Why we wear brands

Ethics of Global Fashion

Emma is a Law & International Relations student, and aspiring diplomat with a passion for journalism. This semester she will be challenging the everyday choices we make, and the origins of the very clothes on our backs, as she explores a range of ethical concerns relating to global fashion.

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Wearing clothing with brand names splashed across the front is extremely popular – we all definitely have at least one ‘branded’ item in our wardrobe. Looking at reasons why this trend continues is less about the actual clothes, and more about our self-images.

One month ago Nike released an ad called “Unlimited You”. The ad didn’t mention prices, nor did it even suggest that there were Nike clothes for sale. What it suggested was for sale was a ‘successful you’. The ad showed a girl at a local tennis club, who the narrator told us would one day win the City Open Tournament. She didn’t believe the narrator. It then changed to a girl who didn’t believe she would one day have the “best [golf] swing in the state”, and then to an aspiring swimmer who was surprised that he had actually started “winning” races.

It goes on like this. Each of these athletes is fit, strong and happy, achieving things they didn’t think they could ever do, being successful in ways they thought were impossible, and wearing Nike clothes. It’s an attractive lifestyle – it’s the old ‘they kicked butt and looked good doing it’ thing. The ad plays on our weaknesses: self-doubt, lack of confidence and assumptions we make about ourselves and of our limited capabilities. Seeing ordinary people like us (who don’t believe they’ll ever be elite sportspeople) be incredibly successful allows us to hope that we too can be as successful. Our subconscious associates the brand ‘Nike’ with this lifestyle. Physically, Nike makes a profit by selling us sportswear. The only thing is, we didn’t think we were just buying pieces of material we could wear – we thought we were buying a lifestyle.

Globalisation has seen branded clothing become a worldwide phenomenon. Increasingly, the idea of every city being a ‘global city’ is becoming a reality. It doesn’t matter if you walk into a store in Australia, America or India – the same multinational corporations will be there selling branded clothing. Multinational corporations (MNCs) are predominantly founded in the West. Therefore, many argue that this commercial globalization is Westernization, and furthermore, that it is detrimental to the preservation of cultural identities, and thus diversity within our world.

I recognise that it is Western-style clothing which is being projected globally, and acknowledge that this is a sad reality of our world. However, I wonder if this spread is not something Western culture inherently drives, but rather a strategy MNCs have taken it upon themselves to employ for maximum revenue. I say this as, arguably, citizens of the Western world are detrimentally impacted by this consumerist spread of branded clothing too.

MNCs have influenced the messages Western society projects to its citizens. It’s sad that one of these messages is that people can only create an identity for themselves in a few ways – one of these ways being a walking advertisement for a multibillion-dollar brand. MNCs prey on any small dissatisfaction we may have with ourselves. They pick at this dissatisfaction, making it feel more and more significant to the point where it undermines our sense of self-worth. So long as they ensure we are never truly satisfied with our lives and our image, they can offer to sell us ‘identities’ to patch the hole they picked in our character. In the West too, we are pawns in their game to obtain maximum revenue.

Although this all sounds very dark and sinister, ultimately, we can ‘use’ brands too. Researcher Mrijn Meijers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands found that employers more likely to hire individuals who presented themselves at their job interview wearing brand logos. The likelihood increased if the brand was an expensive one. There is this perception in society that brands are trustworthy and project positive values. In associating yourself with a brand, people receive a clearer indication of what you stand for too.

In choosing to ‘brand’ ourselves, we could be making a public statement of our values and aspirations. Or, we could be simply paying to advertise an MNC and buying into beliefs of our own inadequacy. It feels like a choice we make when we ’just do it’.