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The Rise of the North Face Cult: A Millian Disgrace?

December 10, 2010
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"Don't I look fetching? I understand why people wear these! Now, where are my Ugg boots..."

Lately, due to the lovely Michigan pre-winter weather (it gets worse), I noticed just how many people own and wear North Face down jackets, fleeces, and backpacks, I myself included. This observance reminded me of one lecture on Mill when Professor LaVaque-Manty mentioned that if the philosopher himself were around today to see the army of North Face wearing soldiers parading around campus,  he would be absolutely disgraced. Although a seemingly trivial topic,  I contemplated this thought more; why do we all purchase the same thing and what are our motives? And what would Mill say about this? If we were to base the act of purchasing and wearing a North Face product by the opionion that “North Face jackets are cool because everyone has one” versus “North Face jackets are the warmest and fairest priced jackets out there” then there are  differing implications.

The first opinion would go against the Millian concept of  accepted beliefs based upon non-refuted assumptions, and also the assumption of something being supreme because it is held by the majority. Yet the latter is in accordance with a very crucial  point that “wrong opinions and practices gradually yeild to fact” and that man was able to listen to “all that could be said against him” (ChII,p602).If everyone were to have tried every possible  winter jacket-making company’s products and compare those products to North Face’s, then they would be accurately making productive use of human experimentation, and make a contribution to the marketplace of ideas. Therefore, these certain North Face consumers would be aligned with Mill’s insistance upon social experimentation, and “right ideas” validated by “false ideas”.

Yet, (myself guilty as charged), people generally do not try  every possible winter coat out there and deduce which one is the warmest and best purchase. Rather, since we assume many people don North Face apparel, there must be some justifiable reason why they do so, and therefore we invest our money into such products. As Mill states “it is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can to form them carefully, and never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right” (Ch II, 602). But if there is a “variety of opinion” from many sources (i.e. a friend told them North Face was the best winter jacket) or she “studied all modes” (i.e. he owned a Patagonia jacket and the quality was worse than North Face) then she is fully justified in her opinion. He or she can then wear his North Face jacket with fullest pride. Our largest fault, in a Millian sense, is that we do not “experiment” but “deduce” from our observations of people around us; our motives, whether superficial or functional, are difficult to separate.

I realize that Mill’s theory of the liberty of man is intended to be applied to more “advanced” situations in society, rather than focusing upon material objects, but it is an interesting observation and analysis of collective human behavior. Perhaps it is a combination of the two, but our decision to purchase items is greatly based upon function and material status. The consumer has the ability to decide, but ultimately it is a question whether those decisions are totally independent of society or whether they are a component of it. All in all, the most popular products are most likely the highest quality, and by this fact we tend to conform. For now, I’m keeping my North Face (and my Ugg Boots too) despite the fact that I’ll look like an exact clone of thousands of other students simply because I do not wish to freeze.

4 Comments
  1. December 10, 2010 7:52 PM

    Well, inevitably i noticed the same phenomenon; however, my response was NOT to go out and buy them, simply because everybody had them. Before even reading Mill, i was disgraced by these followers. I didn’t even care how good the product was, i’d heard it was expensive and knew it wasn’t for me. I had never even heard of the brand until i got to campus. Did I miss the memo?! I thought maybe people had already bought these North Face items in their hometown, before they got to campus, but i reasoned that hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people across the country hadn’t come together in the same place and coincidentally had the same gear. This mindlessness really annoys me. I wonder if people with the gear are not satisfied with that brand, will they continue to buy North Face products due to popularity, or will they have the courage to buy something else that is more to their liking? Trends are hard to resist, I must admit, I was thinking of buying UGG boot knock-offs just for the look, which obviously indicates i am not at all concerned with its quality. But i was able to resist. Even my friend bought a North Face backpack after swearing to never join this army.

  2. whitneyspain permalink
    December 10, 2010 7:59 PM

    You make some very interesting observations in your blog. I feel that though you are relating a material object to the ideas of Mill, you are dead on with your observations. I too can contest to being one of those hundreds of clones trudging around in my north face fleece and UGG boots. The point that you brought up about why people purchase certain items is what influenced me to comment to your post. Recently, I have been searching for a new winter coat. The first website I visited was of course The North Face. Once I narrowed it down to two coats, I decided to check out Biouvac on State St to try on the coats I had found. I ended up trying on both those coats, as well as various other brands that a sales associate offered me. In the end after comparing all the coats, I ended up choosing the North Face coat because of the quality and the price for it. There is another coat I liked just as much, but it was $450 dollars compared to the $300 North Face coat. So, I would have to say that I chose because of the quality. Therefore, I would say that I am making productive use of human experimentation.

  3. December 10, 2010 8:07 PM

    I agree that many people buy products because they are trendy, but I think the person who left the comment is being way to harsh on these consumers. People buy northface jackets because they are extremely warm and comfortable, not to mention ann arbor is freaking freezing. I would understand your annoyance with the trend if it was not a quality product, but quality sells. You also call the consumers mindless. This reminds me of something Burke might say. But I think he would disagree with you. I think he would state that it is mindless to assume people are buying the product simply to fit it. There is no basis to back up that argument. I think it is equally detestable to not buy a product simply because it is popular. Like Burke says, we need to start thinking for ourselves. Rather than buy a product because it is trendy or boycott it for the same reason, one should formulate their own opinion on the matter and decide purely from one’s own beliefs.

  4. Jenbiz permalink
    December 10, 2010 9:03 PM

    Trends area natural-occurring phenomenon, especially within an enclosed community, such as a primarily residential University like U of M. Whether a product is of quality or not, the more people to pick up on the trend, the more and more enforced it because. Even if it simply because of people exclaiming constantly to their friends how much they love their Northface fleece, this social interaction has profound repercussions on the market for Northfaces–in many cases for legitimate reasons.

    Of course, it is entirely possible for people to avoid this trend by seeking out comparable merchandise independently, and making judgments regardless of brand, or societal, influence (e.g., a winter coat sufficiently warm for an Ann Arbor winter). From the manufacturer, a Northface Women’s Metropolis Parka runs at $279. (http://www.thenorthface.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?productId=46880&storeId=207&catalogId=10201&langId=-1&from=subCat&parent_category_rn=11719&variationId=L32). A similar jacket–granted, perhaps not quite as stylish, but a comparable jacket no less–is $30. (http://www.walmart.com/ip/Faded-Glory-Women-s-Long-Puffer-Coat/14560227) That is a price difference of nearly $250.

    Could a generic coat versus a brand name one of similar quality and design truly have a price difference of $250–not to mention the fact that people gladly pay the difference–without at least a little “mindlessness”?

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