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Is Retail Therapy the Root of Fast Fashion?

Retail therapy is a term that is used too loosely in the fashion industry. It implies that shopping makes us feel better, but we all know these feelings are short-lived. Unfortunately, our actions in the pursuit of small wins are what companies want and a driver of fast fashion with disastrous consequences on the world.

Why does it feel good to shop?

Our motivation for consuming fashion lies in the reward centres in our brain. More specifically, a neurotransmitter called dopamine – a 'feel good' chemical. Experiments by Robert Sapolsky conducted on monkeys show interesting results on the timing of the release of dopamine. Sapolsky measured the timing of a dopamine release across a cycle of signal, work, and reward.

A light indicated a signal to the monkey, which meant that if it put in the work and pressed the bar ten times, it would get a reward (a food treat). Sapolsky found that dopamine was released when the signal was given, indicating that the monkey's anticipation of the reward made them feel good. If there are any questions about the application of this animal experiment to humans, recall the last time you eagerly awaited a parcel the moment after clicking 'order'.

How does this drive fast fashion?

Companies, therefore, try to take advantage of the feel-good feeling you get when shopping (online or in person, although we get more significant dopamine rushes when our purchases are delivered, rather than purchased over a counter).

Sales involve the anticipation of getting a good deal, turning shopping into a sport where we try and find the lowest price.

More importantly, however, being on top of trends is associated with dopamine boosts. Because fashion changes, the brain is attracted to new stimuli and loses focus on familiar trends, creating the desire and the chemical rewards for being on-trend. Inversely, missing out on trends can negatively impact self-esteem, trigger anxiety, and create needless demand. These forces are what advertisers use to their strengths.

Advertisers apply marketing schemes that activate your reward centres by connecting emotions like happiness and situations like being out with your friends, which we anticipate when we buy the product. The rise of influencer marketing creates more opportunities to overload us with new stimuli and display what's on-trend - sparking feelings of inadequacy on those who miss out.

This situation deepens as the target market for most of these campaigns, young women, are more likely to develop a shopping dependency. Additionally, following consumption habits since lockdown, 62% of 18-24-year-olds are more likely to purchase their fashion online. You can read more on shopping dependencies here.

This anticipation for the next hottest thing is a driver of fast fashion. Because of the above, clothes are marketed to us under the impression that increased consumption equals increased well-being. This is not the case for us as individuals or the surrounding world. The lack of conscious thought behind our purchases and falling into the motion of fast fashion affects the world around us.

How does this affect the world around us?

By pursuing our dopamine boosts, investing in the fast fashion industry comes at a detriment to the mental health of the cheap labour fast fashion brands hire. Financial instability, PTSD, and anxiety are a result of the modern slavery practices that fast fashion brands apply. Also, there is a severe environmental impact that our other articles focus on. Environmentally aware consumers face the guilt of contributing to these problems, which is sometimes unavoidable due to the often high cost of sustainable brands.

The implications of marketing

The mass production that supplies fast fashion is driven by marketing campaigns that make you feel like retail therapy is good. The mindless consumption that retail therapy can spark can turn full circle and lead to an overall negative effect on your psyche and on the planet. However, awareness of these issues and the impact of a dopamine boost can lead to fewer people making these impulsive choices they've been encouraged to do.


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