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I’m going to bet that you’ve bought or received at least one item of clothing this Christmas. Over half of us in the UK say that we buy clothes or shoes as festive gifts. Perhaps you’ve also been raiding the sales for some discounted garb.

We love fashion: spending on apparel and footwear in the UK topped £70 billion pounds last year, a figure that has been steadily rising over the past decade. But what drives us to buy fashion? Are we frivolous clothes horses, or is there more to it than that? And in a climate crisis, how do we tackle our consumption guilt and change our relationship with what we wear?

Retail therapy

You spot it, the perfect coat. It’s your colour, it’s just right for winter and it’s in your size. This feels good, the dopamine is flowing…

If you’ve been indulging in a spot of retail therapy, you might be interested to know what has been happening in your brain. Dopamine is a ‘pleasure’ neurotransmitter and is designed to encourage us to seek out new experiences that might be beneficial to us. It activates the nucleus accumbens, the ‘reward’ centre of the brain. fMRI scans show that the more you want something, the greater the signals.

You see the sale sign – 40 percent off. That answers it, you must have the coat. It’s a bargain! We particularly love getting a good deal, when our perceived benefit easily outweighs the cost. You leave the shop, bag under arm, dopamine wins, you feel great!

But the shopper’s high doesn’t last. We want it again, and again. And this is where things get complicated. We don’t only enjoy buying clothes when we need them, we also make purchases as pain relief, to pick ourselves up when we’re feeling down, or to insulate ourselves when we’re anticipating bad news.

Fashion dosing

Of course, the fashion industry knows exactly how to make the most of these desires. The 20th century fashion calendar revolved around two collections: spring/summer and autumn/winter. Today these seasonal events remain only for the runways of high fashion brands – high street brands have weekly or even daily drops of new lines, encouraging shoppers to browse regularly.

Helping make it easier to weigh up the pain of spending vs benefit of purchases is the low cost of clothing. A £1 bikini from Missguided hit the headlines earlier this year, the epitome of the pocket-money prices we’ve become accustomed to. Discounts, sales and events like Black Friday further add to the temptation to buy.

Digital technology is being embraced by the fashion industry to do everything from targeted advertising to personal shopping, like Stitch Fix who will send you a ‘curated’ selection of clothing based on your preferences. This only makes it easier to shop.

The true cost

This all goes someway to explaining why clothing production, globally, has approximately doubled in the last 15 years. At the same time as we are buying more, evidence shows that we are wearing our existing clothing less frequently. These fashion habits are having enormous environmental impacts, from high levels of waste to pollution in the air, soil and water. We can no longer pretend that buying clothing is a benign act. Change is needed across the entire fashion chain.

Circular economy principles offer a route to disrupting this system. Within this framework we need to ensure that the materials we use in clothing are safe and renewable, that they can be recovered and the end of life and reused and, crucially, that clothes are kept in use for as long as possible.

We’ve seen how the fashion industry is finely tuned to encouraged us to buy and how our brains are hardwired to respond to this. So how can each of us start to change our behaviour?

Five tips for curbing your fashion addiction

Here are a few tips for those New Year’s resolutions.

1. Stopping, swapping or second hand only

A UK woman will apparently amass over £30,000 worth of unworn clothing during their lifetime; for UK men it’s over £10,000. Based on that, take the strain off your wardrobe and commit to not buying any new clothes for a year and focus on enjoying what you already have. You’ll be joining a growing movement.

If you must buy something, decide to only buy second-hand clothing. From local charity shops to eBay to apps like Depop, there are plenty of ways to do this. The second-hand clothing market is now growing faster than traditional retail, and brands are increasingly seeing the opportunities that this presents, particularly at the luxury end of the market with brands like FarFetch introducing Second Life handbag resale and The RealReal taking off.

Better still, share or swap clothing with your friends. Leave money out of the equation and just borrow an outfit from a friend.

2. Rent

If you still can’t find that wedding outfit, why not try one of the clothing rental or subscription services that are springing up, such as Onloan or For Days? Even H&M are trialling rental from their flagship store in Sweden.

Renting could be a great way to challenge overconsumption, but there are a few caveats we need to be aware of: for this to help, we need to rent instead of buying, not as well as, and emissions from moving garments around and regularly cleaning them need to be factored in.

3. Browse but don’t buy

If you find yourself scrolling through online shops over the Christmas break, try putting items in your basket but don’t buy them immediately. Wait on it for a few hours or overnight. Do you still really want it?

And something to remember during the sales: if you wouldn’t love it at full price, don’t be sucked into buying a ‘bargain’ that you don’t really want.

4. Digital consumption

Virtual outfit anyone? Not quite mainstream yet, but if you want to try new outfits without the physical impact then take a look at digital fashion, like this collection by Carlings.

5. What do you really want?

Have a quick checklist in mind when you go to buy something. How are you feeling? Are you buying because you really want or need that item, or to make yourself feel better? If it’s the latter, recognise that and try something else to improve your mood first. Go for a walk or run or call a friend for a chat.

Remember, the buzz from buying something doesn’t last. Most of the time, it’s not the perfect dress. It’s just dopamine.

Find out about our Make Fashion Circular project



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