashion has long existed as a sort of alternative category, but the climate crisis has shifted into emergency level – experts suggest 2020 being the deadline for taking action on climate change if the planet is to stay habitable for humans according to Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Climate Institute. The case for buying new clothes made with pesticide-free cotton or in ethical factories has become far less compelling than that of buying secondhand, or simply not buying anything at all. 

Though the concept of not shopping first entered the cultural lexicon in 2007, with Judith Levine’s polemic Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, the book’s appeal was largely fringe. But now more and more people are giving up shopping, whether directly as part of XR’s fashion boycott or simply as an individual effort to reflect a more conscientious consumerism. 

  • We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.”  We’ve been fed as consumers our whole lives the idea that we can buy our way into a better world, and it’s simply not possible.” 

Tracy Wan, a 30-year-old copywriter from Toronto, describes going on a yearlong, self-imposed, shopping ban to deal with her compulsive shopping habit, which she describes as obsessive in a soulless way”. (We’ve all been there.) Wan says going on a shopping diet helped her differentiate more effectively between wants and needs. It’s made me realise that most things are not that unique and will come around again,” she says. 

Christiana Manzocco, a 29-year-old working in finance in Alberta, Canada used a shopping ban to cull her overflowing wardrobe and also to save money. Manzocco’s no-buying experiment was so successful that she ended up switching over to the FIRE method (Financial Independence Retire Early) and now saves 70% of her income. Before, the goal for me was to buy a vacation home. But then I thought, Why?’ That’s just another thing I might buy and not use. I realised if I save enough of my income and reach financial independence, every day could be like a vacation.”

For those who are less inclined to live the lifestyle of a Franciscan monk, but not immune to the guilt that comes with knowing each mindless purchase might be quickening the downfall of humanity, shopping second hand seems the logical choice. The secondhand fashion market is expected to reach $5144) billion in the next five years, and the category has grown 21 times faster than the retail apparel market over the past three years. Britt Rawlinson, the owner of VSP Consignment, one of Toronto’s most popular designer consignment stores, says that the demographic of customers who shop at the store has widened in the past year. Previously, the store attracted mainly die-hard fashion fans or deal seekers, now they’re serving customers for whom the categories luxury” and secondhand” were an oxymoron less than five years ago.

Gen Z is leading the charge on secondhand shopping, thanks to Depop, essentially a thrift store in app form. Forever 21’s disposable, tissue-thin garments may have satisfied millennials’ endless appetite for cheap, fast fashion, but the upcoming generation prioritises uniqueness over accessibility. They’re also characterised as more ethical shoppers, less able to shove down the cognitive dissonance intimately familiar to millennials who claim to care about the environment still make purchases at Zara or H&M. So far, secondhand shopping helps Gen Z attain the serotonin buzz of acquiring new clothes, but without the accompanying guilt.

When I suggest to Frandsen over the phone that people are beginning to lose their appetite for amassing goods, I can practically hear her fist-pumping over the phone. Finally!” she exclaims as jubilantly as if I were delivering the news she had just won the lottery. But she quickly tempers her enthusiasm, cautioning that a shopping ban is not a tidy solution to the climate crisis. I don’t think [we] can save the world by not buying clothes,” she says, adding: This is just something we have to do.”


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