Fast fashion is as old as Gen Z. Why do we expect teens to outnumber retailers? (2023)

Millions of Americans, specifically those born around or after the year 2000, have never inhabited a world without fast fashion. They became shoppers at the height of their boom: retailers like ASOS dropped at least5,000 new styles per weekand Shein offers700 to 1000 new styles daily. And while these young shoppers are increasingly wary of the evils of fast fashion, they have little room to protest. They buy what's available, and what's available is usually fast.

This rhythm is a relatively modern innovation. Clothing production has quietly accelerated to breakneck speeds over the past three decades, making it easy for consumers young and old to think their clothing is disposable. It all started in the 1990s, the story goes, when the founder of Zara set the fast fashion wheel in motion. Zara abandoned the concept of fashion seasons for the thrill of constant newness.

A confluence of factors led Western designers and retailers - H&M, Forever 21, Gap, to name a few - to follow Zara's lead over the next decade. Retailers migrated their manufacturing process overseas, where labor was cheaper. Cheaper was better, of course, from a business point of view. It was a period of excess for consumers and retailers alike. Profits soared, and the number of garments produced between 2000 and 2014 doubled to 100 billion a year. The “instant fashion” dream started by Zara came true and things were about to pick up speed.

At the end of the 2010s,“Ultra-fast” fashion brandsthey emerged as viable competitors to the dominant fashion empires of the previous decade. They have names like Boohoo, Fashion Nova,she inside, and Princess Polly, and reached millions of young shoppers through social media, while fast fashion's old guard resided in brick-and-mortar stores.

These retailers have now turned their attention to Gen Z, the new kids on the block who have recently reached spending age. According to Pew Research, members of this demographic group were born between the years 1997 and 2010 and grew up under the looming threat of climate change. Generation Z cannot imagine a world without fast fashion because they were born in its heyday. From 2000 to 2014, the average price of clothingfell despite inflation. Young people are conditioned to accept low prices as the norm; some even rely on these reduced costs to access trendy clothes. Why pay more when you can buy a new T-shirt for $5, a dress for $20 or a pair of jeans for $30?

However, surveys and market research have found that most young consumers are concerned about sustainability. They areavid thrift store shoppersysecond-hand buyers. Gen Z wants similar commitments from the companies they buy from and isn't afraid to demand them. This fueled an oft-repeated narrative that Gen Z's green habits"delicate"osignificantly slowed downThe global expansion of fast fashion. Although fast fashion is a relatively young phenomenon, it is part of a century-old industry that has adjusted to its current pace of growth.

The main retailers areinvest in sustainable technologiesto increase their business portfolios. They pledged to be more sustainable and resourceful in public campaigns. However, they have not committed to doing less. Even if the materials and workmanship used to produce fashion are a little better, it does little to offset the clothing consumption cycle that Generation Z was born into. fast fashion, even for a generation very aware of its environmental implications.

Gen Z is certainly not the only group buying these companies or responsible for their continued success (“Most people in the Global North have been wearing fast fashion in some form over the past two decades,” said Aja Barber, sustainable fashion writer and critical). However, they are the first to do it in adolescence as something natural. They need to navigate a world where trends are more accessible than ever. And these questions you face about personal responsibility and excessive consumption have remained unanswered and unresolved by previous generations.

Sixteen-year-old Maddie Bialek does her best to avoid fast fashion, but she can't remember a time without cheap, plentiful clothes. When Bialek was born in 2005, companies like Zara, Forever 21 and H&M racked up billions of dollars in sales annually and proliferated in malls across the United States and around the world. The ultra-fast fashion brands that most shoppers Bialek's age would recognize were in their infancy or didn't even exist yet. But the quick foundation for their subsequent success was firmly established over the years.

Bialek is, in many ways, not your typical teenage shopper. She doesn't shop at resale sites like Depop or Poshmark, but she fixes and makes her own clothes, often from second-hand fabrics she buys at local thrift stores. She comes from a family of artists, who instilled in her a DIY attitude that led her to reject the fast fashion premise that clothes are inherently disposable. “Since I started making and selling my own clothes, I started to look at prices more critically,” Bialek told me. “If I see a new dress for $16, it makes me think that someone in the supply chain who made or shipped it might not be paid well or treated fairly.”

Fast fashion is as old as Gen Z. Why do we expect teens to outnumber retailers? (1) maddie bialek

She added that "it's not always perfect" and that she could do better in other aspects of her life, such as reducing plastic waste. But as a high school student, it takes a conscious effort on Bialek's part to resist buying what everyone else is wearing. Social media can be a democratizing force for fashion, but it's also an accelerator. Teenagers are a key consumer market for brands, which can target the age group in social media ads. Furthermore, the integration of"social commerce"on platforms like Instagram and TikTok further blurs the lines between scrolling and shopping - users don't need to go to a retail site to intentionally browse. Their social media feeds often encourage them to buy through direct ads, influencers or even their peers.

That's how Chinese ultra-fast fashion retailer Shein has become one of the most recognizable retailers for young shoppers. America is the brandlargest consumer market, due to a successful combination of Instagram and TikTok marketing, low prices and a trending approach. “Most of my friends buy from Shein,” said Chelsea, a 17-year-old from California, who asked not to use her last name for privacy reasons. “It's not my favorite place to shop, but their selection is very trendy and affordable, so if I need an outfit for a special event, I usually look there.”

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Shein's advertising strategy is notoriously persistent and ubiquitous across all social platforms. There was a brief period where Chelsea would find Shein content wherever she wanted it online. It became impossible to avoid the company. On TikTok, the hashtags #Shein and #SheinHaul command billions of views, with shoppers regularly showing off hundreds of dollars worth of try-on clothing, essentially serving as free marketing for the brand.

Chelsea occasionally buys from thrift stores, but turns to fast fashion websites when she needs a specific piece of clothing, like a ball gown or tank top. “When you go to a thrift store, you don't always know what you're going to find, which can be fun,” he said. "It's much harder to find a specific style you want at a thrift store, especially during the pandemic."

Reseller apps like Depop and Poshmark have popularized buying and selling second-hand or vintage items. However, its existence is not enough to dampen Gen Z's enthusiasm for well-known brands, even those with sustainable shortcomings. according to asurvey of 7,000 teenagersby investment firm Piper Sandler, Amazon is one of the most popular online shopping sites that teens go to for clothing and other sundries. Some ultrafast fashion retailers such as Shein and Princess Polly were also marked as Gen Z favorites in the survey, competing with established brands such as Nike, American Eagle and Lululemon.

Like many ideas on the Internet, the phrase "There is no ethical consumption under capitalism" has become a scathingend of the line, stripped of its original anti-capitalist meaning. “People justify why they spent hundreds of dollars on new clothes with this phrase they don't really understand,” explained Shreya Karnik, 16, co-founder of the publication Voices of Gen Z. “Well, yes, ethical consumption is hard, but it doesn't mean you should spend $500 on fast fashion." For Karnik and co-founder Saanvi Shetty, the goal is to shop with more intention, although they are aware that their personal styles can evolve as they age.

While the meaning of the statement has been changed by TikTok teens, it is based on a general truth, especially when it comes to fashion. Fast fashion is, quite frankly, the product of a system that values ​​profit above workers' rights and environmental effects. To be clear, most luxury brand and shopping mall companies arenothing better than fast fashionwhen it comes down to it. (During the onset of the pandemic last spring, retailers like American Eagle and Urban Outfitters canceled last-minute clothing orders and refused to pay workers for work completed.)

Being a consumer requires a certain level of mental separation from the clothing production process. Executives know that sustainability doesn't scale, at least not fast enough or to achieve a billion dollar business model. As a result, clothing supply chains have become opaque enough to allow retailers to maximize profits, and it's been decades since most American designer clothing was made in America. Ethical consumption is simply not a facet of the modern fashion ecosystem.

'no ethical consumption under capitalism' is no excuse for over £100 of shein hauls bestie <3

- Kim (@kimchrstina)March 27, 2021

Last May, two researchers from Denmark, Nikolas Ronholt and Malthe Overgaard, published a study titled"The Fast Fashion Paradox".The duo surveyed consumers aged between 22 and 25 and conducted one-on-one interviews with respondents to understand why respondents continued to buy fast fashion despite their own desires to be more sustainable.

“What intrigued us was how consumers said they cared about sustainability, but that concern didn't translate into their actual purchasing behavior,” Overgaard said. “There was a big gap there. It has become fashionable to label yourself as a sustainable consumer, but it is another thing to see this reflected in your behavior.”

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This paradox is particularly evident in the clothing shopping comments section on TikTok, where some commenters urge shippers to shop more sustainably, only for others to champion the purchase. On a tour of SheinvideoWith 500,000 likes, one user commented that she was irritated by the way Shein packs each item in individual plastic bags. The video's creator responded by saying, "It's such a waste, I wish they wouldn't :(." The response triggered a flurry of comments asking why she bought it from Shein if they cared about wasted packaging.

Ronholt and Overgaard's research gets to the heart of this responsibility paradox. Who is at fault in this transaction: the lone shopper who bought hundreds of dollars' worth of clothing or the multimillion-dollar retailer? Should social media platforms be held accountable too? The majority of consumers surveyed expect retailers to take more sustainable action, but history shows that unless pressured by shoppers to do so, brands are often slow to act.

Furthermore, most corporate brands tend togreen washyour efforts with buzzwords like "conscientious" or "ethical" without being specific about your goals. In 2018, for example, H&M was criticized by the Norwegian Consumer Authority for"deceptive" marketingof your Conscious Collection; the retailer did not specify what types of "sustainable" materials its clothes were made from or what its clear goals were.

“The current situation looks like an impasse,” Ronholt said. “There's this duality in the response from consumers who thought they could do better but still wanted more transparency from retailers. Some have even suggested policy intervention to address this, such as a tax on things that are not sustainably produced.”

But even with sustainability at the back of people's minds, Ronholt added, young consumers have developed an "I like it, I buy it" mentality that does little to offset how often they shop. This is, of course, exacerbated by the effects of social media on trend cycles and the seasonality of clothing: fast fashion and major retailers no longer depend on thetraditional fashion calendar, and instead operate on the premise that "faster is better" to drive sales based on novelty.

Karnik, co-founder of Voices of Gen Z, admits that she likes to browse Shein, even if she doesn't plan to buy, to keep up with trends. As a teenager, Karnik's clothing purchases are often done with financial constraints. price as well asavailability of sizes, is a big fast fashion draw for shoppers with limited budgets or other constraints.

“I'm guilty of looking and I have about 98 items in my cart, even though I didn't buy anything last year,” she told me. “However, I realized that fast fashion is all about trends, so I'm trying to find staple pieces that will stay with me for a few years.”

The most sustainable thing consumers can do, according to fashion critic Barber, is to buy less overall. Your proposed solution doesn't require all of them to be perfect; depends on individual efforts to weather cycles of novelty and trends, ideally on a large scale.

“There is a significant correlation between fast fashion, the way we consume clothes and the rise of social media,” Barber told me. "There are teenagers who say they don't want to wear the same outfit twice on social media, and to be honest, that makes me a little sad."

The challenge for sustainability advocates is, in Barber's view, education. The number of people working in clothing manufacturing in the U.S. has steadily declined since the 1980s, with fewer people knowing first-hand the workers who make their clothing. As a result, it's easy to turn a blind eye to how clothes are made and accept the unsustainable status quo. “Overall, we are losing merchants in our partnership,” said Barber. “If more people knew how long it takes to sew a pincushion, they might recognize the exploitation in a $3 shirt and become better, more informed consumers.”

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At the heart of Barber's work is the corporate deconstruction of sustainability and the group of products that are marketed to middle and upper class people, items that, in theory, make them feel better when they buy. Most young buyers cannot afford, for example, handmade clothes. Some proclaim that a sustainable lifestyle seems out of reach because the products are too expensive or don't come in their sizes.

But, according to Barber, sustainability is not a product, but rather a mindset often bred out of scarcity and championed by marginalized people like her mother, who reused almost every plastic container she could find. Low-income people are not the consumers that keep fashion companies afloat. “The most sustainable thing you can do is use what's in your closet,” Barber said. “And keep using it. When you need to replace something, do it with second-hand options.”

As the younger consumer demographic, there is an expectation placed on Gen Z to reform their buying habits, sometimes by their peers. And, as Shetty of Voices of Gen Z has pointed out, the sustainability movement seems very gendered. The consumerist tendencies of youth, it seems, are still malleable, and their politics are quite progressive. However, the task of undoing decades of marketing gimmicks and environmental degradation should not fall to just one generation born into these circumstances. Significant change requires action from a group of policy makers, traders and retailers, as well as buyers, especially those with disposable income.

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