Do We Overconsume Fashion Because We’re Sad?

By Olivia Pinnock

According to consulting firm McKinsey, the number of garments bought per person rose 60% between 2000 and 2014. 

While fashion brands have a responsibility to make their clothes more sustainable and less throwaway, there’s undoubtedly a role shoppers can play by consuming less. It doesn’t matter how many organic t-shirts we buy; we won’t fix fashion’s footprint if we still consume at the same rate. 

Asking people to buy less is, let’s face it, not the sexiest solution to fashion’s problems and it’s never going to be popular but a theme I’ve noticed in the sustainable fashion movement’s messaging is making it even worse. Many articles, books and podcasts offering advice on how to be a more conscious consumer will have you believe that our current shopping habits are a result of manipulative marketing and an empty existence that capitalism will tell you can be fixed with the purchasing of material goods. Some activists ask you to evaluate your emotions before you make a purchase: are you feeling blue? Is your self-esteem low? 

This feels like an oversimplification and, more importantly, is deeply patronising. Do we overconsume fashion because we’re sad? It certainly doesn’t ring true to my own experiences. 

At the peak of my fashion consumption, before I became more aware of sustainability issues, I was having a lot of fun with my wardrobe. It was probably the most playful and creative I had ever been with my style. Some of my habits were, unknowingly at the time, very sustainable. I loved a charity shop just as much as a high street/high end collaboration and layering on jewellery and accessories allowed me to make the same items in my wardrobe look brand new. However, I also bought a lot of fast fashion, much of which ended up being thrown away not long after because it was poor quality. I was at university at the time and embracing a new-found personal and financial independence. I was growing up and using clothing to experiment with my changing identity, including an interest in fashion which would go on to become my field of work after I graduated. 

If someone had told my younger self that I was shopping to fill a void in my life, I would have laughed at them. While my outlet might have not been the best, the motives behind my behaviour came from a positive place.

The psychology behind why we buy

Psychologists have also debunked the idea that we consume because we’re sad. Antonio Demasio, a professor of neuroscience, found that emotions are an essential component of deciding what and who to buy from. It’s why advertising which appeals to our feelings is sometimes more effective than those which emphasise the practical benefits of a product. And it’s the positive emotions that get us spending. We often think that marketers are trying to manipulate us into thinking that if we buy their product, we will be happy like the people in the adverts but Demasio’s study shows that what actually happens is that when we’re moved by marketing in a positive way, we attach positive associations to the brands and products which helps us choose one brand or product over another. 

What’s more, other studies, such as Jennifer Lerner and Dacher Keltner’s study of the influence of emotion on judgement and choice, show that when we are in a good mood, we are more likely to make impulsive decisions. Those less sustainable purchases: the ones where we buy it even though it’s not available in our exact size or it doesn’t go with anything that we already own, are more likely to happen when we’re looking at the world through a shiny, happy lens. In a digital age, where the shops are available to us through a screen 24/7 and fashion is more affordable than it has ever been, there are fewer barriers to indulging in these spontaneous desires too.   

When exploring the reasons for our overconsumption, there are our emotions at the moment of purchase but also wider needs and desires at play. When we look at why we buy fashion beyond our basic need for clothing, we can see how fashion also taps into many other human needs as defined by psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs” which he says underline people’s motivations. Fashion, as opposed to clothes, fulfils our need for self-expression, it gives us a sense of belonging and connectedness with those who dress similarly, and is a way to boost our confidence by treating our bodies with respect.

The joy of clothes

All these reasons are not to say that there are never instances when we buy fashion as a treat to lift our mood, but given the varied reasons why we buy fashion, it’s unlikely that ditching that habit will stem our overconsumption. Furthermore, we need to embrace a more empowering message or we risk alienating people from the sustainable fashion movement. It implies that those who are part of the sustainable fashion movement are better, happier people who are above basic human needs and those who are just starting to navigate this space are sad, brainwashed consumers which is simply not true. 

It’s important that as we try to fix the fashion system, a topic marred with justified anger, we continue to celebrate all that is wonderful about getting dressed. We do need to cut back on our fashion purchases, but it doesn’t have to mean missing out on the joy we know we get from clothes. We need to ditch the shame and figure out, together, how we can embrace our love of clothes while embracing a better future for our world.

Olivia Pinnock

Olivia Pinnock is a London-based fashion journalist, lecturer and the founder of The Fashion Debates. She is dedicated to uncovering insightful stories and promoting positive change for a more sustainable future. As well as writing for some of world’s top publications and, Olivia also holds regular lectures at London College of Fashion, London Metropolitan University and Norwich University of the Arts, inspiring the next generation of fashion professionals.