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Consumed: Part One

Speeding up the consumerism treadmill

Amy Scott Nov 12, 2007
Consumed: Part One

Speeding up the consumerism treadmill

Amy Scott Nov 12, 2007


Scott Jagow: Belts, shoes, iPods, cell phones… in the past 20 years, U.S. consumption has nearly doubled. How can we possibly keep up that pace? The scary thing is, our buying spree might speed up before it slows down. Amy Scott has this story from the fashion industry:

Amy Scott: The brand new H&M at the Willow Grove Mall outside Philadelphia doesn’t open ’till noon. But 26-year-old Patrice Boxley showed up two hours early.

Patrice Boxley: I’ll see myself here at least four-five times a week.

She joined a throng of shoppers waiting to pounce.

Female shopper #1: It’s inexpensive, but you can get some really fresh, funky stuff.

Female shopper #2: If it doesn’t last, it’s okay — it was only $6.

H&M is short for Hennes and Mauritz. The Swedish company launched its first U.S. store in New York City seven years ago. Since then, it’s opened 135 stores throughout the country with similar fanfare.

H&M and other so-called “fast fashion” chains are transforming the clothing industry. At most high-fashion houses, it can take six months for a new design to reach the store rack. H&M can deliver a cheap knockoff in as little as three weeks. New styles arrive every day — in big cities, sometimes two or three times a day.

Sarah Denathorn is a self-described chronic shopper. She says the constant churn feeds her habit:

Sarah Denathorn: If you see it, you have to get it, ’cause it may not be there next time you go back.

The frenzy is spreading fast. H&M is expanding into the Middle East and China. This shopper browses one of two new stores in Shanghai.

Female shopper #3: I’m looking for a tee-shirt to match my skirt today.

She says she owns a hundred pairs of shoes, and shops about once a week.

Juliet Schor: Now, if you’re talking about the whole world doing that, that will have big ripple effects throughout the economy and the ecology.

That’s Juliet Schor. She teaches sociology at Boston College and wrote the book “Born to Buy.” She says for one thing, as clothing has gotten cheaper, we’re buying more of it — almost twice as much in this country as we did 15 years ago. Schor says each blouse and boxer short takes a toll on the Earth, from the pesticides used to grow cotton to the carbon released transporting it. And there’s a subtler toll:

Schor: Every individual has to do a lot more work to stay current. It’s like a treadmill, where we just speed up but we’re all just staying in place.

Back at the mall in suburban Pennsylvania, Patrice Boxley says she’s thought about stepping off that treadmill…

Boxley: I just watched a special last week about the whole global-warming thing, and like I said I was gonna go on a financial fast after the H&M opening. But I don’t know — we’ll see how that goes. (laughs)

In Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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