the psychology of consumerism

Do We Shop for Clothes to Feel Superior? The Psychology of Consumerism

Another Black Friday has come and gone, and the only thing I bought is a plain white t-shirt which I normally wear underneath sweaters all winter long and for years. However, I couldn’t help but notice the SALES signs that turned up everywhere around me – online and in person. It was almost eerie. 

While I was listening to my friends talk about what they got on sale, it got me thinking: Why are we so consumed by buying new clothes? Why do we have to have everything that’s the latest fad? Do we believe the things we own say something about us? 

Let’s imagine a situation: I have had my favorite jeans, worn them for years until they ripped, and now I have to buy new ones – clearly, I need them. My dad does this, mostly. 

But how often is this the case for most of us? Usually, the story goes like this: I have a pair of jeans that fit me well. I like them. Ooh, but look at that bootcut dark-wash denim. Or these mid-rise mom jeans. And it’s 40% off! Add to cart. I really need the relaxed fit comfort pair. I’m gonna wear them all the time. And that’s how it starts…

Psychologically speaking, we could divide our shopping motives into two basic ones: utilitarian (like my dad) or symbolic. The utilitarian one is pretty obvious now – you buy a new pair of something because the old one is no longer usable. End of story.

Now, the symbolic kind – this is where the shoe pinches. It is by far our favorite kind and serves as an excuse to go on shopping sprees, enjoy Black Fridays and abuse the option of online shopping while we’re eating double-stuffed Oreos at 1 am. Don’t ask how I know. 

Culturally speaking, we associate buying new clothes with a feeling of pure joy. It has a celebratory, thrilling note, from trying it on to grasping those paper bag handles and heading out of the shop to wearing it for the first time. It causes our friends to say, “Wow, I love that outfit!” We might get a thrill from strangers’ approving (or disapproving, depending on what gets you going) looks. 

If you’re into clothes, the attention will act as a stimulant, and naturally, you’ll find yourself wanting more. And this is how we get a $3 trillion worth industry. 

Do we shop for clothes to feel superior?

While most of us shop to get that thrill, there are cases that Karl Marx, the German philosopher, and sociologist described: We buy new clothes because they make us feel superior to others. 

Clothes have long been a sure way to distinguish who’s who, and it remains true to this day. Not only that, but if the main reason we shop is to make ourselves feel as if we are above others, it happens more often than not that we quickly lose interest in our existing clothes and are already on the prowl for our next purchase.

I guess it all started while I was scrolling through social media:  an influencer was showing her following a new type of Barbie doll (not yet available for purchase in her country and thus considered to be a very exclusive commodity) popped up: it is dyed pink, and when you pour hot water into Barbie’s container, the color rinses off, and you’re able to see her usual Barbie features. 

While this got the 5-year-old inside of me exhilarated, a thought occurred to me: Why must we continuously give in the latest trends? Has owning the latest stuff become our personality? 

Luckily, the tides seem to turn. Sustainability has been on the radar and even more than that for quite some time. Some of the most famous and followed influencers have started to advocate being more conscious of our environment. 

An honorable mention is definitely Matilda Djerf, a Swedish influencer with a fanbase of 2.8 million followers, whose focus is the importance of healthy body image as well as including preloved items in her daily style. 

This kind of enormous following makes it evident that sustainability awareness has reached its crucial moment in history.

Then & now of second-hand clothes 

When I was a kid, I used to get a box of cousin clothes, and it was the best thing ever. The history of second-hand clothes goes as early as 1300, during Europe’s economic depression and widespread famine. In these difficult circumstances, the second-hand clothes market has started to bloom.

There were a couple of ways through which second-hand clothes reached new owners: they were given to family members as memorabilia, used to liquidate a deceased’s debts, or inherited from mother to daughter and altered to fit the latest fashion.

No wonder that, up to a couple of years ago, second-hand clothes were associated with a poor financial situation.

The more our society gained sustainability awareness, the more we changed our attitude towards clothes that were pre-owned, and, therefore, the name we use to describe them changed as well. This helped to shift the narrative, too. 

From the phrase second hand which makes it sound dull, with no thrill of the new which we all love so much about buying clothes, it turned into preloved, which is associated with somebody taking care of this piece before, and now I get to carry on. How lucky am I!

Kate Middleton isn’t a stranger to repeating outfits – why should we be?

The fascination with what members of the royal family wear has long been present among royal watchers. However, when Kate Middleton’s engagement to Prince William was announced, the Issa London navy blue dress she wore sold out online in a heartbeat. 

This continuously happened with every item she had on when she would step out in public, and it prompted the media to call it ‘the Kate effect’. Kate’s team has caught on to this, so they devised a plan: for most of her regular engagements that are not major events, she re-wears clothes – either as separates or as outfits.

If the newly appointed Princess of Wales isn’t opposed to repeating outfits – why should we be? She is sending a clear message to the world: being eco-conscious is the new black. And we are ready to follow.

The allure and consequences of mass production

Mass production of garments dates from the early 20th century. As this article explains, it was produced by and worn by the same sweatshop girls working for a wage of $4-5 an hour. 

It was the first time in history that the lower classes could dress in the same clothes as the upper classes, and the construct of it is what the mass production industry is based on today. Today, we have 92 million tons of textile waste every year.

Mass-produced clothes serve our sudden whims – they enable us to spot a Zara dress on the app at midnight and have it delivered to our doorstep in 3 to 5 working days. If that seems too long, we can run out to the nearest Zara store on our lunch break and have the dress in our hands before we even have the time to think the words impulsive buy.

The consequence? Aside from the indubitable rise of eco-consciousness among the young generations, which has spurred a widespread fashion of thrifting for vintage or preloved clothes, kids these days don’t want to wear the same clothes as their peers and look uniformed, like we all go to the same boarding school.

Zero-waste Fashion

As a much-needed response to the fast world in which we live today, a new term was coined: zero-waste fashion. Brands have focused on making their production free or almost free of waste. 

This was done by using different approaches: using fabrics that were leftovers or discarded by other brands like the brand tonlé operates; previewing the designs in 3D using digital samples and operating on a made-to-order basis, which basically means that no items will be manufactured until an actual order is placed by a customer or upcycling the already existing items such as Worn Wear Patagonia or the fresh look given to jeans by ReDone. The future is now!

Wrapping up

Buying new stuff is not necessarily about pragmatic reasons or common sense but more about the thrill of the hunt, the excitement of the first outing in a new outfit, and cheering up. The question is: how do we keep clothes, just clothes? How do we alleviate the thirst for shopping and take away the power it holds over us? I’ll let you know.