How Companies are Preying On Your Oldest Fears To Get You To Buy Fast Fashion

You ever do something that you’re 100% sure about only to have it completely backfire on you? That’s what happened to me this Saturday and what is likely to happen to most shoppers this President’s Day.

Let’s back up for a second and give you some context. I’m developing a documentary about sustainable fashion because of course, I am. I needed to grab some footage of your typical mall full of fast fashion in order to juxtapose it with landfills, etc etc. I called up my producer and my cinematographer (the person who shoots the actual footage) and cockily we all went to the mall.

One crucial point of interest here, all three of us are extremely dedicated to shopping responsibly. We talk about it during our downtime, we text each other about new ethical fashion brands, we share articles with each other. If there were ever any group of ladies who could withstand the charms of fast fashion, it was us. We were soooooo confident.


Such idiots.



In our devotion to sustainable fashion, we’d completely forgotten what it was like to be in a mall. Since malls rarely, if ever, have sustainable options we never visit them anymore. Which is how we found ourselves in Forever 21 dumbstruck by just how cute everything was. The designs, the colors, the cuts. No wonder people love it so much!. Then we looked at the tags, and OH MY GOD THEY’RE SO CHEAP, and to top it all off it’s President’s Day weekend which means everything was on sale. I could feel that simple word reverberating in my chest, calling to me like a siren. SALE. SALE. SALE.  It’s a four-letter word indeed.

As our hands lingered over flamingo print crop tops and polka dot onesies we kept reminding each other the horrors of polyester and the inhumane labor practices that fast fashion relies on. We were acutely aware of the irony of what was happening, but it didn’t stop our hearts for aching after that $7 embroidered tee. I’m not going to lie y’all, not buying anything was hard and if we hadn’t been there to support each other I’m not sure we wouldn’t have succumbed.

Which got me thinking, why was it so hard? Shouldn’t three women highly versed in sustainable fashion be immune to this sort of temptation? Feeling incredibly guilty about the whole thing I went home and did some soul searching and lots of research.


Having a sale is one of the most powerful tools fashion companies have, but the reason why they’re so powerful will shock you. I’ve always thought of a sale as a joyous event, and sure you get a small hit of dopamine when you shop a sale, but the “joy” you feel has a much darker underbelly. The real reason we shop sales is not out of joy, but out of fear. Our fear is what fashion and marketing companies are turning against us.

It’s just shopping, right? What could we possibly be afraid of in shopping? A lot it turns out.


We’re Afraid of Missing Out


Sales work because of Scarcity. “Scarcity refers to any limitation placed on a product or service with the goal of increasing sales through pressure placed on the consumer”  In other words we see something running out and we’re terrified we won’t have a piece of it. When we see there’s only one or two sweaters left we jump all over them. We’d rather have buy them on the off chance we’ll like it rather than want it later and regret the missed opportunity. This fear of missing out is so strong we are less likely to notice whether we even like the thing we’re buying. If we stop and think about it though we’d realize that this fear is totally misplaced. The garment industry is a 3 trillion dollar industry, I promise you that Breton top isn’t going anywhere, girl.



We’re Afraid of Losing Money


Another reason sales work is that they convince us we’re saving money by purchasing something right that second instead of waiting. We’re afraid of losing money down the road so we buy something we don’t really need right now. How many times has it happened that we come down from a sale high only to find we now own a bunch of junk that we don’t really want? By buying these things out of fear we’re more likely to not only buy things we don’t want and spend carelessly.


We’re Afraid of Being Beaten


We evolved as a competitive species. And sure when we were in the savannah hunting game being competitive made sense. We had to beat out that another person because otherwise we starved and our genetic line died out. It was survival of the fittest. But do we need that same level of intensity while shopping? Of course not, and yet, every year Black Friday videos like this prove that companies know how to push that button.



When looking at the research I was struck by how easily the oldest parts of our brains are  manipulated into doing things that go against our better judgement. Our modern sensibilities are a paper-thin layer on top of centuries of pure survival mode. How do we compete with instinct?

We slow down, we take a breath, and we make a choice. When we stop and breathe we give ourselves that extra second to decide, is this really how I want to behave? We used to live in a world of fear but at some point we must outgrow the fear and step into a life guided by love and abundance. I want a life where I shop out of joy not fear, but this takes work and a willingness to go against the messages advertisers hurtle at us every day. Like a seedling, we must nurture our better judgement through its infancy or it will never become our default. It may be difficult to say no to that sale but do it anyway. Next time it will be easier. Keep at it, keep flexing that conscience shopping muscle until one day you are not at the mercy of a marketing team but are able to shop on your own terms and with your own ethics guiding you.

And until the day it gets easier, learn from my mistakes and stay away from malls on big holiday weekends. It’s rough out there y’all.