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The Human Cost of Fashion

Kids are being bombarded with image conscious marketing, creating a heightened sense of importance on how they look and being popular, taking a mental toll on their well being.

America’s younger generations are experiencing a mental health crisis with increased levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and in some cases schizophrenia, as kids retreat to other realities altogether to escape their own. In the last year alone, hospitals have reported a significant rise in mental health visits for teens, with some emergency rooms seeing a 31% increase for this population in 2020. One major study found that 25% of its Gen Z respondents reported feeling emotionally distressed, with no where to turn. So, kids often feel alone, confused, scared, and without a readily available support system.

Sadly, fashion plays a role in all this, with big-name retailers mesmerizing children, teens, and young adults with a constant bombardment of fashion choices, placing a false sense of importance on how they look, their body type, and being popular. And once popular, they have to work at staying popular, creating an overwhelming amount of stress for someone so young. This is all exacerbated even further with the fashion industry encouraging addictive buying behavior and implementing impulsive payment methods.

Trends emphasizing slim-fit clothing are motivated by greed, not health.

There’s no denying it: The fast fashion industry is connected to declining mental health and overall welfare. Big-name retailers, in particular, are using social media to mesmerize consumers with a constant blur of fashion choices, while the fast fashion machine is an unsustainable system that prioritizes profit over mental wellbeing.

Fast fashion feeds into a negative body image

In a cruel cost-cutting measure, the fashion industry prioritizes slimmer bodies. You see, it’s cheaper to produce straight-lined garments and to create a small size range; ergo, the fast fashion market creates more products designed for people built with fewer natural curves. People allow the fashion industry to dictate what is supposed to fit them rather than recognizing that the trends emphasizing slim-fit clothing are motivated by greed, not health. Nevertheless, when you enter a store and discover that they don’t make your size, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of wrongness with your own body.

The fashion industry prioritizes slimmer bodies, as it uses less material and is therefore easier and cheaper to make.

In the United States, 10% of the entire population suffers from an eating disorder, and the majority of those people are under the age of 25. These troubling statistics have been on the rise in recent years, correlating with an increase in social media consumption. This connection made big news in 2021 when a whistleblower at Facebook shared that the company knew its products had a negative effect on body image for teen girls, yet Facebook did nothing. Social media platforms hold a heavy influence over Gen Z, but only 2% of the fashion industry’s models are considered plus-size. Instead of seeing normal bodies, young girls are constantly viewing beauty and fashion content depicting an “ideal” thin body shape so that big clothing brands can save a little money.

10% of the entire population suffers from an eating disorder and negative body image.

Fast fashion websites and impulse behavior

In the world of one-click shopping via Amazon and Instagram, cash-free apps, and a dizzying refresh of clothing and celebrities, it’s no wonder that the retail experience for Generation Z is unlike any other shopping spree in history. Data shows that members of Gen Z spend at least three hours each day on social media platforms, and the majority of their purchasing is done via a smartphone. What’s more, this generation is way more likely to make a shopping decision if an admired social media influencer makes the recommendation; this is a major contrast to older generations whose purchasing decisions were largely connected to advice from close family and friends.

How does the fast-fashion industry play into this new retail reality? Major brands like Hollister and Forever 21 are adapting to QR-code payments, buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) installment plans, and other easy ways to pay, so there are fewer hurdles than ever for consumers to make purchases. User experience designers are tasked with convincing you that you need more; online shopping allows brands to track purchasing histories and coerce unsuspecting youth into making additional purchases they might not need.

It's hard to miss these tricks of the trade: shopping categories titled “You also might like” or extra incentives at "Online Checkout "if you meet a certain purchasing threshold. These tricks often force the brain to consider spending just a little more with each visit. Ads try to sell an emotional feeling or a whole experience rather than just one item, suggesting you must purchase the sandals with the bikini and with the sundress the model is wearing at the beach. And it's all powered by predator algorithms that search out their victims, as if they were prey on a hunt.

Fast fashion is an addiction

What’s even more concerning is the addictive nature of fast fashion shopping. Social media platforms make it impossibly easy for younger individuals to chase a bargain or make an impulse purchase because, well, it feels good. It’s called retail “therapy” for a reason, after all; psychologists assert that shoppers receive a hit of dopamine when scrolling through an online store or fashion feed.

Medical professionals have created a diagnosis: Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD).

Quick science break. Dopamine is a hormonal neurotransmitter that your brain releases to create delight. Humans start to associate certain habits with the release of this feel-good chemical; for people with a genetic tendency toward addictive behaviors, this can be a real problem. In a world where gratification through shopping is literally at your fingertips, there are real consequences on both your mental health and your wallet. Online fast fashion brands are even more dangerous; you get a hit of feel-good chemicals when you make the purchase and the suspense of waiting for your items to arrive. Medical professionals have even created a diagnosis: Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD). Experts estimate that at least 5% of American shoppers display some of these unhealthy shopping tendencies.


The fast fashion industry is taking advantage of the mental health crisis. Seeking connection, more young people are relying on social media, and brands are placing intentionally manipulative marketing schemes right in front of our eyes. It’s not even a secret – for years, concrete data demonstrated social media’s negative impacts on body image and mental health, and influential companies like Facebook looked the other way. Generation Z is struggling with their mental health, but the demographic is gaining substantial consumer buying power as well. These fashion brands recognize an opportunity to make a buck in this expanding market, no matter the long-term costs to their consumers’ wallets or wellbeing.


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