The Consumer as Chooser

Now I have started my PhD, my blog will in some ways become a bit of a research diary. I won’t discuss confidential data, but during my review of the literature and methodology planning, I think some interesting points to blog about will come up, and it helps me to connect my ideas and what I have learnt. This week I have been deeply absorbed in reading about ‘the consumer’, most specifically the book ‘The Unmanageable Consumer’, Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Lang (2006).

It’s obvious that as consumers we have plenty of choice. No doubt there will be times when you feel pressured by a pushy sales person to buy something you don’t really want, but the choice to purchase still comes down to you. As someone trying to advocate sustainable living, I would normally have said we have too much choice, but this book chapter opens by saying, ‘all choice is good; the more choice there is for consumers, the better for consumers’ (p.26) and of course that is true. It isn’t the choice on offer that is necessarily the problem; it’s the greedy consumer who wants everything that is the problem. After all, choice is good for the economy and choice should fulfil everyone’s needs.

However, the authors then state that, ‘choice without information is not real choice’ which I think really sums up the ethical dilemma. When we walk into a shop, what do we really know about what we are buying? You will probably know more about the brand than the specific product. The issue is then deciding how much information is enough information, and this will vary from person to person. There is so much information that could be transferred from item to consumer, but what information will that particular consumer prioritise? It will differ between consumers depending on their needs and values, so does this mean shopping needs to be a more personal experience? Because the mass choice on offer is simply overwhelming and consumers forget their basic needs and values by becoming enchanted by the world of retail. This is when the overabundance of choice scares people into taking what they believe to be the less risky choice – going to the big brands. Buying second hand goods, or turning to more niche ethical brands that use unconventional fibres like viscose or bamboo, is seen as a ‘risky’ choice.

Because at the end of the day, consumption is a game, consumers are seeking to win. Yes they are seeking information, but they are seeking the information that retailers readily put in front of them to vie with the competition, that being price, aesthetics and whether the item is fit for purpose. This they believe to be the key information that they need, rather than provenance, ethics or what they will do with that item at the end of its life.

It cannot be denied that money creates choice. A lot of people will argue that value retailers are there for consumers who have little money to spend in higher end stores, so that they don’t go without. They still though, have the choice to buy new rather than second hand, and to buy 3 cheap tops rather than 1 mid range top that they could wear more often. Those with huge amounts of money to spend can find the abundance of choice a source of anxiety. Are they investing their money in the right product? Are they being exploited because they are known by others to have plenty of money?

So choice is good. We all have a choice. In fashion terms, making ethical choices can feel a bit of a struggle. The more you know, the more difficult it is to make a choice. Should I prioritise fair trade or environmentally friendly production? Is bamboo actually a sustainable fibre? Should I wear leather? There will always be pros and cons, because anything you buy is a form of consumption and if you look up ‘to consume’ in the dictionary it says, ‘to use up; to exhaust; destroy’.

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