Here’s How Buying in to Fast Fashion Affects Our Brains—Not Just Our Budgets

Photo: Getty Images/Thomas Barwick
On the scale of addictive behaviors, Carrie Bradshaw's shoe collection and Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series make obsessive shopping seem about as bad of a habit as ordering oat milk lattes every morning—but in reality, it's a serious affliction that affects one in 20 Americans. The group most likely to develop a shopping dependency? Young women, psychologists at the University of Bergen have found. That’s because addictive shopping behavior typically starts in late adolescence and early adulthood—just when cheap clothing is within financial reach. In the past, most people outgrew their overspending habits as their maturing personal style priced them out of such options. But thanks in big part to the rise of fast fashion, cheap clothing isn’t just for the the young—it’s now for everyone.

What that means is that, in addition to millennial and Gen Z women, an increased number of people now see shopping as an accessible way to cope with their feelings around anxiety and depression—or a means of keeping up with the Instagram Joneses: According to the Bergen researchers, extroverted people (think the #OOTD types) face an increased risk of developing disordered shopping habits, too. And like exercise, drugs, or any other form of obsessive behavior, its downsides are decidedly more serious than figuring out how to fit everything in your closet.

A compulsion to shop can lead to consequences ranging from guilt to stress to bankruptcy—and fast fashion's biggest consumers are among the most susceptible. "Those who become hooked on this behavior are willing to do and pay whatever it takes to purchase what they want," says psychologist Carolyn Mair, PhD, the author of The Psychology of Fashion. "The shopping and spending activity itself are associated with a feeling of happiness and power, which is immediately, but temporarily, gratifying." Guilt and remorse may follow, but those feelings typically drive the compulsive shopper back to the store for (quite literal) retail therapy.

Up to now, conversations about the consequences of fast fashion have mainly focused on the heavy toll it takes on the environment and on garment workers—those are the big and obvious problems that need to be addressed. But on an individual level, fast fashion can have effects on your brain, your mental health, and your overall well-being. Knowing what they are, and how to respond to them, can make you more than just a better consumer; it can help you actually feel better.

Here's why and how fast fashion affects mental health.

how fast fashion affects mental health
Photo: Getty Images/Halfpoint Images

Shopping for sport

While everyone's definition of "expensive" and "affordable" is different, "we all love a bargain,” says Dr. Mair. "It’s like winning a prize, so if we see cheap clothes as bargains, we will be keen to buy them."

Notably, a recent study focused on "sport shoppers," or women who are driven to find the most impressive deals. Not to be confused with people who shop for low prices because their financial situation demands it, sport shoppers take pride in their ability to sniff out the lowest possible price. They can joyfully recall stories around a specific purchase, from the discount achieved to the strategy used to "win."

Even if you don’t see it as a game, just thinking about shopping changes your brain chemistry

Have you ever coveted something for weeks, anticipating its purchase…only to feel let down after you finally buy it? That's due to a surge of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that controls the brain's pleasure and reward centers. As Mair points out, shopping can boost levels of dopamine—as long as you're still in the stage of desire.

"[The boost] is from wanting something," she says. "It can be anything, but...if we consider what we want as a bargain, then it increases the pleasure aspect." After you've handed over your credit card, however, dopamine levels return to normal, which is why the shopping high doesn't last long. Dopamine levels rise again once you find something new to desire.

This phenomenon isn't exclusive to fast fashion, but with their frequent merchandise drops, stores like Zara and Forever 21 always have something new to discover and covet. And so the cycle continues anew. On that note….

The brain finds it (extremely) hard to resist trends

Over the summer, the It item was the oversized Jacquemus hat. This season, it's teddy-bear jackets. Soon, those will be replaced by a new look, too—which is the point. "The essence of fashion is that it keeps reinventing itself," Mair says. "This appeals to consumers because the brain doesn’t pay attention to what’s familiar; it focuses on unfamiliar stimuli." (And remember, your dopamine levels spike when you see something new and exciting. It feels good to want something new.) "This is the fundamental principle of fashion and explains the insatiable nature of consumerism and the constant drive to have new clothing," Mair says.

Aside from the dopamine bump, your mind may also be dealing with the desire to project a certain image, to signal status, or to cope with unpleasant feelings through style choices. And don't underestimate the power of simply wanting to fit in. "We see others with an item, and we want to have it too," Mair says. "Fashion floods the market with particular styles, colors, and textures every few weeks—or even more frequently—and so some people feel they are not fashionable if they’re not wearing the latest trend." With trends cycling through fast-fashion retailers faster than they do on runways, keeping up means consuming more—and more often.

So if our brains are wired to have fireworks over shopping, how can we make sure we make conscious choices and break the cycle of rapid consumption?

how fast fashion affects mental health
Photo: Getty Images/Carlina Teteris

The answer is gratitude. No, really—ask science! Researchers from Rice University asked study participants to think about a product they already owned. Compared to the control group, these people were less likely to desire a new product; less likely to buy impulsively; and less willing to pay for new products. Being thankful, then, for your current wardrobe may be just the thing to keep you from buying a cheap outfit you'll throw away after a few uses.

Not that cheapness is the only thing to remember, says Mair. When you do shop, she says, "Buy mindfully regardless of price. You can have something that doesn’t cost much, look after it, and make it last." She advises asking yourself a few questions while shopping: 1. When will I wear this item? 2. What do I already have that will go with it, or is similar to something I already own? 3. Do I really need this?

The answers may come easily, or they may take a while—but either way, they'll help you decide what, and whether, to buy. As for having peace of mind around your shopping decisions? That might just be priceless.

If you're going to shop fast fashion brands like Zara, here's how to sift through endless options and find affordable pieces that'll last

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