Common patterns of behaviour can often be observed within complex systems; behaviour that serves to reinforce certain outcomes and make change difficult. Some of these "archetype" behaviours have been mapped by theorist William Braun in his paper, The System Archetypes. The diagrams below are loosely modelled after six system archetypes as they relate to the garment industry.
Note that any “+” or “-” signs within the diagrams refer not to good/bad or beneficial/detrimental relationships between elements, but rather, positive and inverse ones. So, in a positive relationship between two elements in a diagram (denoted by a “+” sign near the arrowhead), as one element increases or decreases, so too does the connecting element. In an inverse (“-”) relationship, as one element increases, the other decreases, and vice versa.
Where applicable, leverage points identified within the system diagrams have been denoted with the following symbol:
According to Braun, the escalation archetype refers to patterns of behaviour where one party’s actions are perceived by another party to be a threat, and the second party responds in a similar manner, further increasing the threat.
In the case of the garment industry, the use of price reductions of clothing to fuel consumption and sales leads to a "race to the bottom" that inevitably impacts both the quality of garments (and their inevitable longevity) and the perception of clothing value, which then fuels a further decrease in customer expectations of low clothing prices. This spiral of decreasing prices and subsequent increased consumption is also spurred on by larger social drivers (demarcated in green) that influence the need/desire for new clothing.
A potential leverage point for change, therefore, might involve dissociating the idea of what’s “new” from the use virgin materials. That is, new could involve the new experience of shared or second-hand clothing, embellishment of worn garments, etc. to channel sales revenues toward a more diverse marketplace of activities and reduce the need for low prices alone to fuel sales.
Due to the rapidly declining quality and durability of clothing made by fast fashion and “value” brands and their low-cost pricing strategies, even clothing passed on to charities and second-hand markets are not guaranteed second lives. The value proposition of buying second-hand when new but lower-quality pieces are available for the same price - especially when clothing won’t be worn more than a handful of times - is hardly an appealing one.
This quandary could be compared to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ system archetype proposed by Braun, who posits that, “as each person or team increases their demands and expectations of the commons in the name of their own goals, the commons itself finds itself under steadily increasing pressure to perform while simultaneously feeling that its control over its own destiny steadily erodes toward collapse” (Braun, 2002, p. 12). With regard to second-hand markets (the commons), as the purchase of cheap new clothing increases, rates of discard and donation to charity also rise, subsequently impacting the appeal and viability of second-hand clothing drops due to the poor quality of donations and the high speed of changing trends.
Within complex systems rules are sometimes established to help govern them, but wherever rules exist, there is also likely to be rule beating - that is, evasive action that abides by the letter of the rule, but not necessarily its spirit.
In the case of the garment industry, this archetype can be seen to play out within the complex supply chains relied upon for the production of clothing for sale. Since brands and retailers can (and do) easily shift production contracts around the globe, suppliers must often take drastic measures to produce high volumes of clothing at extremely low prices. This often leads to the lengthening of supply chains through flexible specialization, contracting and middlemen, and an inevitable drop in the autonomy and safety of already vulnerable workers. And yet, since brands are not directly responsible for production, it is easy to shift blame to the suppliers when abuses or tragedies occur within the system.
Potential leverage point for change: Finding ways to “level the playing field” so that all competitors in the garment industry are motivated to operate in less exploitative ways could create significant knock-on effects for the entire system. These might include legislation, industry-wide binding agreements, or even collaborative R&D endeavours.
The theory behind the eroding goals archetype posits that gaps between goals and actual conditions can be resolved either by taking corrective action to achieve the goal, or by lowering the goal itself. Over time, however, consistently lowering the goal will deteriorate the system's performance.
The reliance of many fast fashion retailers on principles of extremely low prices to spur increased sales and consumption has led to a widespread perception that clothing price should be low. Based on that perception, brands and retailers often look for further ways to reduce prices, which then distances customers from both the means of production and the impacts of consumption and severs our links to the visceral feedback needed to make informed decisions. Without these feedback loops, customers can only abstractly comprehend the consequences of their choices, and inevitably fall back on price-based decision making.
Potential leverage point for change: Affordable clothing does not need to be abolished entirely, but perpetuating the belief that customers will only buy what’s cheapest causes negative implications for the system, the supply chain and the planet. Collaborative consumption practices, for example, could keep prices accessible without requiring production costs to be lowered and chains to be ever distanced from customers.
The success to the successful archetype describes context in which the winners of a competition are systematically rewarded with the means to win again. This inevitably creates a reinforcing feedback loop is created that, if allowed to proceed uninhibited, results in the "winner" eventually taking all while the "losers" are eliminated.
In the competitive landscape of the garment industry, clothing companies that are able to capture sales from their competitors (in the current mode, often by reducing prices) generate more capital to grow their business, meaning production orders increase further, and through economies of scale, reduce their prices even further. Smaller companies that are unable to compete on price thus have a much harder time reaching economies of scale, and subsequently staying in business. The diversity of the marketplace eventually suffers, leaving smaller numbers of larger brands in control, and smaller independent players increasingly shut out of the marketplace.
Potential leverage point for change: New techniques and technologies currently in development (i.e., computational fashion, metadesign, or online digital platforms that support independent design talent), however, could help level the playing field by reducing costs of production and facilitate a more diverse fashion commerce ecosystem.
Shifting the burden occurs when a solution to a systemic problem reduces or hides its symptoms but does nothing to deal with the underlying cause.
This type of behaviour plays out quite evidently in the pervasive collective pass-time of "retail therapy," in which we use the purchase of new products to soothe the anxieties we feel in our daily lives. These therapy sessions may provide temporary relief by inflating our egos and sense of status, but are ultimately detrimental to our long-term sense of wellbeing (Thorpe, 2010, p. 8-9). Tim Kasser, researcher and author of The High Price of Materialism (2002) explains that people who are highly materialistic (regardless of their age, race, or wealth) tend to have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who are not.
In addition, “the studies document that strong materialistic values are associated with a pervasive undermining of people’s well-being, from low life satisfaction and happiness, to depression and anxiety, to physical problems such as headaches, and to personality disorders, narcissism, and antisocial behaviour” (Kasser, 2002, p. 22). Far from helping us reach our idealized selves, by using clothing consumption as a relief from what ails us, we risk undermining our long-term health and happiness.
Potential leverage point for change: Though certainly difficult to cultivate in societies where instant gratification has become the norm, a focus on re-directing the goal-seeking behaviour of retail therapy toward healthier, more intrinsically satisfying activities (perhaps experience-based services) could reduce materialism while maintaining profitability.