The Supermarketization and Supersizing of Things

As I live in the vicinity of Japanese expatriates and general clotheshorses, I’d been hearing for a while that a certain famed clothing retailer was coming to conquer Jakarta by way of the city’s newer shopping mall. So, of course, being the good purveyor of newspaper column on urban living, there I was in the much-awaited store on its opening weekend.

Needless to say, I immediately found myself among the throng of curious Jakartans so eager to explore the new commercial temple and score the best deals that I already got elbowed before I got a shopping basket– offered with smile later by a salesgirl who quickly noticed I was teetering in front of the T-shirt racks with just my wits about me.

My years in the motherland of Supersize-Me, a.k.a. the good old USA, had prepared me for megastores. I mean, the Americans even have a megastore chain for office supplies and stationery, where I’d occasionally come for some pastel-colored folders and perfumed papers to print my resume on. The US also pioneered the concept of outlet stores, where out-of-season merchandises are sold for a fraction of original price at some unassuming large lots somewhere in suburbs. And while not originally from the USA, IKEA dotted almost its every middle-class suburbia it’s practically a landmark.

But there was something about Uniqlo that actually made me feel like standing in a supermarket. The clothes are so basic they’re almost certainly workable with what one already has in his or her possession. The items are rarely laid out as they are folded and boxed in clear plastic– packaged. The displays are utilitarian and easy to peruse without much help of salespersons, completely devoid of personality. The prices are varied but most are affordable for crowd frequenting the establishment that it doesn’t need much consideration to bag an item or two even when one isn’t even planning to shop. But instead of bagging for cabbage and cold cuts, here you bag for clothes. Supermarket of clothes.

Did I buy something? After getting elbowed around and surviving the loudspeaker constantly barking up welcome, promotion and instruction to salespersons to sing some corporate chant, I was persuaded enough to pick up a striped tee, a pajama bottom in a Marimekko-like pattern and some socks. Basic, cheap, simple, and probably bought in exact by several women that day.

Certainly Uniqlo is not to be solely blamed for the mass approach on how we dress ourselves. Popularized by H&M and Topshop in the past decade and now practiced by the likes of Zara and Forever21, fast fashion brings cheap clothes en masse to inundate a store for no more than six weeks, half of a classically-defined fashion season, before flooding the store with an entirely new batch. There is no need to produce pricey, long-lasting clothing when it isn’t meant to last long to begin with. That this business model has exhausted raw materials, worsened working conditions at sweatshops (Rana Plaza in Bangladesh two years ago, anyone?) and left us with bales of unwanted clothes destined for landfills, are elaborated clearly and chillingly by Elizabeth L. Cline in her 2012 best-selling fashion business book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.

A market is an intersection between producers and customers. While I’m all for the democratization of information (read: options) to customers prior to committing a purchase, I’m not so sure  it means employing resources to offer some 1,500 pieces of clothing when maybe on average a customer buys 15 while in need of not more than 5 pieces. And it’s not only on clothing—the same unnecessary flooding of purchasable merchandises has occurred on any imaginable consumer product category out there. Spoiled by extra choices at all times, I’m seeing people buying up anything in bulk only to tossing them out nonchalantly soon, sometimes unused or unworn, acutely unaware of resource depletion and global supply chain overheating that come with the arrival of the products in those megastores in the first place.

Some people have argued that with the prevalent poverty in Indonesia, tossed out items will find a new user or wearer pretty soon. While that may be true on many cases, it doesn’t change the fact that on global scale this fast consumption pattern has depleted much resources and created such excesses. In the case of thrown away clothing, while Jakarta’s Pasar Senen is a much-revered establishment with its own loyal clientele, the majority of unwanted clothing not absorbable by thrift stores worldwide is shipped in vacuumed bales to Africa.

Which begs the question—when Africa doesn’t need used clothing in the future, where else the excess of the world clothing should heed to but landfills? Landfills that are also occupied with scrap metals, old gadgets, used furniture, used plastic wares and whatnots that finally can’t find secondary or tertiary new owners.

Which then begs the ultimate question—what happens when we finally run out of resources to produce new things we actually need and instead are surrounded by resource-exhausting junks that were created just to satiate our wants?

Supermarketization and supersizing of things—may just end up in superdoom of beings.

As published:

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