We have all heard (and probably used) the phrase “retail therapy.” From experiments in personal style and identity on a minimum wage budget as a teenager to online shopping sprees in the wake of traumatic loss in my early thirties, I have personally experienced the whole spectrum of using shopping as therapy for minor stress to major distress.
Shopping can have a “feel good” effect, but when we dig a little deeper, what’s behind the idea of buying things as a way to give your mood a quick boost, or even as a form of therapy, and how healthy is this approach?
As we continue our 90-day No New Clothes Pledge, let’s dive into the concept of “retail therapy” and unpack the effect it has on our brains, as well as on the world around us. Is there a healthy and sustainable way to use “retail therapy,” or is this a phrase we need to rethink, if not retire altogether?
“[W]ith the right messaging, marketers can get into your head and make you dislike the things that you liked perfectly well when you bought them”
For as long as people have bought and sold products, humans have exploited natural resources and people for profit. However, over the past century our shopping habits have changed dramatically, and our consumption has accelerated. According to Professor Karen J. Pine in Mind What You Wear: The Psychology of Fashion, the average woman in 1930 owned nine outfits, whereas the average woman now purchases 67 items of clothing a year.
Another statistic from a report by Greenpeace says that in 2014, people bought, on average, 60 percent more new clothes than they did in 1999, and yet, kept their clothes for roughly half as long; this trend has kept going with the emergence of social media-fueled micro trends and impulse buying.
How We Got Here
In her book A Life Less Throwaway: The Lost Art of Buying For Life, author Tara Button explores the origins of planned obsolescence and psychological obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is the practice of designing a product to break easily and be difficult and expensive to repair, thereby encouraging consumers to buy new products more frequently. It emerged as an approach to designing, making, and marketing products in the early 1930s to encourage people to buy more during the Great Depression.
Psychological obsolescence is the idea that consumers can be trained to replace products that still work perfectly well, because they’re seen as outdated. “Psychological obsolescence is even more insidious and dangerous than physical obsolescence,” states Button, “because with the right messaging, marketers can get into your head and make you dislike the things that you liked perfectly well when you bought them.”
Since the 1930s, the environmentally destructive “buy more, throw away more” mentality has flourished in many different forms across every industry, whether deliberately through planned and psychological obsolescence, or as a knock-on effect of quality stripping (using the cheapest materials available to make a product, regardless of the impact on the product’s quality and longevity).
Zara effectively trained their customers to visit their stores an average of seventeen times a year compared to the industry average of four times a year.
With the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution and the standardization of assembly line production (as famously used by The Ford Motor Company in 1913 to create affordable automobiles for the masses), mass production sped up in the early 20th century. In fact, the standardization of mass production coincided with enthusiasm for practical and psychological obsolescence for a reason: in 1930s America, mass production meant that companies were capable of producing more than ever, but the economic struggles of the time meant that people weren’t buying enough to keep up with the new rate of supply of which companies were suddenly capable.
Consumers had to be trained to buy lower quality products, often at the same price that they used to be able to buy higher quality products that wouldn’t need such frequent replacing. We had to be taught not to expect our products to last very long, and it has taken several generations for most of us to forget the essential skills it takes to mend and repair.
What was once a strategy designed to boost the economy and create more jobs in the wake of the Great Depression ended up becoming the oppressive system that drains the planet’s resources and sends millions of tons of clothing waste to landfills today. Over time, we’ve been trained by economists and marketers to believe that the quality and longevity of a product is less important than the initial price tag, convenience, or appeal of a fleeting trend. Many of us believe that it would take more effort and cost than a product is worth to repair it when it breaks, rather than to just buy something new to replace it.
Fast fashion really took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when fashion giants raced to cut their lead times so that they could cater to – and fuel – endlessly shifting micro trends. As sustainable fashion activist and journalist Lucy Siegle points out in her book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World, fast fashion giant Zara’s tactic of focusing on launching new designs rather than restocking best-sellers has trained its customers over time not to think before buying: “as a shopper, if you hesitate at the point of purchase you’re probably going to miss your chance.” Zara effectively trained their customers to visit their stores an average of seventeen times a year compared to the industry average of four times a year.
Mass production was intended to generate, not feed, conspicuous consumption. We aren’t hard-wired to buy, or hoard clothes; we have been herded, like sheep, to our closest high-street stores.
In this sense, it’s not an exaggeration to say that fast fashion is a state of mind: our modern consumerist culture is constantly reinforcing the message that we need more stuff, that we should buy cheap things and that we should not expect them to last. We are constantly being trained—our brains rewired—to accept this message unthinkingly.
Why Buying Makes Us Buzz
It’s no secret that over consumption is clearly terrible for the planet, but the potential positive impact of buying less and making our clothes last longer is huge. According to a 2011 report from the Carbon Trust, “doubling the useful life of clothing from one year to two years reduces emissions over the year by 24%.”
But, quite apart from the negative environmental impact of excessive consumption, is its psychological impact. Is retail therapy harmful for our mental health?
According to a 2014 study by the University of Michigan, the fact that shopping can give us a sense of positive control over our personal circumstances and environment can help alleviate a lingering sense of sadness. Meanwhile, clinical psychologist Scott Bea argues that the sensory stimulation of shopping and imagining the products we’re seeing in our own lives can give us “a psychological and emotional boost,” as well as reduce anxiety. Both the anticipation and receiving of a reward or treat usually triggers the release of dopamine in our brains, giving us a natural high.
“I have caught myself many, many times using shopping as an emotional bandaid…I’ve seen it play a huge role in both manic and depressive episodes. And with very rare exceptions, it has not made me feel better.”
That said, it’s easy to see how this cycle of anticipation and reward could become addictive, and how it has been exploited by marketers who want us to buy more (which leads to us throwing away more). As Orsola de Castro writes in Loved Clothes Last, “Mass production was intended to generate, not feed, conspicuous consumption. We aren’t hard-wired to buy, or hoard clothes; we have been herded, like sheep, to our closest high-street stores.”
But what if we harnessed the power of that dopamine hit we can get from planning out our purchases, visualizing what we’d like our wardrobes to look like, and saving up for that purchase in a thoughtful, considered way, only investing in things we really need and that will stand the test of time? In theory, it should be possible to retrain our brains to enjoy a slower pace of consumption and make sure that we’re deeply invested in the things we buy so that we take good care of them and fix them when they break, rather than participating in a throwaway, hyper consumerist, and wasteful culture.
Retail therapy isn’t actually… therapy
Amanda Lee McCarty, host of the Clotheshorse podcast, worked for over 15 years as a fashion buyer, and so knows a thing or two about the inner workings of fast fashion. She recently shared her thoughts on the phrase “retail therapy” as a person with bipolar disorder. “I have caught myself many, many times using shopping as an emotional bandaid,” she writes. “I’ve seen it play a huge role in both manic and depressive episodes. And with very rare exceptions, it has not made me feel better. I get SUPER ANGRY when brands use mental health as a reason to shop, whether it’s by creating product around mental health or explicitly telling us we should shop to feel better.”
As Amanda suggests, using shopping as a form of therapy is dangerous because it encourages us to reach for a quick and temporary (as well as environmentally and financially negative) quick fix, while potentially ignoring the underlying causes of our mental health struggles. The temporary high of shopping won’t have a lasting impact the way other forms of mental health support can, and the more we rely on it, the more likely we are to get into debt.
“A study of 2,500 consumers over six years concluded that no matter how much money you had to spend, materialism was linked to an increase in loneliness and loneliness in turn increased materialism.”
A 2017 survey into the shopping habits of people in Europe and Asia found that up to half of consumers buy more clothes than they need and use. In fact, the survey says that “almost half of Chinese consumers buy more than they can afford – and more than makes them happy, and around 40 percent qualify as excessive shoppers, shopping compulsively more than once a week.”
There’s plenty of research that suggests that buying more stuff doesn’t make us happier in the long term. As Button writes in A Life Less Throwaway, “A study of 2,500 consumers over six years concluded that no matter how much money you had to spend, materialism was linked to an increase in loneliness and loneliness in turn increased materialism.”
None of this is meant to make you feel guilty about shopping, but rather to make the point that the environment and our mental health benefit when our pace of consumption is slowed down. Vivienne Westwood’s mantra “buy less, choose well” can be hard to achieve when we’re trapped in a fast fashion cycle, our wardrobes full of cheap clothing that’s falling apart at the seams and not enough money to afford more expensive sustainable brands.
We’re trapped in a fast fashion cycle, our wardrobes full of cheap clothing that’s falling apart at the seams and not enough money to afford more expensive sustainable brands.
Button shares the perspective shift that she experienced when she started apply the “mindful curation” philosophy to her home: “When I started to buy for the long term, I found myself thinking far more deeply about what I wanted out of my life in the future.”
Rewiring our brains to approach shopping differently
If the bad news is that fast fashion companies have been able to rewire our brains to encourage more wasteful habits, the good news is that we can train ourselves to take positive action. Over a decade ago, I realized that my self-control wasn’t good enough to resist the urge to buy fast fashion if I walked around a store “just for inspiration.” I decided I had to stop going into places (or onto websites) where I’d be tempted to buy new things, unless I was ready to make a thoughtful and well-thought through purchase. After regular long periods of not buying any new clothes at all, I found that my hunger for new clothes lessened, and my eye for quality and longevity developed; when I saw fast fashion, the magic was no longer there for me, and it wasn’t hard not to buy it anymore because it wasn’t appealing at all.
By participating in projects like Remake’s No New Clothes Pledge, and pausing your purchasing for 90 days, you’ll be able to assess what’s already in your wardrobe, use the time you might have used for shopping to care for and repair your clothing, and save up for any well-researched and thought-through investments you might want to make after your break from shopping. If you desperately need an item of clothing in the meantime, you can get creative and borrow from a friend or family member’s wardrobe.
As Greenpeace put it, “To break free from the cycle of consumerism, we need to slow down.” By taking the time to figure out our own personal style, studying our wardrobes and figuring out what we actually need, and learning how to do basic repairs and care for our clothing to help it last longer (or using the money we would have spent on new clothing to pay for someone else to do repairs), we are challenging the fast fashion agenda. Sometimes, all you need to do to break out of a negative cycle is to pause for long enough that you see things a little more clearly.