Is shopping during a pandemic necessary or ethical?
To buy or not to buy
A big part of the discourse coming out of the internet these days around the COVID-19 crisis is the long-ignored fault lines of society. A lot of these run along lines of thought against capitalism — particularly the nightmarish situations that read like classic late-capitalist symptoms. Healthcare workers and hospitalised patients being put at risk while profiteering corporations wrestle over monopolies. People in the know engaging in insider trading, riding monetary gains on the back of an international public health emergency, then getting away with it scot-free. It's almost Kafkaesque, the level of surrealness surrounding us all.
It's also a time when, as the government orders non-essential businesses and offices to shut in favour of working from home, industries and pursuits like fashion can feel absolutely frivolous. Demna Gvasalia might have been prophetic with his last few Balenciaga collections, which explored the dark evocations of power, authority, calamity, and collapse. With boutiques worldwide closed, a recession is reportedly underway, where does fashion fit into the grand scheme of things?
Luxury fashion, which has long prided itself on creating customer experiences in physical retail, is now being forced to embrace the internet and e-commerce as a means of maintaining those customer and audience relationships.
If you've been online, there's a very likely chance that your email inboxes have been awashed with notifications of sales. Fashion is being marked down everywhere, at a time when new spring/summer collections should normally be hitting stores. Online commerce is perhaps the standing bastion of fashion now, as countries go into lockdown. People might want to spend — and that is an unavoidable part of living in a capitalist world driven by consumption — but it does raise an ethical question. When lives are being lost, when whole systems of governance are showing dangerous weaknesses, is shopping an irresponsible way of ignoring reality?
There is certainly a case to be made for shopping. Perhaps the hardest hit in fashion are the labels by emerging designers and small teams. Speculation is rife that we are at risk of losing a generation of designers who, without the structure and backing of corporate conglomerates, are being affected most heavily by the drop in spending. Simply put, retailers and wholesalers are significantly reducing orders or even cancelling orders altogether. Without the buy of department stores and wholesalers, small labels cannot afford the fabric and human resources to produce the clothes. Nothing gets made, so nothing gets sold.
One solution that has been offered is to buy directly from these brands themselves. Cutting the middlemen out of the equation means that the brands can make a more direct profit and weather tough times like these. The downside, of course, is that it signals an even clearer death knell for department stores and multi-brand retailers, lest we forget the tragic closures of Opening Ceremony and Colette, the bankruptcy of Barneys, and the already flagging state of retail. All this naturally calls into question the financial sustainability of the wholesale way of operating. No doubt clearer answers will emerge when the dust settles, but that's a whole other issue.
The argument for not shopping is also compelling. Before this pandemic became the global crisis it now is, much of the fashion conversation for two seasons was about environmental sustainability. One of the most cogent trains of thought was a need for less. Fewer shows, fewer collections, fewer drops, and fewer falsely manufactured illusions of desire. Fast fashion, with its untenable damaging production and distribution cycles, was a big enemy. High fashion, too, looked to be angling itself to overhauling its quickening cycles and focussing more on quality and timelessness. The point to be made was that we should be shopping less and inciting less demand on the industry to create more. Buy vintage, recycle your pieces, and keep them around longer. On the part of the industry, it was to create fashion that would fit into such a way of thinking about clothes and fashion.
But the reality is that the world we live in is a capitalist one, and businesses need to be run. People need livelihoods, and spending is an integral part of it all. Uncertainty abounds at the moment, and no one in their right mind would imagine to pretend to have a date that things will "return to normal". What "normal" will even look like is unsure, and what's almost more certain is that what we land on will be different from where we were. So yes, we can still be shopping, but perhaps now is an opportunity to examine and evaluate what our consumption habits are fuelling and what those dollars being spent means. Will you spend your money in support of young, struggling designers that represent this generation's voice and dialogue, or will you ignore those signs for the steepest discounts? Far be it from us to make a moral judgment, but we put it to you that those are things to think about.
And at the very least, know that if you don't want to be spending and shopping during this time that it is a perfectly fair choice. Out of chaos can come beauty. Think of the emergence of Christian Dior in the post-war years, and the way the New Look represented a new lease of life, and a refreshed attitude and hunger for fashion after many bleak years. That's perhaps something to look forward to.