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Combatting our evolutionary addiction to shopping



Merz’s work, which focuses on human behaviour globally and not on fashion (or any other industry) in particular, argues that people are drawn to buying clothes and other material goods beyond what we actually need — to keep warm, for example — because we are driven to “signal” something about ourselves. The societal norms of today — consumption as a status symbol — have taught us to do this by flaunting wealth or style and newness.

“Social norms provide context for signalling,” says Merz. “I’m not going to start signalling my wealth by wearing a wooden hat.”

What this means for fashion

The applications of this research for the fashion industry span customer engagement to internal operations.

Relationships with customers are the most obvious. Fashion exists on a demand-driven model. It thrives not only because it supplies products to meet demand, but also because it spends significant resources on marketing and advertising to increase that demand perpetually.

The role of marketing is a key focus in the Merz study, which explains that marketing’s historic use was to spotlight the functional reasons to buy specific products. As markets filled with more options and competition increased, marketing evolved to help products stand out — to attract buyers who no longer needed their products but could be convinced to want them. No longer constrained by people’s actual needs, business growth could be infinitely expanded to any need they could create inside consumers’ heads.

And fashion has capitalised. Brands are estimated to spend between 5 and 10 per cent of their revenue on marketing and advertising to attract customers into their stores and to buy the latest trends. But it doesn’t need to be this way, Merz says.

Fashion wields enormous cultural influence and has the potential to transform people’s values — not only to shift away from overconsumption but actually to value and care for the planet and each other. “The fashion industry could recognise the evolutionary roots of why they have an industry — and by recognising and understanding those roots, they have the potential to radically change the way humans satisfy those impulses,” he says.

Social norms are “so incredibly fluid” and don’t need to be attached to materialistic status symbols, he adds. “There are far better ways we could be satisfying our needs and impulses.”

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