Fast fashion’s sad cycle of compulsive shopping, guilt, and regret has spread to Asia

Fast fashion in Shanghai.
Fast fashion in Shanghai.
Image: EPA/HO
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A lot of the shopping for clothes that takes place today in wealthy countries, such as the US, isn’t about the clothing. Rather, it’s the act of purchasing—the temporary buzz of acquiring, and the symbolic value we project onto the item—that is often the point. Then the buzz fades, and a new purchase is made in its place, while the clothes themselves pile up in an overstuffed closet, perhaps never to be worn.

It’s not just a Western problem anymore. A new report by Greenpeace suggests the cycle, enabled by cheap fast fashion, is already emerging in rising economies such as China, where the burgeoning consumer culture has combined with growing incomes to give many their first opportunities to shop for fun and not just necessity.

Greenpeace commissioned independent institutes in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy, and Germany to survey at least 1,000 representative consumers from each country about their shopping habits. The respondents, all of whom were between the ages of 20 and 45, were asked details about how often they shop, why they shop, and how they feel afterward. (The US is notably absent from the report, but one of the authors explains that Greenpeace’s regional offices pay for research in their countries, and the US office is currently focused on the environmental policies of US president Donald Trump.)

What the surveys found was that overconsumption was prevalent in each region, but especially so in China and Hong Kong. “In many ways, China is currently leading this trend,” the report states. “Almost half of Chinese consumers buy more than they can afford—and more than makes them happy, and around 40 percent qualify as excessive shoppers, shopping compulsively more than once a week.”

The survey revealed that the emotional cycle characteristic of compulsive shopping—excitement, then an emotional letdown, and ultimately emptiness or guilt—was more pronounced in China and Hong Kong as well. And social media was notably more influential driving purchases in those regions than it was in Germany or Italy.

Greenpeace’s survey numbers aren’t huge, particularly in China’s case, where the population is approaching 1.4 billion, making it difficult to say how common these attitudes are.

But Karl Gerth, a historian and expert on Chinese consumerism at the University of California, San Diego, says the results don’t surprise him. He points to a complex mix of factors have led to a Chinese culture of competitive, conspicuous consumption.

Young Chinese are only a few decades removed from the poverty of their grandparents. When the country quickly started to modernize and grow after opening up in the 1970s, consumerism grew with it, and has only accelerated since. A huge number of Chinese have been getting their first tastes of material wealth, which also leads to people defining and communicating their identities through possessions. Gerth says Chinese cities are filled with endless opportunities to shop, and Chinese consumers have an in-depth knowledge of the perceived status of different brands.

What makes the situation distinctly Chinese is the speed with which it’s happening, multiplied across China’s vast population. And Gerth says that, unlike in places such as Europe, restraint isn’t often a core value. “I think the Chinese dream is the American dream—plus 10%,” he says. “They want even more, bigger, better.”

The consequences of these shopping habits are greater than just the consumers affected. The fashion industry uses up vast amounts of energy and natural resources, and it’s a notorious polluter because of all the chemicals involved in growing and dyeing materials. These issues are only set to multiply as China and other rising economies continue toward Western levels of consumption.