In response to the horrors of 9/11, George Bush famously told the American people:
“We can not let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop.”
His plea for people to hit the sales rails was a poignant reminder that for many of us, shopping is an increasingly important part of our lives. There have been shopaholics indulging in retail therapy since the 1980s. But now, with new purchases only a click away, our obsession with spending and acquiring is reaching new limits.
In the UK we spend an average of 40 minutes a day shopping. The recession has limited our overall buying power, but in the last five years there is one consistent area of growth; the average amount we spend on clothing and footwear has almost doubled. In particular, fashion brands that can supply the latest trends quickly and cheaply have thrived: Zara and Primark have a turnover of around £3 billion per year.
Such is our zeal for bagging a bargain that some social commentators have called shopping the new religion. Popular philosopher Julian Baggini puts it like this: “The kind of ‘must have’ mania that infects some shoppers as they close in on a good deal is… akin to the imperatives of religious devotion… The search for the comforts that will make our lives better and more meaningful now takes place in the pages of the Argos catalogue, not the Bible.”
Indeed, religious types have often fought against the tide of consumerism, which seems to be encroaching on their territory. The Keep Sunday Special campaign and even The Church of Stop Shopping are all attempts by Christians to challenge the dominant culture of relentless shopping.
There is, however, an alternative: to take the industry from the inside. Christians are everywhere in the world of fashion. Matt and Dan of trendy brand, The Greatest Of These, specialise in t-shirts with Biblical slogans on. If you prefer something a little more discreet, try the feminine offerings of Asorika, run by Abisade Adenubi. Not heard of them before? Well here’s a label you have heard of.
Turn their luminous plastic bags upside down and you’ll find the phrase ‘John 3:16’ emblazoned on the bottom in thick black font.
Their sermonising has not gone unnoticed. In 2008, feminist blog Jezebel called the shop a “strange, rabid, proselytizing Christian cult”, asking, “God, when did shopping turn into some insane moral allegory?” But the fuss really began with the satirical website WTForever21, in 2011, when blogger Rachel Kane noticed that a religious message had “crept out… onto their shelves.” Not only did the shop stock an inordinate number of crosses on necklaces and t-shirts, but they also had vests reading “Jesus Loves You”, “Believe in Me. Yours Eternally, God” and just plain “God”, all in enormous letters across the front. She wrote: “Amidst the forgettable crosses and Jesus love, THIS stuff jumped out at me, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, ‘You are no longer in a store. Welcome to the Sunday morning service you did not sign up for. Now get to prayin’ sinner!’” Forever 21 threatened to sue her.
There was also the 2007 documentary film Made in L.A. which followed three immigrant women who worked in an L.A. sweatshop as they battled to win basic labour protections from Forever 21. None of this did wonders for the company’s PR, although they insist “we have procedures in place to stay ethical.”
The owners, the Chang family, are known to attend church daily and go on mission trips instead of taking holidays. Mr Chang keeps a Bible open on his desk and Mrs Chang claims that they opened their first shop because God gave her a message while she was praying. Yet they insist that their religion and their clothing line are not connected, saying: “There is no religious tilt. The faith of the founders is separate to the brand – the bag is simply a statement of faith.”
So, should Christians applaud brands like Forever 21 for bringing Jesus into high street fashion stores? Or join the increasing number of bloggers that question their rather full-on approach?
Images from the Forever 21 website.