The Psychology Behind Our Impulse To Over-Consume Fashion

by: Rosie Dalton | 1 year ago | Features

Image: movie still from Clueless. Image source

When we think about Christmastime, we often think of ‘retail therapy’ as well – the idea that you can boost your mood through buying things. So perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that the first time this term was actually ever coined just so happened to be Christmas Eve in the year 1986. “Everybody knows that Americans have become shopaholics, right?” Mary T Schmich asked on behalf of the Chicago Tribune. “We’ve become a nation measuring out our lives in shopping bags and nursing our psychic ills through retail therapy.” In coining the term, Schmich was being tongue in cheek – because of course shopping couldn't actually cure real psychological disorders. But little did she know then that the over-consumption to which she referred in the article A Stopwatch On Shopping would only become far worse in the decades to come.

More than three decades on from that first use of the term, ‘retail therapy’ has come to be thought of as a given in our society. And fast fashion has played a significant role in its accessibility for the general population. Because before the introduction of mass market retailers like Zara and H&M, most average Australians couldn’t necessarily afford to buy themselves something new every single day, week or month. Now with T-shirts going for as little as $5, though, all that has changed. And, with a price tag that's far below the cost of actual therapy, some people genuinely believe that this may be capable of boosting their mood. Examining the psychology behind this impulse, though, it is important to note the role one's mood plays in this overall process.

For instance, Business Insider points to a paper from Francine Espinoza Petersen of the European School of Management and Technology, which examines the role that our emotional state plays in our tendency to over-consume. What this paper demonstrates is that, when someone is feeling positive, they will only indulge in purchases that they feel certain about. The rationale behind this finding is that someone in a positive mood is reluctant to kill said mood with feelings of buyer’s regret. When someone is in a negative mood, on the other hand, they are more likely to indulge – even despite being uncertain – because they believe that this will help improve their mood. Which says a great deal about under which circumstances we should structure our shopping habits.

Now whether or not the idea of shopping as a mood enhancer comes down to simple etymology or not, it’s clear that we have become a society obsessed with the idea that consuming can and will make us feel good. And perhaps this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, either, considering that’s the exact message we are fed by the fast fashion retailers; complete with their big marketing budgets and swift rotation of trends. Add to that the fact that we now live in a time of high stress – where the pace of modern life has left many of us feeling emotionally maxed out – and is it really any wonder that so many people now seek comfort in the notion of ‘retail therapy’?

Of course, just because this has become a norm, though, doesn’t mean we need to remain slave to the notion. And, when you think about it, feeling pressured by our friends, popular culture, advertising campaigns or the mainstream media to buy new things all the time in order to feel ‘up to date’ really is a form of commercial oppression. But one important way to break free from all of this is to recognise the impact of our purchasing power and to truly think about how we can exercise that power in a more positive way. With all of the information that we now have at our fingertips about the harm over-consumption is causing to the planet, perhaps not buying something could have the potential to replace that same euphoric feeling we once got when giving in to the urge.

Another way to reject the impulse to over-consume is to rethink our personal rewards systems. As renowned economist Richard Denniss argues in a recent episode of the Wardrobe Crisis podcast, ‘affluenza’ (or buying things that we don’t need) is not healthy from either a financial or environmental perspective. So with this in mind, he suggests shifting our personal rewards systems away from buying clothes and towards experience-driven rewards instead. Like a special holiday, concert ticket or a museum visit. That doesn't mean you can't still reward yourself with clothes from time to time, just that these rewards should perhaps become a once per season occasion, rather than once per week. At the end of the day, the gratification that comes with exercising self-control and making choices that are better for the environment can and should feel better than the out-dated notion of ‘retail therapy’ anyway.


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