Monthly Archives: February 2012

You are browsing the site archives by month.

A developmental basis to seeking and acquiring objects?

Materialism and consumerism are often thought of as the results of external, societal factors – they’re perhaps driven by the messages dispersed by the capitalist model in order to fuel itself, by advertising and media that create constant feelings of inadequacy and need and the desire to have all sorts of shiny, lovely things that promise to be totally fulfilling and totally make our lives that much better. But there’s another interesting factor to perhaps try to fit into the clunking, grinding cogs of whatever complex mechanisms do drive the lumbering behemoth of materialism/consumerism: what about internal, innate factors? Is there something about human brains that makes us place importance on material objects and that makes us seek them out?

There are probably a lot of theories out there about this sort of topic, the necessary emphasis being on the fact that they are theories – they’re usually not really hypotheses that are up for testing and validating, so they need to be taken with a grain of salt. But one theory I came across seemed to, at least to me, have a certain amount of face validity. It suggests that the reason so many of us are so keen on material objects, and on bringing them into our lives (usually courtesy of cash or a credit card), is perhaps the drive that made us explore and interact with our environments way back when we were babies.

Babies aren’t really good with concepts – you might have noticed that they tend to not learn about action and reaction, for instance, by reading books on Newtonian physics and contemplating Newton’s third law. They learn by throwing a building block and seeing it knock a teddy bear over, that sort of elegant thing. Not surprisingly, a healthy brain is going to encourage a young human to interact as much as possible with the environment, and that learning process presumably feels very rewarding. You can’t ask a baby how much he or she enjoyed pushing a pile of books and seeing it fall over, but the brain must be giving them a sensation that feels rewarding.

The fact is, back when you were an infant or a young child, objects were fascinating, amazing, informative, critical parts of your life and your development. They allowed you to learn about the environment and interact with it, to figure out what you could and couldn’t control and what impact you could have on your surroundings, to comprehend permanence and existence (like how things don’t cease to exist just because you personally can’t see them any more) and, ultimately, to figure out and understand the separation that exists between yourself and everything else. Objects at that age are key to a huge transformation of yourself, and you seek them out.

So is it possible, then, that the yearning adults feel to acquire objects is some sort of an echo of this early object-seeking behaviour? Do we keep seeking things out and buying things because we hope our brain will give us that incredibly rewarding buzz in return for interacting with something novel and interesting in our environment and transforming our understanding of our surroundings? As Ian Woodward says in his paper discussing this idea, “consuming things – or searching for them – becomes a search for a type of promise to be transformed by engagements with objects”. Perhaps we find enjoyment in being on the quest for such objects, because we anticipate their power to make a difference in our lives.

And it might seem ridiculous, but pretty much any item could be the one we think will change us and give us that sense of fulfillment. It’s not necessarily as noble as, for example, a potential photographer finally affording their first camera and being transformed by the discovery of their innate talent and passion for the medium. It’s more often like just some random everyday person expecting that their life will somehow be transformed if only they could buy that pair of shoes they really like but everywhere is out of stock in the right size. As Woodward says, “The irony here is of course that the most prosaic or mundane thing can be seen to promise transformation. The magical element of everyday consumption is that the most banal, emptied-out, seemingly trivial thing can be a most powerful container of cultural values and ideologies.”

The problem is that, unsurprisingly, no matter what we buy, we never really do get that amazing, insightful, transformative feeling back. It’s long gone because we comprehended the difference between self vs. other a long time ago.

This is all just a theory, and it can’t be empirically tested. Furthermore, there’s not necessarily any reason why the brain would retain the circuitry responsible for making you seek out novel objects, or would retain any memory of how rewarding that behaviour was, since the brain obviously undergoes a huge process of change and development from birth to adulthood and we do not retain a lot of the impulses and behavioural tendencies we had as infants. Indeed, the functioning of an infant brain is barely recognisable at many levels when compared to that of an adult one. But it’s interesting to consider whether innate object-seeking behaviours might persist and might have been co-opted by materialism and consumerism, rather than assuming that it’s society alone that gives us the impulse to seek and acquire objects.

Costs & coats: product pricing relative to salary

I went to the British Museum last year to see a particular exhibition that had captured my fancy – “The Cost of Living in Roman and Modern Britain” (it’s on until April, go see it if you can). It was just a small exhibition, but full of plenty of incredibly fascinating information. One thing in particular that stuck with me was the relative cost of items in terms of how much a soldier in the army could afford, then compared to now. It turns out that the salary of a new-recruit soldier in the Roman army, if you take into account currency values, inflation, etc., was pretty much the same as a new-recruit soldier in the modern British army could expect (somewhere in the region of £16,000 per annum if I remember correctly).

The exhibit included items that both the Roman and the modern soldier might buy and how much it would cost them respectively – what fraction of a day’s salary for a dozen eggs or some dice or whatever. What struck me in particular was that if the modern soldier wanted to buy a winter jacket from the high street, what would it cost him or her? Maybe a couple of days’ worth of salary. By comparison, if a Roman soldier wanted to buy a coat to keep him warm in the winter months, it would set him back a month’s worth of salary. That’s equivalent to about £1200, which most people would consider a pretty large amount of money to be spending on a coat. Incidentally, clothing was also not particularly affordable all the way up until the 19th century, with a man’s suit in the 18th century costing £8 when the cost of providing for a family for an entire year was £40.

Now obviously it’s very much an understatement to say that things have changed a bit since Roman times and since the 18th century. We now have different ways of producing fibres for fabrics, we can do it on a larger scale, we have all sorts of ways of reducing the time taken and the cost of the materials required for manufacturing a garment. But still, I have this misgiving that what we expect to pay for a garment is actually wildly out of step with what it would cost to manufacture a high quality garment from high quality materials using adequately paid skilled labour.

I don’t have much to go on in terms of what such a garment would cost to produce, since the price-tag of a garment (as I’ve mentioned time and time again) is no guarantee of quality. All I have, really, is the price break-downs provided for each garment in the Honest by Bruno Pieters collection, which I discussed here. Those detailed break-downs would suggest that a well-designed, well-made, ethically and sustainably produced garment costs well above what people expect to pay these days – €300-400 is the actual cost for a men’s shirt, €900-1000 for a coat (that coat works out at about £800, so still much less than our Roman soldier was paying back in the day). Maybe the prices would be a bit less if the production scale was larger (since runs are limited to about 10-20 garments per style at the moment), but even an expanded scale wouldn’t reduce the current prices by an enormous amount.

I certainly appreciate the value of low-price clothing for people who are economically disadvantaged and keenly aware of their budgets. There’s no doubt that there are people who really do benefit from that sort of affordability and whose lives are made more comfortable as a result. But for those of us who do have a bit of spare disposable income and whose economic situation isn’t so precarious, is it a valid assumption that we only think that €900 for a coat seems expensive because the profusion of cheaper alternatives has skewed our perception? Is it because we aren’t forced to immediately notice all the compromises – poorer quality materials, underpaid workers, overall diminished longevity – that a more cheaply produced coat entails? I’m reasonably sure that’s the case. It also doesn’t help that genuinely good quality, well produced items are relatively difficult to come by (and designer brand labels are no indicator of it), so we don’t necessarily notice something good when we do see it. That’s if we get past being overwhelmed by the seemingly ridiculous (but actually maybe kind of justified) price-tag.

Does it ultimately come down to the fact that, for whatever reason, we think we’re entitled to not have to spend time saving up for something that’s worth it?

The evident expense of ethics

I will endlessly recommend Lucy Siegle’s fascinating book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World?, because anyone who participates in purchasing fashion and is economically privileged enough to make informed choices about what they buy really should read that book. I cannot even begin to summarise the dire state of the fashion cycle, from the sourcing of the raw materials to the production of garments and accessories to the disposal of everything that’s so willingly discarded. Avail yourself of Siegle’s book and find out for yourself. Suffice to say it’s all in a pretty bad state, ethically and sustainably, and if you ever wanted something to put you off nonchalantly waltzing into a shop and buying whatever took your fancy, this book will do it, I promise.

On the topic, it seems like one of the impediments that ethical fashion will encounter is the unwillingness of consumers to pay more for those ethically produced garments. The garments indeed will cost more – that’s a corollary of ensuring an appropriate wage and working conditions for everyone along the whole the production line.

How much more do people assume they’ll have to pay to get an item that’s ethically produced? If the results of a study looking at people’s attitudes and opinions towards purchasing ethically produced beauty products are generalisable, it seems that people expect that they’ll have to pay 30-40% more for ethically produced items compared to non-ethically produced items. That’s certainly discouraging to anyone who has to be conscious of their budget. There might be a desire to buy more ethically, but it might simply prove to be impractical due to the much higher prices.

Except according to industry standards, it actually only costs an extra 2-6% to ensure higher, ethical wages for workers. Not so challenging to deal with, perhaps, even if you’re on a budget.

And amazingly, it also turns out that people report that they are willing to pay about the very same amount, around 2-6% extra, for an ethically manufactured item. So they’re willing to pay how much it actually costs, but they’re simply unaware of the actual cost, and they’re deterred by how much they think it will cost.

Sounds like something’s begging for an awareness campaign…

How to encourage impulse purchases

Impulse purchases: we’ve all made them, we all probably regret a decent proportion of them. Making an impulsive, unplanned purchase from time to time seems inevitable, but are there ways for retailers in increase the likelihood that we might feel that impulse and act on it? The research paper “Cues on apparel websites that trigger impulse purchases” describes a study which aimed to identify potential cues and triggers that online retailers might use to encourage impulse purchases, and then the researchers looked at whether there was a correlation between the use of these cues and the retailer’s reported web sales total. It’s impossible to tell which of the sales on a website were impulse purchases and which weren’t, of course. But given that surveys have found that apparently around 50% of purchases in bricks-and-mortar stores are impulse buys, total sales both in real life and online are definitely driven to a decent extent by impulse purchases. We should therefore be able to see if there is a relationship between total sales and the things people think have induced them in the past to make an impulse purchase online.

There are quite a few cues on retail websites that people report thinking probably led them to make impulse purchases, fitting into four categories:

  • Promotions, e.g. buy-one-get-one-free deals, coupons, discount when you spend above a certain amount, gift with purchase, free shipping or shipping discount, ability to return online purchase to a physical store, competitions, membership discounts.
  • Sales, e.g. markdowns, clearance items, limited time only sales, discounted prices put in bold.
  • Ideas, e.g. featured items, featured outfits, top picks or favourites, gift ideas, items presented by price point (such as “items under $20″).
  • Suggestions, e.g. offering coordination items for the item currently viewed, suggesting visually similar items (not necessarily for coordination with currently viewed item), customer favourites, reviews and recommendations, last item viewed.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was the promotions category of impulse cues that people most commonly identified as leading to an impulse buy, particularly if it was free shipping or a shipping discount being offered. The next most commonly mentioned cue category was ideas, followed by sales (I personally would have thought this category would been a lot more encouraging than ideas-related cues), with suggestions coming in last.

The study then had a look at the extent to which each impulse cue was present on a range of websites (it was US-centric, so websites included those of Neiman Marcus, Saks, J.Crew, etc.) and then tried to see if there were any correlations between the use of particular cues and the web sales of each retailer, potentially revealing whether the use of such cues really does translate into greater sales, presumably partly driven by impulse buys.

Sure enough, web sales are very significantly correlated with the number of impulse cues on the retailer’s website. (For the statistics nerds out there, p < 0.00001 which, I think you’ll agree, is labouring the point.) So the more cues, the greater the web sales – and we’re talking sales in the hundreds of millions of US dollars for the upper-end retailers like Neiman Marcus. And what were the cues most greatly associated with the huge sales of the upper-end retailers (the top 30 of the top 99 online retailers) compared to the lower ones (the bottom 30 of the top 99 online retailers)? Upper-end retailers more frequently used “shop by outfit”, “new style”, “featured item”, “gift idea”, “price point”, “return purchase in store” and “suggested similar item” cues than the lower-end retailers. All up, the upper-end retailers provided more impulse cues overall than lower-end end retailers, which the researchers have taken to mean that the greater use of cues possibly results in greater web sales. (I do have reservations about the way some of the results have been interpreted in this study, but I won’t go into that right now.) The impulse cues mentioned above could be considered warning signs we can all use to know when we’re in dangerous territory regarding impulsive decision-making, because even though impulse purchases can sometimes be perfectly wonderful things that you love for years to come, that generally only happens when you impulse-purchase because of the item itself, and that alone. When you’ve got myriad other cues jostling for your attention and making your brain buzz and saying “buy now for all these fantastic reasons!”, you’re less likely to make a well considered, worthwhile purchase.