Why We Love to Love Authenticity

Authentic clothing, authentic food, authentic people — what does it say about us and the world we live in?

Recently, my friend and I caught up with each other over lunch at a small Vietnamese restaurant. With the aroma of cafe da filling the air, we cracked open the worn menu and hungrily scanned its contents. She got the beef pho, and I went with a banh mi.

When our orders arrived, we dove right in.

“This is really good,” she said, inspecting the noodles dangling from her chopsticks. “Seems really authentic too.”

I agreed — though I’m no expert on Vietnamese food, the Yelp reviewers had said so. And as the hole-in-the-wall got busier and a line started to form outside, I wondered how many of these people were also drawn to the restaurant by its perceived authenticity: the shop’s limited seating, the sparse menu, and the no-frills decor. After all, authenticity has become a buzzword in all corners of our everyday experience, from dining to clothing to politics. We love authentic foods, time-honored brands, and candid politicians.

This is no secret; that’s why so many things are labeled that way — authentic jeans, authentic enchiladas, authentic travel. These things promise us something extraordinary, something set apart from our mass-produced experiences.

But, how do we evaluate whether they deliver or not? Research by Napoli et al. in the Journal of Business Research shows that the three major dimensions of whether we see something as authentic — or not — are sincerity, heritage, and a commitment to quality. Many brands even implicitly tap into this by marketing in a way that communicates these values, even if they don’t represent them.

Take the story of Madewell, a work wear brand founded in 1937 and remained defunct for years until revived by J. Crew in 2006. The great-grandson of Madewell’s founder published an article on how J. Crew created a whole mythology of quality and history around the brand, painting it as homespun, raw, and classic. Their tactics have definitely worked; now the Madewell name is worth more than J. Crew’s in a fashion atmosphere that is hostile towards large labels. People have literally bought into Madewell’s story.


Other artisanal, small brands have blossomed as well; just look at the $2.4 billion in sales that went through Etsy last year, or the cultural obsession we have with locally owned coffee shops.

Yet — could this be a bad thing? Despite what we say about supporting small businesses, are we misguided?

Steven Poole argues in his piece on New Statesman that “the authenticity fetish disguises and renders socially acceptable a raw hunger for hierarchy and power.” That is, we like the idea being able to purchase something that someone has spent many, many hours working on. Poole thinks that we only like artisanal goods because it gives us a little bit of control over someone else’s life.

But I don’t buy it.

At a basic level, Merriam-Webster defines authentic as being “real or genuine.” But I think this explanation only scratches the surface. When we are drawn to a brand for its authenticity, we’re drawn to the spirit of fearlessness it embodies. We want to buy products made by people who believe in their clothing, or coffee, or watercolors so much that they’re willing to share it with the world. We believe in the Davids standing strong against the corporate Goliaths.

For example, in fashion, many people are looking beyond big-box brands in order to cultivate their own individual sense of style. Many are gravitating towards brands that take pride in their craftsmanship, offering unique pieces that express something about the person wearing them. From fair trade linen dresses to handmade hammered silver earrings and vegan leather, what we wear on our bodies is a way to show what is important to us.

Today, we live in an increasingly globalized and open world, where even as we become more technologically connected, we are more and more lost in the fast-paced stream of life. We want to be distinct again, to be more human and less machine. We want to hold onto things that are meaningful, things that have a story.

Perhaps that’s what we mean by authenticity. It means passion about the narrative behind what we purchase and consumes; it grounds us in the process of making; it makes us feel more human. No wonder we’re constantly searching it out.


One idea. Six people. Countless cups of matcha.

In November of 2014, Cartful came into being as a better and easier way to discover alternatives to mainstream fashion brands. Our philosophy is that the way we dress should reflect our sense of self — that’s why we’ve curated 400+ small brands that are either less expensive, better quality, or have an interesting story to tell.

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