As a 19-year-old fashion student, I can say from first-hand experience that growing up, there is pressure to look your best at all times, whether that be makeup, fake tan, nails, or most importantly, a good outfit.
Fashion is at the forefront of our identity, and in a modern culture based heavily on social media, it has now been taken to the extreme.
However, everyone knows fashion is one of the main polluters of the environment, with more than 300,000 garments going to landfill in the UK every year. So why is it that we still have the guilt of repeating outfits?
Why We Are Addicted To Shopping
You may think people being addicted to shopping is a facade, something we say to hide the guilt of our purchases. However, it is actually instinctual. Humans have always been praised for having the most “stuff.” It meant you were more likely to survive if you had more things to protect yourself with.
Being a shopaholic is routed in the same parts of the brain as drug addiction, gambling, and alcoholism.
When we set out to purchase, our brain releases the hormone dopamine because it anticipates a reward from the new purchase. We become addicted to chasing the high of dopamine, not the purchase itself.
For most of us, we have self-control. We realise we cannot financially afford everything that we want and restrain ourselves from unnecessary purchases.
Self-control is a relatively new instinct and one that shopping addicts find themselves without. When a shopaholic desires something, the brain puts in enormous energy to diminish any feelings of self-control. This feeling is limited in its resource, and we can only go so long resisting our urges. Once the instinct is depleted, impulsive spending becomes an easy habit of falling into.
For some people, this is the only reason why they spend it, for the surge in dopamine. For others, it is much more emotionally complex.
America is home to 5.9% of “compulsive spenders.” This is a common addiction and one you may not even know you have. Compulsive spenders do not care about buying an item but about the experience of it. They use shopping as an escapism method.
Compulsive buyers internalize their issues, then use shopping to escape their negative feelings. They do not care about exceeding budgets as they are completely in the zone of shopping.
This is like any other dangerous addiction, which can cause turmoil in relationships, finances, and overall wellbeing.
It is a much more common and serious problem than it’s perceived. Unfortunately, there is little help out there for this addiction.
To learn more about compulsive shopping, watch this video.
How Covid Has Accelerated Over Consumption
Covid has had a huge influence on our shopping habits. Some have found they have saved money being unable to go into stores. But with little else to do other than online shop and binge watch Netflix, Covid seems to have boosted mindless consumerism.
Whilst lockdowns were enforced in the UK, depression and anxiety rates rocketed. Having a parcel to look forward to became the highlight of our cooped-up lives.
With mental states being collectively low, online consumerism has soared. Online shopping is twice as addictive as in-store shopping. Why? We receive a double dopamine hit.
Whilst we place our order online and receive the email, we all know very well “your order is confirmed!” we receive a dopamine hit.
When D-Day hits after feeling like you’ve waited 100 years, the parcel arrives at your doorstep. Here, we receive our second dose of dopamine.
But then, you wear the clothes once, and the element of fun evaporates. We no longer have anything to look forward to, so we immediately think of the next package we want in the mail.
Online Returns Affect Consumption
The downside to online shopping, as we all know, is the pesky returns. No one likes them. We have to drag ourselves to the post office, package the disappointing garment, and sometimes even pay for postage!
This all contributes to deciding: “I’ll just keep it; it wasn’t that expensive anyway.” We may keep the garment, but we’ll never wear it. 6 months down the line, when our wardrobe doors don’t shut, we end up putting it in the bin. The garment was destined for landfill from the start!
But even if you decide to get off the couch and return your unwanted item, chances are it will still end up in the landfill. Each year, around 5 billion pounds of waste is generated through returns due to companies’ return policies.
It is a lose-lose situation for the sustainable customer, and we decide to buy something to replace the faulty garment.
Over Consumption Through Influencer Marketing
The days of wearing jeans and a t-shirt every day are over. Now our algorithms are flooded with eccentric outfits nonstop, making the average person feel pressure to wear designer to pick up dog food.
Influencers are a modern marketing phenomenon. Companies can naturally advertise their products for a low price through Instagram models.
The psychology behind this is based on self-comparison, which has increased since social media.
Recently, whilst scrolling through Instagram, I saw an influencer promoting a dress. I loved how it looked on her, so I decided to splurge and buy the £70 garment. This raises the question; would I have ever bought the dress if I hadn’t seen it on her Instagram?
A report from Musefind discovered 92% of Millennials trust a social media influencer more than a celebrity. Influencers are associated as more reachable than a celebrity, more like a mutual friend. This makes an influencer seem more trustworthy and present to the consumer, who is more likely to buy the product they promote.
In my case, however, it wasn’t because I thought the influencer was trustworthy; it was because I wanted to look as good as her. As influencers seem closer to normal people than celebrities, it is easier to become envious of them as the comparison target is similar except for the desired domain. In a marketing context, this envy is a positive factor as it enhances purchase intention towards the envied desirable objects the influencer promotes. A common way marketers strike envy is through ‘seeding,’ finding cool and popular influencers who have similarities to the desired consumer base, so social comparison is more likely to occur.
The dress that I bought through Instagram was shot by the influencer in a full-length photo. Phototype has a strong influence on consumers; group shots make an influencer seem more friendly and popular, whilst selfies make an influencer seem self-centered. A full-length photo shot by another person makes an influencer seem more glamourous, which sparks higher levels of envy, increasing a consumer’s purchase intention.
For consumer envy to stop, consumers must believe that they can catch up with the person in comparison with hard work. When a consumer is envious of an influencer, when the promoted item is purchased, they feel more like the influencer than before.
Why Instagram Has Threatened Sustainable Fashion
So what then happens once we buy the same dress as our favourite influencer? They post a new outfit, and the cycle continues.
Social media is addictive, and the average millennial’s screen time now reaches a high of 3 hours and 20 minutes per day. Instagram has introduced a clever tactic to prompt consumption called the Shop Feature.
Now, whenever people are scrolling, they are tempted to click on the shop page easily. It’s the equivalent to Ikea being a furniture shop and having a cafe. It is weird, but it makes sense.
We are flooded with sales tactics and next-day delivery, all increasing our purchase intentions. With promoted products repeatedly coming up on our feeds, it is hard not to cave and buy the garment.
Over Consumption Effect On The Environment
Now we have discussed why we overconsume. Let’s talk about the effect of this.
Fast fashion is something that is too good to be true. Many of us are naive of the fact something has to be wrong if it costs £10 for a garment to be made, transported, and marketed.
Think of a major fast fashion brand (I’m sure one will come to mind) where it takes 14-21 days from deception to sale of an item of clothing. On average, a new range of clothing from fast fashion companies is churned out every 2-3 weeks.
The hype surrounding new trends means older clothing is likely to get thrown out and end up in the landfill. The landfill is increasingly taking up space and resources from the planet. With decomposition occurring at a painfully slow rate, this is a problem that will be around for a long time.
Whilst clothes and other products are in landfills, they release the dangerous toxin “methane” from the decomposition process. Methane contributes extensively to global warming. Reaching new records every year, the planet is warming up, and can only stop once we change the way we consume and treat the planet.
However, this is not the only negative environmental effect of fast fashion.
Most of the industry’s garments are so cheap because they are made out of polyester. This harmful material is ultimately made to last you at most, one year. Made from fossil fuels, it again creates dangerous gases contributing to global warming. Being unable to recycle polyester into new garments means it goes into the landfill, becomes incinerated, or washes into the ocean.
The water consumption of the fast fashion industry in 2017 was the equivalent of 32 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. This figure is hard to wrap your head around, so I will break it down per garment.
For a company like H&M or Zara, it takes 5,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Now think about how many pairs of jeans these companies sell per year. It is not hard to understand why the fashion industry is the 4th most polluting industry.
Over Consumption in Fashions Significance in Anthropology
Things still haven’t changed. Why? Because big corporations need to before we can. Greenwashing is a new trend in the fashion industry, but not law.
Overconsumption is not something that has happened overnight, but something that stems from years of unrealistic beauty standards and smart marketing that has been accelerated through social media.
With the UK being the country buying the most clothes out of the whole of Europe, consumers are slowly slipping into an obsession. The mass production of clothes, the carefully curated media with advertisements and promotions for branded products and services, and even rising levels of personal debt signal that this is the case.
With the new culture being disposable fashion and prices being so easily accessible, it is a no-brainer for people to treat themselves to a new outfit on a daily. In fact, one in three young British women considers their clothes to be old after one or two wears.
Instagram has only accelerated the problem. When the outfit is gridded, it no longer has an appeal to the consumer’s audience. The gratification and compliments are gone, as well as the outfit.
Humans crave validation, and one thing that gets us is a good outfit. Clothes can ease social anxiety, act as the perception of what we want to be, even if on the inside, we don’t feel as good, and engender a sense of belonging in the wearer. People who take these benefits from clothes – people who are concerned about image and style – tend to be more receptive to adverts that emphasize image, and willing to pay more for clothing than others.
But if we want to save our planet, we need to change our mindset.
Fashion shouldn’t be short-term. Delete the shopping apps on your phone. Re-wear the dress you wore once and shove it in the back of your cupboard. Buy preloved clothes. These are small changes we can make in the meantime until corporations become more sustainable.
One thought on “Anthropology: Current Culture of Over Consumption in Fashion”
Very true . . I wish more people would realise how wasteful it is to buy so many clothes & how they are being manipulated by the big companies. Well written!