Fast Fashion is a Master Manipulator – Here’s How
By Megan Doyle
Ever go shopping for a new dress or pair of shoes, only to return home with bags full of impulse purchases that caught your eye along the way? We’ve all been there. The allure of a cute top or pair of sparkly earrings can be irresistible, leading us to spend more than we planned for things we might not even want or use. The fact is, fashion brands have become master manipulators at getting us to spend money. They do it by tapping into our subconscious brain, using every trick in the consumer psychology playbook to convince us that the more we buy, the better off we’ll be.
Why should we care? Well, the fashion industry has a huge role to play in the climate crisis, and while we as consumers have little to no control over the materials our favourite brand uses, how much they pay their garment workers, or whether they’re reducing their carbon emissions, we do have control over one thing: how much we buy.
The pace at which we consume fashion has never been higher, thanks to a potent combination of easily available and ultra-cheap clothing, a constant churn of trends, and the cultural messaging we receive from celebrities and influencers telling us that outfit repeating is socially unacceptable. Understanding the tricks brands use to keep us buying their clothes is a useful tool to help us become more conscious consumers.
Consumer psychology informs every part of your shopping experience, from marketing to physical and online store design, how products are displayed, how brands engage your senses, and so much more. “The whole fashion industry is built on the desire for novelty that we have, it’s a human need for change. When something is new, exciting, and different, it triggers a particular response in our brains,” says Carolyn Mair, a behavioural psychologist, professor, and author of The Psychology of Fashion. “The reason I wanted to bring psychology into the fashion industry was to help consumers be more aware and savvy about how knowledge of human behaviour can be used to move them in a certain direction without their awareness.”
In day-to-day life, our brains rely on something called Heuristics, which are mental shortcuts and strategies we use to make decisions quickly. It turns out, the rational, thought-based part of our brain is rarely the one calling the shots. “Our subconscious brain processes 11 million bits of information per second and our consciousness can barely manage 40,” says Kate Nightingale, head consumer psychologist & founder of Style Psychology. “So the majority of our decisions are either entirely made by the subconscious brain, or the consciousness makes a very small chunk of it.”
When you step into Zara or Primark, your subconscious brain is picking up on all the different signals that brand is projecting, and deciding whether or not these cues are consistent. “Consistency means trust,” says Nightingale. “We have a tendency to trust people who are like us, and because our brain perceives brands more like humans rather than some inanimate entity, we tend to connect with them like other people.”
Brands create this sense of trustworthiness by engaging our senses. While shopping, you may sniff out scents like cinnamon and orange, which are considered warm and approachable. “Smell has the shortest route from the receptors in our nose to the part of the brain responsible for its processing,” says Nightingale. “Certain smells make you feel more intimate with a brand, much more socially inclined, and more willing to pay a particular fee – that sense of warmth is making you much more susceptible to those things.”
Visually, brands use certain colour combinations, patterns, and shapes to gain our trust. Soft, round shapes are safe and welcoming compared to sharp angles, which our brain perceives as hazardous and off-putting. Merchandising also plays a role. “Placing different products next to each other on a display table means they belong together, so maybe you buy the whole set as opposed to just one or two items,” says Nightingale.
The sensory overload you may experience from walking into a high street store is also intentional. “Sensory elements that appeal to us are very salient – they’re bright, loud, moving – all the elements that attract our attention,” says Mair. “Our brains pay attention only to something that is different and by being new, it’s different. So the fashion industry builds on this, it brings in novelty all the time, knowing that we have this natural desire for something new based on the premise that we habituate with things over time.”
It’s not just physical stores that use these tricks. Online stores are just as manipulative, compounded by the fact that they’re available to us 24/7 through our screens. “You don’t have to physically experience a sensory element for your brain to sense and experience it,” says Nightingale. “We can activate senses by using the right wording or the right pieces of imagery. If you have lots of shhh sounds when describing a silky dress, you’re going to hear the sound of silk. The more sensory aspects [brands are] able to activate, the more likely you are to buy from them.”
In October 2021, branding agency Rouge Media ranked online fast fashion brands by their use of “Dark Patterns” which are design tricks that influence our spending habits. “From feeling pressured by time-limited deals, going round in circles trying to cancel a subscription, and being tempted to add recommended products to your basket, online retailers have an arsenal of tactics to get people to spend more…and keep coming back,” Rouge reported.
But understanding the tactics brands use to get us shopping is only part of the solution. “The challenge isn’t only getting customers aware of those tricks and the associations brands are creating, because if a customer believes that buying something will actually lead to higher happiness or self esteem, then they’ll buy it because they’re looking for a solution to their own internal issues,” says Nightingale. “The tactics that they’re using enhance particular associations like: buy this product and you’ll be happy. Press this button and you’ll get a reward.”
The fashion industry exploits our natural desire for social acceptance, so detaching our self worth from the contents of our wardrobe is crucial to resetting this relationship. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy fashion as a tool of self-expression. “Does it have to be in the form of fast fashion? Can it be resale or charity shopping? Can it be swapping with friends and coming up with different outfits? Does it have to mean new garments or can it mean new combinations of garments that I already have?” asks Nightingale. “But that comes with changing conscious associations that we already have with newness and uniqueness.”
She advocates doing a little soul searching and discovering our sense of self-worth through the immaterial. “When you’re at a certain level of your self development, you realise that the material gains aren’t a solution to your internal emotional, psychological, or spiritual issues,” Nightingale says. “Why do you think that people who are very spiritual tend to be more sustainable? It’s not rocket science. Not only do they have a better relationship with nature, but they simply don’t need material gain as much.”
At the end of the day, brands aren’t suddenly going to rethink their tactics and stop pushing overconsumption – it’s up to us to recognise the signs and challenge our own impulses when we’re shopping. “It’s our responsibility as consumers to think more carefully, be savvier, and realise that if we’re not careful, we can be exploited,” Mair says. “Being aware that we could be manipulated, rather than we are being manipulated, gives us a sense of control. It’s like what they say: don’t go food shopping if you’re hungry. I say: don’t go shopping if you’re feeling bad about yourself.”
By Megan Doyle
Megan Doyle is a sustainable fashion journalist and content creator based in London. With bylines at BoF, Refinery29, Monocle, EcoAge, EcoCult and others, she has written about supply chain transparency, fashion tech, garment worker rights, material innovations, degrowth, and more.
Megan has a monthly newsletter, the Titian Thread, which aims to demystify sustainable fashion by making it accessible and engaging. Her ambition is to empower her audience through education.