U of T students must stop thinking about products in their finished forms

By James Jiang, Features & Op-Eds Associate Editor

On Shein — an Asian fast fashion store online — the sales are sweeter than honey. Fiery-red, bolded letters are emblazoned on the web store’s front page: “SALE! UP TO 90% OFF FOR THE HOLIDAYS! MARKDOWNS ON 400K+ GOOD FINDS!”

My personal Shein order for the holidays has all the essentials: trendy Korean pleated black pants, a cat graphic knit sweater, a cropped faded hoodie, and some hair clips for good measure. I even got fast, free 3–5 business day shipping. Sweet. 

When I receive my package, it’s always the same process. I brim with excitement, tear through the wrapping, experiment with some new outfits, and lock them away in my closet. Afterwards, I’m ready to check out my next order. God, I can’t wait to get my next order. 

But something is off. Something about my emotions and thoughts — how I see Shein’s products — is disturbing. As consumers living in a global city like Toronto — in a community of chic Trinity and U of T students — we are thrust into a toxic cycle where we view the world through the one-dimensional, grossly simplistic lens of a consumer. Put differently, our thought processes around commodities are crude and trivialized; we only see products in their finished forms. 

In thinking through this lens, something important is lost: the social, geological, and ecological roots of urbanization. As U of T students, we commit this sin — the sin of commodity fetishization. 

Commodities are fetishized by token of our naivety and belief, in which we create a nonsensical hierarchy of value that prizes, for example, diamonds over water. This magical quality of commodities can also be understood in terms of social relations: fetishization occurs when the connection to the actual hands of the labourer is severed as soon as the commodity becomes a monetary good — when people appraise commodities with inherent value rather than the labour and relationships used in their production.

When we purchase food and drinks at Trinity’s Buttery, we forget about the complex labour relations that bring these packaged products to Trinity College. When we shop around for school-branded hoodies and shirts at the bookstore, we forget about the economic dynamics that bring ready-to-wear fabrics to U of T. When we use our textbooks, laptops, and tablets, we forget about the materials that are imported from beyond Canadian borders to make our studies possible. The products we consume are more than just their cash value: they are intertwined layers of economic processes, labour relations, colonial dynamics, and more. The laptop I use to write this article on, for example, is a finished product — the fruits of an international collaborative effort stringed together by the economics and politics that make the world go round. 

This fetishized mindset is out of touch with the real world — with the complex dynamics behind finished products. The history behind these consumables is mostly forgotten and irrelevant to U of T students and other Torontonians. We are lost in the sauce — lost in the toxic cycle of consumer mindset where we are so eager for our next Shein order and purchase. We forgot about the kilometres of destruction and irreversible transformations of nature that were potentially necessary to produce our commodities.

Moreover, our products are no longer cast as objects with utilitarian purposes. They are seen as magical symbols of status and identity. My Shein order, for example, isn’t guided by my desire to have clothes to keep me warm or to not be naked. Rather, it’s informed by my desire to gain status, to be the most fashionable, and to get envious looks from passersby and peers. In this sense, my products are fetishized and corrupted by my consumer mindset. Ultimately, a Louis Vuitton purse or Prada loafers are just pieces of leather and fabric, but they are fetishized as symbols of luxury and affluence. 

As this commodity fetishization runs rampant, we slowly lose touch with the real world. The impact will be seen in more than the products we consume: it will lead to a gross trivialization and oversimplification of power and politics, and it will contaminate our ways of thinking. Chiefly, we risk becoming ignorant of the realities — of the destruction, child labour, and other problems — that go on behind our products. 

As young, easy-to-mould minds, we must not fall trap to this fetishized mindset. We must be keenly aware of how we perceive our commodities, lest we continue to indulge in — and happily support — the behind-the-scenes destruction. As students, we must see the colours and histories behind what we consume and be healthily sober in the ways we consume. It’s ripe time to absolve ourselves of our sin — to confront the sin of commodity fetishization. 

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