Fashion and consumerism, compulsive buying disorder and shopping habits
Fashion + Consumerism

The psychology behind our fast fashion addiction

At this time of year our fast fashion addiction is more apparent than ever; we’re caught up in the craziness of Christmas and our consumption hits an all-time high. In this article, Emma Cartmel of Fashion Psychology explores how the fast fashion model is fuelling our consumption and how it can impact our mental health.

Many of us know Carrie Bradshaw’s iconic shoe collection, but while her obsession with shoes is often described in a comedic, self-deprecating way, shopping addiction is unfortunately a serious psychological condition. Research has indicated that shopping addiction is estimated to be effecting 5-7% of the adult population in developed countries (Maraz, Griffiths, & Demetrovics, 2015; Muller, Mitchell, & de Zwaan, 2015).

We have all heard the social and environmental impacts of the fast fashion model. From unfair wages, child labour, carbon emissions, water usage to those pesky microfibres. But what about how our shopping habits can affect us on an individual level? This is where psychology can play a crucial role in identifying and understanding the impact of fashion consumption behaviours upon our mental health and overall wellbeing.

Why do we shop?

Shopping, one of the most popular leisure activities in the UK, is often understood in terms of ‘what’ we buy, however it is more than just the acquisition of things. 

Like most things we do in life, we shop in the pursuit of happiness. Research out of two United States universities, examined the association between happiness and consumer products. Framing happiness in terms of “wanting what you have” versus “having what you want”, these studies found that happiness arises from the motivations driving purchases, rather than from the object itself.

Fast fashion model

“The essence of fashion is that it keeps reinventing itself” and “This appeals to consumers because the brain doesn’t pay attention to what’s familiar; it focuses on unfamiliar stimuli.”. It is this underlying principle of fashion that underpins it’s insatiableness, and explains why we are driven to constantly consume new items of clothing.

The fast fashion movement is only fuelling this mentality, and as it becomes difficult to keep up with the latest trends, we are simply consuming more, and more frequently. When you couple this ever changing nature with the convenience and ease of access to shopping, omni-channel retailing, and availability of credit, what you get is the perfect formula for shopping and spending addictions.

How ‘dope’ is dopamine?

Apparently the answer to this question is ‘very’, as our brains just cannot resist those trends.

We can all probably recall a time when we have yearned, for weeks or even months, for that designer handbag or those perfect stiletto heels, only to finally have them in our hands, and almost feel nothing, or disappointment. The reason? A surge of that chemical dopamine. The spike in dopamine is caused by the experience of ‘wanting’ something new and exciting.

This feeling of desire is short lived however, with our dopamine levels returning to normal as we hand over that credit card. Research involving animals found that the motivation to seek novelty activates dopamine systems. As previously mentioned, novelty is a fundamental principe of fashion, therefore this may explain the constant urge to seek and consume new clothing.

Mental health

Individuals who shop for fun are more susceptible to the impulse buy, which is often accompanied by feelings of guilt and remorse. Impulse buyers may have trouble controlling their emotions, making it more difficult to resist the urge to buy.

Shopping may seem like an accessible way to cope with negative feelings (such as anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and boredom), strive for the ‘ideal’ body image, or as a means of ‘keeping up with the Jones’. The sense of anaesthetisation, or gaining of control, is only temporary, as the negative feelings return, and so too the urge to shop.

According to Cecilie Schou Andreassen, a Doctor of Psychology and Clinical Psychologist Specialist at the University of Bergen, a shopping dependency has been found to be more prevalent amongst particular demographic groups.

Reportedly, such behaviours were found to be more predominant amongst women, beginning in late adolescence and emerging adulthood, and appearing to decrease with age. Why might this be the case? When considering fast fashion, cheaper clothing is within financial reach for those in late adolescence and emerging adulthood.

Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD)

When impulsive buying becomes habitual, it can have incredibly harmful implications on an individuals psychological, physical, and social wellbeing, and potentially develop into compulsive buying disorder (CBD)

CBD is characterised by “excessive shopping cognitions and buying behaviour that leads to distress or impairment”. Individuals with CBD report a preoccupation with shopping, pre-purchase tension or anxiety, and a sense of relief following the purchase.

The temporary nature of these positive feelings sees compulsive shoppers driven back to the store for ‘retail therapy’. Despite these initial positive feelings associated with shopping, some compulsive shoppers may also experience guilt and remorse that sees them return items and shop again.

Consequently, as the motivation to find what they desire grows, levels of dopamine increase accordingly, prolonging that urge. From a neuroscientific perspective, the ‘reward’ on offer in CBD by endorphins and dopamine makes for an addictive activity.

Does the answer lie in gratitude?

“When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, ‘Oh yes – I already have everything that I really need.’” 

Dalai Lama

Recent research into resisting shopping temptations and stifling buying urges focused on getting consumers to reflect on, and evoke momentary desire for, recently used belongings. The research found that consumers who reflected on their recently used personal belongings experienced less desire for an unexpectedly encountered product, were less likely to buy impulsively, and were less likely to pay for new products.

Is simply being thankful for what is currently hanging in your wardrobe enough to persuade us to consume less?

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