An analysis of our relationship with discount culture
A large SALE neon sign against a window display with an empty clothes rack

 

As early as September, advertisements from various shopping platforms started popping up everywhere — on social media, in MRT stations (Harbourfront, anybody?) and echoed in radio stations. It shouldn’t come as a surprise as participating retailers gear up for some of the biggest sales extravaganzas this festive season (if I’m frank, is there still any celebratory spirit left?). Yet, I'm still overwhelmed when faced with an advertisement about a mega sale. 

Even as we’ve realised that we can afford to live with a lot less, it is understandably challenging to resist cashbacks, exclusive deals and too-good-to-miss bargains especially when they are bulldozed into our living existence every day. 


There are plenty of shopping ‘holidays’ that we have grown to become acquainted with over the years. The usual suspects include clearance warehouse sales, the Great Singapore Sale, Chinese New Year sales (which seems to be a shopping phenomenon mostly unique to Singapore) and year-end Christmas sales. In comparison, the new kids on the ‘sale’ block include flashy 11.11 and Black Friday deals. They are known as ‘in-season’ discounting campaigns, aided by mob mentality and have gained cult-level popularity. These holidays are characterised by one common trait: they are all corporation-masterminded. As capitalism’s favourite child, fashion becomes an excellent medium to drive consumption through lower prices, which might seem to make sense, until we start to imagine what would happen if food went on a discount rampage every other month.

 

Shopping ‘holidays’ in Singapore 

Held by Singapore Tourism Board in alliance with the Singapore Retailers Association, the Great Singapore Sale (GSS) began in 1994 to promote the country as an attractive shopping destination. I have fond memories of shopping with my mum during the GSS as a child, as it coincided with the June school holidays (very strategic). We would splurge on bigger-ticket items that we wouldn’t regularly - like a new kettle, or bedding and pillows from department stores (RIP, Robinsons). 26 years on, more recent shopping holidays have overtaken the buzz and novelty of GSS. 

Usher in 11.11 Singles Day, the predecessor of the other ‘numbered’ shopping holidays we have gotten used to ‘celebrating’. Singles Day, also known as ‘bare sticks holiday’ originated in 1993 in Nanjing University, China, as a day for students to celebrate their singledom. The date 11/11 was chosen as it resembles four solitary bare sticks. It was blameless until Alibaba.com, the multinational e-commerce and technology group, co-opted the idea and rebranded it into a large-scale shopping festival

 

Black Friday as a shopping holiday grew as fashion corporations capitalised on the tradition of bargain hunting for gifts, post-Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas. The Black Friday madness saw overnight queues, crowds flooding into shops to grab anything in sight and insane turnover rates in previous years. 

It should be duly noted that while consumers participate in these various sales promotions, the largest beneficiaries of rampant consumption are fashion corporations as they yield high profitability by training shoppers to shop on sale. Over time, these mega fashion MNCs have coaxed consumers to expect discounts, a behaviour that works in their favour. It is only natural that our expectations of various sales campaigns only increase every year, pushing retailers and brands to be more competitive with their advertising strategies (cheaper prices, better deals, flashier advertisements). 

 

Markdowns as a sign of the fashion system's incompetency:

1) Overstocked inventories

Fashion corporations, more often than not, rely on strategic price reductions to effectively generate revenue. Merchandising departments invest heavily in advanced analytics software to determine the best approach to obtain lucrative profits through the right discounts. Overstocked inventories are a result of poor forecasting of sales and the heavy reliance on seasonal trends to sell clothes, which is inevitable due to the constraints of a rigid fashion system. There is a myriad of reasons that can affect consumers’ buying behaviour a pandemic, a recession, changes in seasonality. Excess inventory is more than an issue of wasted space in the warehouse. Each unsold shirt or bag represents money spent on production and marketing that hasn’t been recouped. Therefore, retailers channel significant marketing efforts (aggressive discounting) to get rid of idle stock.

A well-stocked fabric warehouse

 

2) The habitual over-reliance on discounts

Back when I was in university, I distinctly remember being taught to factor in errors of margin when it comes to the planning of a new collection. A loss in profits from quantities that the retailer is unable to sell at full price (hence, discounted) contributes to these errors. Specifically, we had to account for inaccurate forecasting of consumers’ purchase behaviour. This meant that buyers and merchandisers were predicting numbers of unsold quantities, even before they sold the collection. Markdowns become an addiction and a convenient cover-up, where discounts could hopefully resolve any form of poor product range planning. 

For unique shopping holidays, fashion retailers and e-commerce platforms get to drive even higher traffic and sales through advertisements. They thrive on flash sales and frequent shopping holidays and are well-loved for convenience and low prices. 

 
“We need to redesign the traditional way of doing business and disrupt the entire system. That means forecasting better, producing smarter, avoiding overproduction and preventing excess stock and dependency on sales.” - @ssustainably_

 

The discount fatigue 

The sale season fatigue is as real as it gets. Behind the momentary high and buzz, discount campaigns hurt the fashion system in more ways than we know. On top of creating more waste than necessary (freight and packaging), it devalues clothing by inherently rendering it disposable

To boycott Black Friday, brands have led memorable campaigns in the past to go against consumer expectations of low prices during sale season. Patagonia rolled out ‘Buy Nothing Day’ a few years back to take a stand against the fashion system that profits from producing too much. This year, Australian-based fashion brand Citizen Wolf proposes to rename Black Friday as ‘Black Fridye’. By encouraging their followers to dye their clothes black, they wish to evoke consensus against the avid pursuit for discount culture through a collective visceral act. 

London-based womenswear brand Birdsong announced their ‘Transparent Friday’ manifesto in light of the upcoming sales season. In their breakdown of the essential costs that go behind creating their garments, they admit that they are not sustainable, and cannot be, until big brands are, too. Though still offering discounts as a reward to their loyal customers, they encourage consumers to pay full price, or perhaps even tip extra at checkout. Similarly, Exeter-based womenswear brand Sancho’s rolls out a ‘Pay what you can’ Friday initiative to redirect consumption agency back to their customers. Depending on their financial capacity, they can choose to pay the lowest, middle or highest tier. 


Local brands Dear Samfu and Mind the Label, are amongst some of many fashion brands that place heavy emphasis on honest and transparent pricing. In being clear with their community on the rationale behind the prices of their clothing, they are held accountable for ethical and mindful production practices. In the spirit of reimagining the 11.11 shopping holiday, Nylon Coffee Roasters — one of my favourite coffee spots — pledged to donate 11% of their webshop purchases to an organisation that supports families and households living in rental housing units. 

 

Support small and local 

Independent fashion brands and designers bear the biggest brunt of the impact of discount culture. With limited means, they cannot afford to match the low prices offered by more resourceful competitors. The likes of e-commerce platforms like Amazon, Lazada and Shopee rely on a race-to-the-bottom pricing strategy, which is the antithesis of how independent brands design and sell. 

As much as how the new Instagram update is the bane of our existence, the ‘Shop’ tab comes in handy for consumers to discover new makers and designers. Qiyun Woo, otherwise known as @theweirdandwild, has created a handy guide addressing ways to reach out to more small businesses and *new* ways of organising economic activity which I love:  

“This season, for those of us who can, let’s imagine new ways of organising economic activity… and adopting new models of consumption that contributes to more democratic, more collective, and more equitable ways of living.” - @theweirdandwild

 

It is not productive to judge one’s purchases independent of their circumstance. Should one rely on the year-end shopping holidays to afford certain items, no one should be in a position to cast judgement. However, I would think twice about my purchase decisions if they are mainly driven by the adrenaline of bargain-scoring, and not out of necessity. 

 

Democratisation through discounting - a myth

Unconcerned audience members and patrons of the discount culture may contend that discounted prices allow consumers with less financial capacity more room at fulfilling their fashion desires. This explanation is similar to the justification used to sustain the mammoth growth of the fast-fashion industry. However, this argument is superficial and flawed. 

Ultimately, we should be critiquing cheap (fast) fashion as a product of fashion corporations’ unceasing drive for profit. The system does not set out to provide consumers with limited financial capabilities with more freedom of choice. Tansy Hoskins, journalist and author of ‘Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion’ (p. 101) explains why low prices is a form of false emancipation: 

The ability to buy something should not be confused with freedom. This cheapens freedom by narrowing it to the right to choose between different styles in the shops. Imagining that the right to buy limitless clothes at whatever cost to the planet equals freedom, is to lose sight of what freedom actually means. 

The next time someone argues against fast-fashion and discount culture, show them this section of the article. Fashion democracy can never be fully met until the same democracy extends to fashion's own supply chain this means treating the garment workers equitably and paying them living wages. Before massive corporations own up to the social and environmental destruction they've caused, fashion shouldn’t be allowed to use discount culture as a convenient cover-up for its wasteful and exploitative system. Hoskins (p. 66) puts it across succinctly, “There is no fashion democracy and no level playing field. Instead there is an ever-turning wheel which we must all run.”

 

About Xingyun

Xingyun Shen

Xingyun is a fashion business graduate who advocates for a more humane fashion system. Seeking to address the importance of intersectionality when analysing fashion sustainability, she runs @noordinaryprotest as a platform to call for a shift in mindset. Her favourite time of the day is 5 pm, and her go-to fashion activity is swapping.