Generation of Longing – Musings about Consumerism and how a Zara Sale is like an All-You-Can-Eat-Buffet

My palms are sweating, my mouth is dry and my heart is pattering a rapid tune.

Tha-thum. Tha tha. Tha-thum. Thumthumthumthumthum.

As I take a look at the unfolding scene in front of me I can’t help but think of an animal documentation that I watched when I was a little child. There was a particular scene in which a majestic lion was lurking behind a huge bush, eyes focused firmly on a little antelope that was standing a few feet away from it. It only took the lion one second. One second to leap forward its prey. One second to sink its teeth into flesh. One second for a kill. And I still remember how fast my heart was beating.

Tha-thum. Tha tha. Tha-thum. Thumthumthumthumthum.

A loud screech brings me back to reality and I’m once again taking in the situation around me. These predators are certainly anything but majestic. Their hungry eyes are moving quickly over their surroundings and I can almost taste their hunger on my tongue. They have found their prey and not one of them is holding back. Soon there will be nothing left to kill.

I should be terrified, but I am not. I know that in any minute I could become a predator,too.

Because I am not in an African desert.

This is not an animal documentation.

This is a ZARA Weekend Sale.

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Last week I read a case study about ZARA’s corporate mechanisms which has inspired me to do something I had never done before. But first there’s something you need to know about me: I myself confess to be a little shopaholic from time to time. You know that feeling when you see that cute guy walking by and he smiles at you and your little heart skips a beat and then you’re insides get all gooey and everything tingles?

Yeah, that’s how I feel when I see a clothing store.

So as someone who is a frequent guest at stores like ZARA I was very surprised after reading this particular case study. The text mostly describes the company’s production and distribution process that is characterized by short lead times, scarce quantities and its “react rather than predict” philosophy. Counter-intuitive strategies, a very fast product development and the infamous fast fashion strategy helped the company to become one of Europe’s most popular retailers. However what has really caught my eye was the story beneath the story. The author uses various food metaphors to picture the fashion industry. He claims that fashion products are “highly perishable goods” that have to be caught “while they’re hot”. Above that he states that frequently updating the “ingredients” of “fresh” production is the key to creating the “sweet smell of success”. The writer basically compares the mechanisms of fashion industry to the consumption of food.

I have never given much thought to that theory but after reading the case study I realized how much truth it holds. In today’s society everything always seems to be about getting more. More clothes in the wardrobe, more money in the wallet, more food in the refrigerator. Even in my first Macroeconomics lesson I learned that “more is always better than less”. So what if Bob already has fifty pieces of pie? He’ll take another one because that single unit more will surely increase his utility! The western world has become a society that is characterized by over-consumption, waste and production of short-living items. About four billions tons of food are produced annually in the world of which 1.3 billion are lost or wasted. That makes a total loss of about $ 43 billion food. Million tons of clothes are being produced every year but already more than one million tons of textiles are thrown away in the UK alone. And don’t even let me get started with the light-headed usage of energy and clean water. It is no secret: modern day consumerism is a scary thing that makes us feel like we have nothing and need everything.

The essential question is: how could we let it come so far? How can we throw away food when children in Africa are starving every single minute? How can seven-year-old children already want an i-pad for Christmas? How has consumption become one of the essential needs in our lives? (It was certainly not considered by Maslow when he constructed his infamous “hierarchy of needs”.) And how can my heart melt like warm butter when I see a store, knowing that my wardrobe at home is almost collapsing from the weight of my clothes? This, to be honest, is a question that I cannot answer. But I can guess and when I think of the ZARA case study and the food metaphor I am sure that this is one of the reasons. I firmly believe that you can not only use this food metaphor for the fashion industry, but also for the whole ideology of consumerism.

Do you remember when you were a little kid and your mom cooked your favorite dinner? You couldn’t sit still and wait for it any longer because, you know, it’s your favorite and you just want it so bad. I think in a certain away that feeling must be the same for some people when they buy new things. The goods you buy give you a sense of comfort because they are yours and there always a part of your personality in them since you normally wouldn’t buy something you detest. In Danish for example, the word “delicious” can be used for not only food, but also consumer goods. Therefore it is perfectly fine to say “a delicious dress” or even “a delicious TV”. Food and materialistic consumerism have a long-standing relationship which people tend to underestimate. Have you for instance ever noticed how both food and goods consumption increase exponentially during holidays such as Christmas, Easter or Birthdays? Eating and shopping go hand in hand.

When it comes to fashion the connection is even stronger. You are what you eat. You are what you wear. Whereas eating means incorporating foreign elements into our bodies, wearing clothes is like bringing parts of our inner selves to the surface. So as a matter of fact both activities can be seen as acts of constructing ourselves. Just like we don’t want to eat the same thing every single day for the rest of our lives, we don’t want to wear the same kind of clothes again and again. Change. Change and renewal is what we live for. And just like food expires after a certain amount of time, fashion has to meet its expiration date as well. Trends come and go and we yearn for the fresh products, chasing after them, hoping to be the first, hoping that consumption will once again bring us to that sweet point of saturation.

And then the circle begins anew.

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Tha-thum. Tha tha. Tha-thum. Thumthumthumthumthum.

If someone would have told me a day ago that I would ever feel totally out of place in a clothing store, I would have laughed and told that person that he’s crazy.

But this, this is crazy. Women everywhere throwing around T-Shirts, dresses, shoes. There are little tables where mountains of clothes are pilled on top of each other and people are literally fighting over them. The cashiers are working furiously while a long queue has already formed next to them. Those who have made it into that line look tired but happy. They have caught their prey. They have made it.

Last week I read a case study about ZARA’s corporate mechanisms which has inspired me to do something I had never done before. I went to a ZARA store during a weekend sale with the intention to only observe, not to participate. This is something I would never do in a normal situation but here I am: standing in the middle of one of Europe’s most popular fashion retailers during the “happy hour”.

And I just stare. Stare at the mass of ridiculous looking women who grab a shirt with that spark of desperation in their eyes one would think it’s about life or death. (And I hope I have never looked like that during a sale).

And then I realize.

Shopping, and in general consumption of goods, it’s a bit like eating ice cream. You don’t essentially need it, you desire it. You always do. And a sale, a sale is a bit like an all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s like binge eating and eventually you tend to over-eat.

Bite. Chew. Swallow.

Try. Buy. Wear.

It’s like needing and wanting and pushing. Push, push, push. Push toward that point of saturation. Push for more because, you know, more is always better than less.

We are never satisfied. We can never have enough. We are the generation of longing.

So consume or not to consume? That, and once again I’m honest, is a question that I cannot answer. I can only hope that just like me, you will see consumerism from a different perspective next time you’re in a clothing store. Mass-consumption and the throwaway society are problems that cannot be faced by a single person. They cannot be solved in a day, in a month or even in ten years. It is a culture that has implemented itself deeply into our beliefs and I’m not the one trying to tell you to start buying just one shirt instead of three, especially when I myself confessed to be an avid shopper. However I do realize the crucial effects that modern consumerism will have on us in the future if we don’t start changing our minds. So maybe we all should take a look at ourselves and the things we consume on a daily basis. Maybe there are little things we can do to make a difference.

Maybe it’s time to think about a diet.

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