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Why am I like this? A fashion psychology expert on the science behind shopping with our values

Photography By Jade Aucamp / Marcus Loke

I was a few feet away from the register when a hot burn started to spread across my cheeks. I looked down at the jumper in my hands. A minute ago, buying it had felt like an absolute necessity. Now, the purchase felt embarrassing, shameful even. Do I really need this? What am I doing here?

I’ve been trying to make better fashion choices: saying no to fast fashion, buying fewer new garments and shopping with ethical brands. And even though rationality prevailed in this instance (I didn’t buy the jumper), plenty of questionable purchases are still made. 

Hey, we’ve all been there, right? Giving in to an impulse buy, a spontaneous click on a sale item, or a craving for a garment you just have to have. But we’re supposed to be a hyperaware generation of value-driven consumers who know the impact these purchases are having on the planet. So why do we do it? And what will make us change these habits? 

We put these questions to Dr Carolyn Mair a behavioural psychologist, brand consultant and author of The Psychology of Fashion. We first came across Dr Mair’s work when she was interviewed by Alexa Chung in 2015 for Vogue’s The Future of Fashion an online documentary that has taken more than two million YouTube viewers behind the scenes of the fashion industry. At the time of Chung’s interview, Dr Mair had just established the psychology of fashion department at the London College of Fashion (the first course of its kind in the world), driving a new discourse around the complex relationship between fashion and human behaviour.  

Dr Mair explained that when we want something, like a new item of clothing, we have a powerful motivation to get that thing, and it becomes the objective. On a cognitive level, our brain is firing signals about how that desirable object is going to make us feel – the satisfaction, happiness and gratification that will come if we can only attain this new item of clothing. We powerfully pursue the objective in these moments, overriding what many are able to understand when they’re not staring down a lovely new knitted jumper: that purchases such as these are harmful to the planet and environment. 

Supplied by Dr Carolyn Mair

One of the reasons Dr Mair first became engaged in fashion psychology was because she wanted to understand how we can address the environmental and ethical issues facing the fashion industry through a better understanding of human behaviour.  

“Years ago, when we were talking about sustainability issues, people would say we need to raise awareness,” Dr Mair says. “And [I would argue] that people are aware, but there’s a difference between being aware and actually acting on that awareness.”

Dr Mair acknowledges the potential of the fashion industry to generate positive change through a better understanding of the motivation behind our shopping habits.

“People say one thing and do another because we’re human. We want to do good. We want to be part of making the world a better place. But at the same time, we assume the changes happening to the planet are beyond what we can address through our own small actions, and that buying this one item isn’t really going to make a huge difference. But actually, it does.” 

The world needs millions of individuals to believe in the power of their small actions and change the way they shop. But when it comes to actually changing behaviour, we all respond differently to many emotional factors. “It really depends on the individual, and their motivation,” Dr Mair says. “Someone can hear something 1000 times, but if they don’t actually want to change, they’re not going to hear it.” She says individuals ultimately need to feel empowered and connected to the issues facing our planet, and engage with the debate in order to see themselves “as part of the bigger picture”. 

This was certainly the case for me. In the last year through my job, I was repeatedly exposed to environmental issues, particularly those caused by the fashion industry. As time went on, I could no longer disconnect my fashion purchases from what I was seeing, learning and writing about. When I did purchase from brands that I knew were unethical and environmentally harmful, I felt guilty about it because I knew exactly what kind of damage they were responsible for.   

Charisse Kenion

Then there were the global events of the past year. Turns out a pandemic, and witnessing the global humanitarian and emotional fallout, made many individuals (myself included) see ourselves in that “bigger picture”. It called on us to consider the impact our actions had on others. “We always thought that behaviour change is quite a slow process and that habits are difficult to break. But what we’ve seen is that we can change rapidly, and we’ve become used to doing things that we never thought we would,” Dr Mair says.

Alongside these rapid changes, many of us began to review how we live, and our fashion choices weren’t immune from that reflection: “As the pandemic went on, it also became clear we didn’t need that many clothes. Simultaneously, we had a lot of activism about different issues [including] a huge drive for sustainability initiatives and reducing environmental damage. All of these things have come together to impact how we engage with fashion.”  

When she looks at the fashion industry over the last year, Dr Mair says these behaviour changes have manifested in subtle, yet powerful collective shifts, most notably in what we consider “new”. More individuals have embraced pre-loved, secondhand rental, upcycling and clothes swapping services, engaging with these outlets and “understanding they don’t have to buy brand new when shopping for clothes that will be new to them”. Brands are also listening more to what consumers want, which is for a more ethical fashion industry and for social and environmental responsibilities to be taken seriously. 

If you’ve gotten to the end of this and feel ready to kick some of your bad fashion habits, Dr Mair’s advice is to start simple. Do your research; learn more about the fashion industry and be critical of what brands are telling you. Before you buy new, look deeper into your wardrobe at what you already have. And when you do decide to shop, buy quality garments that you love and know you will wear.   

“The great thing about fashion now is that almost anything goes. And when you feel driven to buy something new or follow trends, stop and think about what you already have. Be proud of wearing something you’ve worn before.”  

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