Abuja, Nigeria: In my final year of undergrad law, we studied company law which was essentially the study of law as it relates to businesses and organisations. In that course, my lecturer, who is now a State High Court Judge said that companies were organisations set up to make profit. This was the most distinctive feature of companies over NGOs and non-profits. Companies were for profit.
Thus, the job of a company, the board, the management and everyone in the company is to make profit for the company. Anyone who wasn’t doing this should not be part of the company. Any company not making revenue or profit should be shuttered.
In recent years, this view on what companies are supposed to do has softened. The current school of thought is that companies are supposed “to do good for humankind”, protect the environment while also keeping an eye on the bottom line. This is commonly referred to as the triple bottom line.
If presented with the choice of doing “good” and making profit, however, in all likelihood every CEO will choose profit. The choice will only be different when he or she can make money and do good at the same time. As Starbucks founder Howard Schultz describes it as “doing good is good for the bottom line”.
This has been the case with fashion companies, and particularly, fast fashion companies.
“If 6 out of the 10 garments that we produce end up in landfills or incinerated within the first year of production, should we have made those 6? At a moment when Cape Town is running out of water, and when I know every jean I make conventionally consumes 3781 liters per garment, what moral excuse do I have to make those 6 extraneous things that are going to waste, when 4 is good enough? And how much better would the 4 have been if the 6 had never been made…?”
Its moral excuse is profit.
The reality remains that Levi’s (and any other fashion company) will keep making those 10 pairs of jeans as far as they can reasonably expect people to buy them. And people are buying them. Levi’s net revenues for 2017 was $4.9 billion. To therefore expect the company to make any number less than it knows it can sell, simply out of its desire to be “sustainable” is perhaps asking for too much.
If many more consumers are concerned for the environment and for creating this culture of sustainability and decided that they wanted to own fewer pairs of jeans, Levi’s will have no option but to make a lower number. Levi’s makes them because we want them.
An argument here may be that fashion businesses are responsible for creating the culture of disposable fashion and overconsumption. In my opinion, the customers already had these buying habits, the fashion companies only heightened them.
In addition, even if fashion brands created these buying habits, it doesn’t necessarily make them villains. It was their job, their duty, their reason for existence to make consumers buy their products. We cannot fault them for being very good at their purpose: their essential purpose, remember, is to make a profit. If you run a restaurant, you wouldn’t refuse to sell doughnuts to a customer because you think he or she looks obese, would you?
The reality is that consumers are making more indulgent demands, sometimes more than these companies can fulfil. A simple indicator of this is the sheer number of people who use “pay later” services. If not being able to afford to buy a product outright hasn’t stopped customers from spending money they don’t actually have, then what could? If you had to borrow money to be able to buy something online, something that you probably don’t even need, then, in my opinion, you must want it really, really bad.
In my society, and most other African nations I’m sure, people are not familiar with the concept of fast fashion. This may be as a result of a lower buying power than what is tenable in the West. The result is that the demand for the products of these fashion houses is not as high in many parts of the continent as it is in the West. Even if the buying power increases (as it has) they would still never buy so much because who honestly needs that many clothes? Therefore, Levi’s or any other company may not have to produce “10 pairs of jeans” for the African market.
In business, the “Customer is King” as they say. Companies and brands exist to serve at his or her pleasure. Businesses that the customer loves become the leading brands and the highest profit earners. The products and services he or she likes become staple and are produced in higher quantities. The products he or she doesn’t like remain in stores and are gradually phased out of production. Sometimes the companies that make these products follow suit.
In business, there is also another less popular but still very important theory. That is, that the consumer does not really know what he or she wants. Therefore, the consumer can be convinced to buy anything as many times as possible. With this knowledge, it is up to the brand to create products and services that it believes the customers would love, then go about convincing them to love it, if for no other reason, that everyone else loves it. This is where the ad campaigns and targeted ads come in.
The way forward is for consumers to know what they want. With the internet, this is easier than it has ever been. Getting information about the clothes you buy, who made them and who to buy them from is literally a click away. With this information, a shopper can decide what he or she wants and have the data to back up their decision. In this way, no amount of data can sway their resolve. And naturally, the ads will stop coming and so too production.
It’s a matter of basic economic principles really: If you don’t need it, then don’t buy it; if you don’t buy it, they wouldn’t sell it, and if they can’t sell it, then they wouldn’t make it. Simple.
Want to learn how to be a more conscious consumer? This guide will help.