E = E-commerce
Author: Maxine Bédat
Co-authored by Senior Curator Paola Antonelli and Curatorial Assistant Michelle Millar Fisher, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Special thanks to Maxine Bédat for allowing us to share her presentation.
On May 16, 2016, amid a dynamic roster of designers, curators, critics, scholars, and executives, fashion entrepreneur Maxine Bédat came to MoMA to address the real costs of fast fashion and to propose a model for a truly modern version of e-commerce.
Bédat’s was one of 26 presentations in a daylong abecedarium exploring fashion as the expression of social and cultural currents, using all 26 letters of the alphabet as a yardstick. (Follow the link above to explore archived footage of all 26 presentations and find out more about the forthcoming MoMA exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern?).
For now, we’re honored to share with you this abecedarium presentation, E = E-commerce.
Maxine Bédat: I am Maxine Bédat. I am the cofounder of Zady, a company born online which uses the science of technology and the art of design and story to create a modern, thoughtful fashion label. For the next seven minutes, we will consider if e-commerce is modern.
At first blush, e-commerce seems obviously modern. It’s based on technology and it’s a trend that is in the ascendance as traditional retail is on the decline. Fashion e-commerce is a $60 billion business. It represents 17.2% of all e-commerce sales, which makes it the largest sector of all online sales. With just two clicks, the consumer can get clothes from endless labels shipped directly to her door. Just about anything can be ordered online today without ever being asked to interact with another human being.
One could say that we really never had it so easy, and that must mean it’s modern. But this facility belies a system putting the planet and its people in great peril. Because what the consumer does not see on the screen is the true cost of her products. In our current state of cheap, one-click commerce, the fashion industry has become — without much notice — the second most polluting industry on the planet. And it’s a sector that is riddled with depraved working conditions, and child and forced labor.
How has society gotten here? It was the leadership of IKEA that recently stated — ironically — that we are at peak stuff. We have never had so much clothing and at such dirt-cheap prices. Consumers, in fact, have 300% more clothes than they did just a generation ago. And because we have so much stuff, we’re now wearing it very few times. In fact, on average the consumer wears their clothing only seven times before getting rid of it. This dramatic increase didn’t happen because consumers decided one day to just buy more stuff of less quality. It began as our economy changed, as our society changed, and we moved to this notion that consumerism is going to lead the way. So trade barriers began to lower. This created a financial incentive for brands to source production in countries with lower labor costs, without the consideration of the conditions these prices might come with, which caused clothing prices to fall and started a general trend toward low-cost, low-quality garments. And as consumers bought more and more of the cheap stuff, the local manufacturing industry collapsed. The US went from having 95% of its clothes domestically made to less than 2% today. This represents an 80% drop in domestic apparel manufacturing jobs.
As humans, we don’t prefer low quality. It was only through the rise of fast fashion — a business model based on the artificial creation of short-term trends combined with clothing that doesn’t last, what other industries call “planned obsolescence” — that consumers were, with of course very large marketing budgets, convinced to accumulate all of this stuff. But this cheap mentality has come with devastatingly unaccounted-for high costs for both the environment and the people making this clothing. Because in order to get these cheap prices, the industry has turned to a very cheap material, primarily polyester. You can see here the rise of polyester tracked alongside the point where H&M first opened in New York.
Today polyester is in more than 50% of all of our clothing, and the fast fashion industry is literally fueled on this stuff. But polyester is a disastrous material. It is non-biodegradable. What that means is that every bit of polyester that has ever been created in history is still with us on this planet today. Unlike glass or metals, it cannot be recycled in a closed-loop system. When polyester clothes are washed, thousands of plastic microfibers are shed ending up in our oceans. Scientists have found these microfibers are a bigger source of pollution than even those large plastics we read about. These fibers pollute the oceans and fish end up digesting them, and we end up eating the fish. A recent study found one in four fish sold at fish markets in California contained these microfibers.
Unlike natural materials, polyester is not a fiber created for user-centered design. It doesn’t breathe, so as one’s body temperature increases, the fabric simply locks that heat in, causing the wearer to sweat. And finally, polyester requires enormous amounts of energy to manufacture, especially in comparison to other available natural fibers. And this is true for recycled polyester as well.
Linen requires just 8% the amount of energy that polyester does. But it’s not just how much clothing we have and what it is being made out of. It is also compounded by where it is actually being manufactured, because these already toxic clothes are being manufactured in countries plugged into the most polluting power grids. Take a look at China. It’s the country where now the US imports most of its clothing from. In fact, over 40% of clothing sold in the US is now made there.
Now take a look at the degree of pollution coming from its energy supply. In China currently, 75% of their power is generated by coal. This is significant because coal is the most carbon-emitting of all fossil fuels. By comparison, in the US — certainly not the greenest energy actor — 33% of our supply is coal generated. As a result of the increase in production of clothing made out of energy-intensive materials in the world’s dirtiest energy grids, the apparel industry now accounts for 10% of the world’s total carbon footprint. Putting that into perspective, that is five times more polluting than all airline travel combined. A recent Esquire article revealed that many climate scientists are developing emotional problems — pre-traumatic stress disorder — due to their awareness of what is underway for our planet. This is understandable. All the evidence suggests we are rapidly approaching a threshold that could lead to a collapse of civilization—or even humanity’s extinction—and our clothing is at the center of it.
In the apparel industry’s race for cheap inputs, labor standards have also taken a back seat. One in six people in the world work in some part of the apparel chain—80% are women—yet 98% of them are not receiving a living wage. If you compare a map of where our clothing comes from and this map, which comes from the US Labor Department’s finding of forced and child labor, you see they match each other quite perfectly.
So now what? Our society has certainly reached peak stuff. Consumers’ closets are bursting open. The oil rigs, factories, and waste dumps are polluting, and the too-often abused and exploited people making these clothes are hidden away from the models and the promise of free shipping. In this system, it seems that no one is actually benefiting from this chaos. All those in the value of the chain are losing, perhaps, surprisingly, even consumers.
If Google searches are any indication, consumers are perhaps reaching their limit. Maybe we are deciding that the rapid accumulation of meaninglessness is not the type of modern world we want to live in. So where does that leave the question, “Is e-commerce modern?” What might modern e-commerce look like? Instead of avoiding human interaction, e-commerce might make our global world feel like a local community, where modern technology helps us connect with people throughout the value chain, from farmer to consumer. It may help us create a deep appreciation for the resources, labor, and talent required to turn material provided by nature into the fashion of our times.
We’re hoping truly modern e-commerce looks a little something like this: