Fast fashion's high price: Why shopping doesn't buy happiness

We've developed an increasing dependence on fast fashion, and some of us (ahem) have even been able to justify shopping on a weekly - or even daily - basis. But when we get that $4 tank top home, does it really make us any happier?
By Sarah Treleaven
Woman surrounded by clothes Masterfile

We've developed an increasing dependence on fast fashion, and some of us (ahem) have even been able to justify shopping on a weekly - or even daily - basis. But when we get that $4 tank top home, does it really make us any happier? Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, explains why we buy so much, how we no longer have a real relationship to our clothes and how we can be happier consumers.

Q: How many clothes do women actually buy?
National figures for the States show 68 garments and 8 pairs of shoes per year - and that's not broken down by gender, but we can safely assume that women are the bigger consumers. Part of it is that the fashion industry is completely built around women's wear, and fast fashion in particular. Forever 21 and H&M are something like 80 percent women's wear. It's also culturally more acceptable for women to consume a lot of clothes.

Q: Now that you can get a garment for the price of a latte, a lot of women are shopping on a weekly basis. What impact do you think this has on our appreciation for our things?
I think that there's a real lack of appreciation for what has essentially become a disposable good. I think the satisfaction comes from getting something new and getting what we perceive to be a deal, but I think it's fleeting. There's a question about the long-term, meaningful relationship we have with our clothes that has all but disappeared. That's the reason I wanted to write the book. I felt like I was stuck in an addictive cycle. I loved the thrill of getting something new for cheap, but I didn't love my clothes. It's a complete reversal of where people were a few generations ago, when people really understood their clothes and where they came from, and they valued them and cared for them.

Q: A lot of women do get pleasure out of a new purchase, even when we're replicating something that's already in our wardrobes. What do we get out of that purchase?
I think it's related to a base impulse for novelty, and the clothing industry has exploited it. Just like we're hardwired to crave the sugar, fat and salt in fast food, I think we're hardwired to be just as impulsive with other purchases. It's a dead-end cycle where people buy and buy but have a closet full of clothes they don't want to wear.

Q: Do you think these cheap goods actually make anyone any happier?
I'm sure there's someone out there... But I think happiness really stems from connections - and that can be social connections and even connections to our stuff, and that's really what's missing with our clothing. We don't have a relationship to the people who make, sell or design our clothes.

Q: What about expensive fashion? Is the answer to save up for very high-end, quality goods?
It depends why you're buying it. If you're just buying it for the brand name and for status reasons, that's not really a path to loving what you wear. But if you're buying something at a higher price point because it's exceptionally well made and you're going to buy fewer pieces to afford something really exquisite, that can be satisfying. But it's a hard jump for a lot of people who have been used to mass market fashion.

Q: Do you think we shop so much because buying cheap means that we never quite get the thing we really want? It's sort of like overeating but never getting full.
Exactly. You keep going back to try to get closer and closer but it just never happens. And the stores know that. When you're buying on impulse, and you spend all of five minutes trying it on and making a decision, the odds are high that you're making a mistake. My grandmother and my mother tell me to "shop your closet." I try to spend some time looking at the things I already have and why I'm not happy with them. Another reason fast fashion can be so unsatisfying is that the design can be great but the pieces are not built to last; you can get these things home and the buttons will fall off.

Q: How did writing the book change your consumption habits?
Completely. When I shop now, I'm looking for something very specific. I sit down first and budget what I want to spend on my clothes, and I think about the holes in my wardrobe and what I really need. I've become pretty strategic. I also try to support brands made in the U.S., and fair trade or living wage labels. When I buy from abroad, I try to buy from developed countries like Italy or Japan because they're supposed to have stronger labour laws that prevent poverty wages. But you can't necessarily tell by looking at a label whether or not it was made in a sweatshop. I also look really closely at fabrics and try to buy silk, linen and some of the newer viscose fibres. These are things I really didn't know about before - and that's probably why I had a closet full of polyester.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for how to be a more satisfied consumer?
It's all about being mindful. Instead of shopping impulsively, slow down and think about what you need and what you want. Buy things that you love instead of ending up with a closet full of trends you don't want to wear. If you're short on cash, you can try clothing swaps or second hand, and you can take everything to a seamstress to get the fit right. On the other hand, there are a number of very conscientious indie designers coming out with responsible fashion lines that are committed to an ethical supply chain from start to finish. When you have more information and knowledge, and when you're more educated about what you're wearing, you carry that with you and it gives you a certain confidence. For me, when I buy something I bought at a thrift store or something I got from an independent designer, I feel like more of an individual. And that makes me far more satisfied than just pulling something cheap off the rack.

How often do you shop?


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