Out of fashion: Will Gen Z ever let go of its unhealthy love for fast fashion?

white wooden drawer with i love you print

They care deeply about sustainability and the environment as a whole, but they also feel under constant pressure to update their clothes. Which impulse will prevail?

Alessia Teresko is a 21-year old student from Nottingham who rarely wears the exact same outfit online twice. Last month, Alessia Teresko bought a minidress for a friend’s birthday. It was a Zara 70s-style gown in a swirling print. She paid PS27.99. She posted a photo of herself in the new dress to Instagram with the caption “Besties wknd”. This post was liked 296 times and Teresko’s Zara purchase was sent with it to the vast wardrobe in the sky. Namely, the Depop account where she resells clothes she no longer wears. Teresko says, “I cannot take another picture in that because I already posted it.” “It sounds very superficial, I know.”

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In Edinburgh, 23-year-old Mikaela Loach, a student and climate justice activist, understands the pressure that Teresko is under. “Honestly,” she said, “As someone with a platform, even I feel the pressure to wear different clothes online.” She purchases her clothes secondhand. Loach states, “Only if it’s not available secondhand,” she will buy it from retail. “Then I’ll do thorough research about the company.”

These women are only two years apart, and they live just a few hundred kilometers apart. Yet, their views on sustainability might seem like they speak different languages. The generational dichotomy between Teresko and Loach is growing more pronounced. Gen Z is a term that was used to describe people born between 1997-2012. It is often thought to be socially progressive and environmentally conscious, but it is also a prolific consumer of fast fashion, which is one of the most polluting industries in the world, and is often associated with human rights violations in the global south.

A 2020 Vogue Business survey of 105 members of Generation Z found that more than half reported buying most of their clothes from fast-fashion brands. Half of the respondents said they would continue shopping at Boohoo despite learning that the workers at the Leicester factories that supply the fast-fashion giant were paid less than PS4 an hour. Mintel data suggests that Gen Z is more fashion-savvy than older generations. 64% of British 16-19-year-olds admitted to purchasing clothes they had never worn. This compares to 44% of all adult respondents. And yet Mintel data also shows that Gen Z claims to care more about the environmental impact of their purchases: 70% of 16-19-year-olds agree that sustainability is an important factor when purchasing fashion items, compared with just 20% of 65- to 74-year-olds.

man in black and white long sleeve shirt

How to explain this split, and the fact that a generation that has given the world Greta Thunberg, the climate change activist who excoriates the fashion industry from the pages of Vogue Scandinavia, also produced Love Island runner-up Molly-Mae Hague, recently announced as the creative director of the ultra-low-cost fast-fashion brand PrettyLittleThing in a rumoured seven-figure deal? Malthe Overgaard, an ex-researcher at Aarhus Business School, says, “It seemed paradoxical to us. Which is why we wanted some light on it.” In 2020, Overgaard co-authored a paper with fellow researcher Nikolas Ronholt which surveyed members of Gen Z to find out why they consumed fast fashion while professing to care about sustainability and the environment.

Overgaard says that young people feel a sense of complexity and ambiguity about sustainability. They all agreed that they considered themselves conscious consumers. However, they felt incentivised by the desire to be trendy to purchase more and consume more.

Scott Bowden (23 years old) is a Saltash delivery driver who has had online shopping delivered to him so often that his father has a running gag with him. Bowden said that the delivery driver who delivers to his house often finds it funny how many clothes he’s ordered. Bowden estimates that he spends about PS50 per week on clothes. Most of his purchases are from Asos but he also buys occasionally from Shein, a low-cost retailer. Bowden is well aware of ethical concerns surrounding fast fashion purchases. He said that he was shocked to hear about the low wages of people in other companies.

Bowden, however, is a normal young man, who works, sees his friends, conforms to the pressure we feel as young people to be fashionable. He isn’t familiar with fast fashion’s supply chains. Bowden says that if it was discovered that workers were being underpaid or mistreated, “I would reconsider buying from a brand.” Overgaard says this is a common reaction among Gen Z members. They feel they don’t have enough information on the products and how they are made.

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Loach can relate to this sentiment. “When I was in school, I bought new clothes all the time. I didn’t think about the effects of my buying habits and how harmful the garment industry was.” Then she watched The True Cost (2015), which examined the environmental and labor violations that are inherent in the global garment industry. She says, “It was transformative.” She feels empathy for those who, like her, don’t want to face the realities of fast fashion. Loach says, “The fashion industry was designed to be exploitative. That opaqueness, that lack of transparency is what allows it exist.”

However, not all young people will stop buying fast fashion if they have to face the realities of the industry. Some do know, and choose to purchase anyway. Teresko is open when I ask her if she knows about the exploitative practices of people to make her clothes. She says, “I’m aware of it but I don’t really think about it.” “If I purchase something online, I don’t think, ‘That’s fast fashion, it shouldn’t be mine’. Is she guilty of buying fast fashion? “I have never felt that way. I feel guilty only if I spend a lot.”

When it comes down to it money is what keeps fast fashion moving. The newest fashions have been adopted by every generation of young people, regardless of whether they were the hippies of 1970s or flappers in 1920s. However, before brands like Missguided and Boohoo, which helped to lower the prices in the industry, young people couldn’t afford new clothes every week. Nowadays, PS3 party frocks and PS15 tracksuits are routine. Teresko said, “I would prefer to buy 20 things for PS50, because I feel that I get more value than two things.”

The pace at which young people consume has increased thanks to social media. YouTube and TikTok are full of “Haul” videos that show people unpacking large quantities of clothing. Social media thrives on novelty. Trends that might have lasted months or even years disappear in a matter of weeks. “Planned obsolescence” is a hallmark of fast fashion, says Dr Patsy Perry from Manchester Metropolitan University. “Marketing machines make us feel like last season isn’t right for this season if we want to look hot.”

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“When you think of how fast fashion has sped-up,” says Aja Barber, author. “If you think about the rise in popularity of social media, you’ll see a strong connection there.” Because social media wasn’t around, I don’t recall being encouraged to spend or buy in the same way teenagers do.”

This cycle of excessive consumption is fuelled by influential people. BoohooMan has released collections by Jack Grealish, a footballer, and DaBaby, a rapper. Teresko loves Molly-Mae Hague, Kylie Jenner. She says Kylie Jenner is an icon. Loach is convinced that we must hold those who collaborate with fast-fashion brands accountable. Loach states that the fast fashion industry isn’t being supported by those who have to shop there. It’s being supported by people who are looking for new outfits every week or influencers who encourage people to buy large quantities of clothing.

Many Gen Z teens prefer to purchase secondhand. They often use the reselling app Depop (recently purchased by Etsy for $1.6bn). Evan Sellick (16), a student from Cwmbran in south Wales, says, “The Post Office hates me.” Sellick is a Depop reseller. His online secondhand shop,  Clothing View has almost 6,000 followers. Sellick claims that while vintage may seem expensive, it is actually much cheaper than retail, has better quality and is not manufactured in cheap factories.

However, vintage and secondhand are not always an option for young people who want fashion but don’t fit into the so-called straight sizes (meaning 6-18). There are many sustainable brands that cater to all sizes, such as Birdsong or WithLoveEvie. However, most ethical brands limit their offerings to those who are 18 years. Sophie Coates (20), a student from east Yorkshire, says that “PrettyLittleThing just had a catwalk show. It was truly amazing. There were models in all shapes and sizes. These brands make you feel valued and wanted.”

woman wearing blue and white floral shirt and blue denim shorts

Coates finds it difficult to shop secondhand. She says that vintage stores don’t carry curve sizes. “They are all standard fittings, and the outfits that fit you are not very body-positive. They won’t show your skin. They’re too big and too baggy.” She wishes she could buy sustainably but there aren’t many options for her size. She shops at Boohoo and Misguided. She says, “I wish there was a sustainable brand that followed the new trends.”

Ironically, reselling apps can also encourage overconsumption. Bowden says, “I resell many of my clothes on Depop.” “Sales are often pretty quick.” Teresko uses the Depop proceeds to pay for her PS100-a month fast fashion habit. Perry cautions against selling your clothes to make more money on fast fashion. She says, “We cannot shop our way into sustainability. We must slow down our consumption. It is not a good idea to buy stuff and then wear it once, then put it on eBay or Depop.

Talking to Gen Z also reveals that many consumers buy sustainable or eco-friendly products within fast-fashion brands. This is because they feel these products are ethical. For this reason, Coates started shopping more at H&M Conscious & New Look Kind. She says, “I want to do my part.”

These ranges don’t stop the same over-consumption. Perry says, “Impulse-buying something made with slightly more sustainable fibres will not help.” Overgaard told me that many young people surveyed did not know about sustainable alternatives to products from fast-fashion manufacturers. Some ethical brands they might wish to consider would be Finisterre, Lucy & Yak, Baukjen, They May Be, Community Clothing, Raeburn, Passenger, Rapanui, Ninety Percent, AYM, Form & Thread and Story MFG.

white wooden drawer with i love you print

It doesn’t make sense to criticize Gen Z for buying fast fashion. People of all ages continue to support the system, or at best, challenge it. Gen Z didn’t create fast fashion. They are often supported by their parents who sign for the boxes. Barber says, “I can think about millennial parents who allow their children to buy Shein without ever speaking to them about it.” We all have a responsibility to each other, regardless of our age. Barber says, “I don’t believe this system is beneficial for anyone.” “Not the garment workers. The environment. The person who is buying the clothes. This is a terrible system and needs to be changed on all fronts.”

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