Feeding Hungry Consumers With "Fast Fashion"

H&M, Zara, Mango and Irish upstart Primark are flooding the market with new styles at low prices. Is this good for us? Or for the world?

Primark shop in Berlin
Primark shop in Berlin
Silke Wichert

MUNICH — Moschino's 2014 spring-summer collection, designed by Jeremy Scott, was meant to be a humorous homage to fast food. But it could also have been a metaphor for how the fashion industry itself seems to be evolving.

In addition to the regular seasonal lines, clothing companies have taken to offering small, fast-food-like "bites" at increasing intervals. These fashion bites take the form of in-between products and special collections. Some shops, as a result, now receive up to 24 deliveries per annum.

It is not often the case that people who work in fashion are of one opinion. But they all agree that fashion, as a general trend, has become incredibly fast-moving. More and more clothes are flooding the market at ever shorter intervals to boost sales of more and more clothes. That's, at least, what the fashion industry is hoping for. But does the strategy really work?

One thing is clear: Never have we owned as many clothes as we do nowadays. On average, Germans currently buy five new items of clothing per month — approximately 60 items per year. This rate is nothing unusual in the Western world. In the United States, in 1991, people bought 40 new items per capita per year. By 2013, the number had risen to 64. British women, for their part, have four times as many clothes in their wardrobe now as they did in the 1980s.

Are we buying too many clothes? If we answer the question based on the number of clothing items a human being can wear on a regular basis, then yes. According to a Greenpeace study conducted in 2015, of the nearly 5.2 billion items of clothing in German wardrobes, approximately 2 billion (nearly 40%) are "worn seldom or never."

Cheap thrills

Our consumer behavior has changed dramatically due to the influence of the fast-fashion phenomenon. H&M, Zara, Mango and the Irish newcomer Primark have flooded the market with cheap goods. The money we spend on clothes has risen in the last few years but, relatively speaking, we actually spend less than we did in the past. While we spent about 10% of our disposable income on clothes and shoes in the 70s, we only spent about 5% in 2015. We buy more but spend less — and our brains just love it!

A 2007 study by researchers from Stanford University and MIT Massachusetts found that like sex and drugs, looking at a desirable piece of clothing stimulates the brain's reward center. They then showed the test person the price of the desired article in question, a consideration that, according to Scott Rick, head of the study, correlated with the brain's pain center. "The higher the price, the higher the level of perceived pain," says Rick.

But a supposed bargain or good deal, on the other hand, caused an even more pronounced feeling of happiness. Double the rush, if you will. "What was particularly interesting to see was that the actual kick seems to be felt at the time of purchase," says Rick. Like with drugs, however, the effect wears off quite quickly afterwards. Many people, as a result, essentially become addicted to finding the next bargain. This may explain why some people think they need new clothes all the time despite having wardrobes full of unworn clothes.

We are what we buy

Last February, the Daily Mail published an article about Kim Kardashian. No surprise there. Except rather than focus, as one might expect, on whatever new fashion ensemble Kardashian was sporting, the article drew attention to fact that she hadn't changed clothing. She'd worn the same outfit two days in a row — how scandalous!

How silly too. And yet, when was the last time you wore the same outfit to work or school two days in a row? The question points to the link between fashion and behavior, and how people express themselves through the goods they consume.

Consuming is a much larger part of our lives now than it used to be. Sociologists see a link here to the waning influence of families, clubs and churches. Without those guides, people use consumer goods to build their identities and seek out society-binding norms.

There's also a therapeutic aspect to consuming. Those who want to treat themselves buy something new. And those who are in a bad mood most certainly want to treat themselves by buying something new.

The sharing economy?

Shopping has long been a pleasurable pastime. With Internet shopping, available 24/7, the trend has accelerated. "Shopping has become much too easy," says Scott Rick, who conducted the MIT study and who now teaches marketing at the University of Michigan. "Everything you see is only a click away. This increases the risk of buying too much too often."

And thanks to the instant payment service PayPal, customers don't even have to root around for their credit card every time they buy something. Rick says that if shopping were more painful and more difficult, people would automatically buy less. Studies have shown that people spend much less money if they pay cash rather than with their cards.

But what if we could constantly wear new clothes that are not necessarily our own? Ownership has become quite a relative term in many sectors of our lives. Car sharing or borrowing films and music online has become a trend.

Kirsten Brodde of Greenpeace thinks this may be a promising concept that may possibly be applicable to fashion. This could be achieved through so-called "clothesaries" that work like libraries, with apps that connect private people and their products for a limited period of time. And online stores that rent clothes for a fee and may even provide fashion flat rates, like Netflix. These clothes would most certainly not hang unused in your wardrobe for long as the owner would remind you, in time, that the lending period is coming to an end.

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