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Dismantling Fast Fashion’s Psychological Chokehold

by Georgina Burt

We all know fast fashion is terrible, don’t we? 

Clothing made entirely out of plastic that disintegrates with one wash, sizing that’s always off, - and let’s not even get started on the slew of human rights violations embedded into the seams of the cow-print everything we bought in 2020, but have since never touched...

Yet, despite the adverse effects – from shoddy quality to environmental degradation – we find ourselves irresistibly drawn to the offerings of fast fashion, and still hit up Zara again and again.

Well, just for clarification, no, you’re not going crazy, and you’re not a horrible person, but you are being totally manipulated.

There’s a science behind compulsive shopping behaviours, and identifying some of the main traps that fast-fashion empires set for us is the first step to getting out of the fast fashion addiction cycle.

So, What Is Fast Fashion?

First thing’s first, we often see buzzwords like ‘overconsumption,’ ‘micro-trend,’ and ‘fast-fashion’ being thrown around online - but what do they actually mean?’

Well, it all starts with a little thing called, ‘consumer culture,’ which can be defined as a lifestyle fixated on acquiring material possessions, driven by the need for self-expression and conformity to societal norms (these are our two, tragically-human cravings).

As for ‘micro-trends’, they refer to niche preferences or ‘fads’ that appeal to a specific group of people within consumer culture (a.k.a, smaller-scale cravings that resonate with a small community of people).

Finally, fast-fashion caters to the cravings of consumer culture by churning out goods at an unprecedented pace, and exploiting micro-trends through the mass production, promotion and dissemination of trendy items at affordable prices. This frenetic turnover of trends fosters a cycle of excessive buying and disposal – a phenomenon known as overconsumption.

More familiarly, overconsumption manifests in shopping 'hauls' and viral trends on social media, promoting the rapid acquisition of cheap products or the latest 'must-have' item, regardless of necessity. Unfortunately, these repulsive levels of overconsumption have been completely normalised in today’s culture, generating 92 million tonnes of fast-fashion waste every year (Igini, 2023).

This is equivalent to over 9,000 Eiffel Towers of unused clothing. 

But if we know all this, why do we still get so sucked in? It’s almost like we can’t help ourselves...

What’s Going On In Our Brains?

Fashion addiction is easy to understand when you remember how great retail therapy feels when we’re bored, stressed or sad. Researchers from Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon concluded that buying stuff really does trigger the release of dopamine in our brains to give us a buzz (Lin, 2022).

Annoyingly though, our brains adjust quickly to these positive experiences, diminishing the initial thrill of buying shiny new things. 

Known as ‘hedonic happiness’, humans are in constant pursuit of instant-gratification and novelty, trapping us in cycles of addiction and compulsive behaviours as we chase our next high. 

As we become accustomed to the constant influx of new trends and styles, we seek the next thrill, perpetuating the need for more purchases to regain fleeting pleasure. 

Fast fashion sets the hedonic treadmill ablaze and capitalises on our addictions by offering instant gratification through affordable, trendy clothing, and catering to the human desire for immediate rewards.

From blueberry-milk nails, to coquette bows, and “ethereal, fairy-cottage core”, to Mob-Wives, Y2K, and the indie-sleaze revival, I’m sure we’ve all hopped onto the bandwagon of a viral moment that we now look back on and cringe. How many victims of the ‘Molly Mae’ Zara jacket epidemic can you count?

As social beings, we crave acceptance and belonging. 'Normative influence' describes our tendency to conform to group norms to feel included and validated.

Remorselessly, fast fashion predators exploit this fear of missing out through 'social proofing.’ Simply put, this is inundating us with a barrage of influencer, celebrity, and social media endorsements that convince us a particular micro-trend is the new standard. 

As a result, we often feel pressured to identify with a certain ‘aesthetic’ or to keep up with fads in order to ‘fit in’ or be perceived as ‘fashionable’.

Finally, building on our innate F.O.M.O, humans are psychologically driven to desire what is perceived as scarce or limited. (By now I’m sure we’re all having flashbacks to the toilet-paper, panic-buying frenzies of the pandemic.)


Unfortunately, fast fashion super-villains exploit this psychological quirk of ours also, by artificially constraining product availability and urgency through tactics like limited edition ‘drops’, flash sales and expediting rapid trend cycles. 

This, in turn, encourages impulsive buying behaviours and perpetuates a culture of overconsumption.

The Future of Fast-Fashion

While the grip that fast-fashion has had on us in the past is undeniable, we are now armed with knowledge of the psychological warfare at play, and can begin to dismantle its hold going forward.

While their tactics are both wicked and cunning, by recognising the allure of instant gratification, the influence of social norms, and the manipulation of fear-mongering tactics, we can reclaim control over our consumption habits. It's time to break free from the suffocating grip of fast fashion and embrace a more mindful and sustainable approach to fashion consumption. With awareness as our ally, we can forge a path towards a more ethical and conscious fashion industry, one purchase at a time.

Edited by Emily Duff

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