Fast fashion made its grand entrance in the second part of the 20th century, helmed by companies like H&M and Zara. True to form, the industry moved through the early 21st century at a rate of knots. Now, e-commerce giants like Boohoo, ASOS, and Shein join the OGs in a $36 billion market. But also raised in the noughties? Gen Z. Fast fashion’s biggest threat.
Fast fashion is hyper-focused on shrinking the gap between design, production, and sale, and then retailing as cheaply as possible. For the last few decades, young people have worshipped this conveyor belt of affordable, trendy clothing. Right now, many members of Gen Z are the same. Shein (the biggest retailer operating in the U.S.) is the most talked about brand on TikTok, the young generation’s social media of choice. But not all publicity is good publicity. At the time of writing, the “boycott Shein” hashtag has more than 4 million views. “Stop fast fashion” has more than 23 million.
A rising number of young people are rejecting fast fashion, and it’s a reflection of the times we live in. You can’t turn on Netflix without seeing a climate crisis documentary. You can’t look at a news website without seeing a frightening prediction for the future. Social media is also rife with infographics and Reels about the various industries that contribute to environmental problems and human rights violations. Fashion is a big one. After oil, it’s the second biggest polluter in the world. And it exploits the thousands of people who make its clothes. It isn’t surprising that for many members of Gen Z (75 percent of whom name climate as their biggest concern), fast fashion is losing its shine. And ultimately, they’re going to oversee the industry’s demise.
Fast fashion’s dirty secrets: pollution, waste, and exploitation
In 2018, the United Nations published a story called “Putting the Brakes on Fast Fashion.” It linked the industry with nearly 10 percent of annual global emissions and named it as the second-largest water polluter in the world. Similar reports reveal things like: 10,000 individual garments are sent to the UK landfill every 10 minutes. And in 2017, 13 million tonnes of textiles were thrown out in the U.S. The West also dumps clothing overseas. In 2018, Pakistan received around 780 million kilograms of used clothing, most of it from Europe and the U.S. The quantity is too much to cope with, and fast fashion’s choice of cheap, poor quality materials makes it difficult to mend or reuse the garments. So, again, most of this ends up in the landfill.
But dumping waste isn’t the only way that fast fashion exploits the global south. Most of the clothes are made there in the first place, in dangerous and exploitative working environments. In Bangladesh, the garment industry’s second largest manufacturing base, workers are paid just $75 a month. And recently, Swiss watchdog group Public Eye linked Shein to factories in violation of China’s labour laws. They reportedly had barred windows and a lack of emergency exits. Workers received just one day off a month.
Former fast fashion executive Melanie DiSalvo, who is now a sustainable fashion consultant and advocate, saw fast fashion’s abuses first hand. Further up the chain, she recalls assistants and buyers being treated poorly, with many subject to regular hours of unpaid overtime and workplace bullying. “I was in a hopeless situation,” she recalls. “My co-workers couldn’t even get it together enough to not be cruel to one another. So what chance did our factory workers have at getting a little compassion?”
DiSalvo’s account of fast fashion is backed up by depictions in the entertainment industry. Take 2019’s Greed, for example. The satirical film follows the journey of a “self-made” billionaire. It details the appalling treatment of his own team, as well as the harrowing exploitation of factory workers. While the film’s protagonist Sir Richard McCreadie is fictional, it’s widely reported he’s based on Arcadia and Topshop founder Sir Phillip Green.
But this uptick in negative stories has a silver lining. Conscious Gen Zers don’t take kindly to brands that mistreat people and the planet, and they’re more likely to avoid them. One Y Pulse survey notes that 80 percent will boycott brands linked with scandals. And it also affects who they decide to work for. Research from Deloitte notes that 77 percent of Gen Z prioritize companies that value ethics and social impact.
Resale, thrifting, and upcycling could be Gen Z’s future of fashion
Sustainable fashion brands are in abundance. But, ultimately, the cost of a more ethical supply chain demands a higher price point. Gen Z are still young with limited income. However, as their spending power grows, it’s going to be far easier for them to back up their views with their purchasing habits.
That said, young people are already doing a pretty good job of finding sustainable bargains. Just like the years before fast fashion, a lot of young consumers now trawl through vintage shops and websites. They thrift, and they devote hours to clothing resale apps, like Depop. In 2020, the popular resale company’s annual revenue hit $70 million. It credits a lot of that success to Gen Z.
In a bid to understand its key consumers better, Depop recently put together a report called “Futureproofing: How Gen Z’s Empathy, Awareness, and Fluidity Are Transforming Business As Usual.” It found that 70 percent of Gen Zers on the platform prioritize fair wages and safety in fashion; around 60 percent prioritize a reduced carbon footprint; and around 90 percent have made changes to become more environmentally conscious.
Gen Zers quest to be considerate of people and the planet has also seen them embrace the sewing needle in a way that young people haven’t for decades. Mending and upcycling are growing in popularity. In fact, a WGSN 2021 report on “Youth Culture” found that searches for sewing machines jumped by 400 percent in 2020 in the U.S. Again, a simple TikTok hashtag search finds more than 1.4 billion views for #sewingtiktok.
Fashion student Ellie Chalk, who boasts more than 100k TikTok followers, gave up her high street clothing addiction to start upcycling her late grandmother’s clothes. “When it came to clearing away my nan’s stuff, I couldn’t do it. So I decided to learn how to upcycle,” she recalls. “My clothing now means more to me than ever before. Fast fashion can’t compare to that.”
Chalk began posting videos of the process, and soon after, she started getting tagged in videos of others who she had inspired to start upcycling too. Now, she dedicates her TikTok to educating other young people about the realities of fast fashion. “I truly believe that if everyone knew the extent of how awful fast fashion is, it would not be a thriving industry,” Chalk says. “Brands are just so good at covering it all up and then selling you the dream on top of that.”
Greenwashing can’t save fast fashion forever
To Chalk’s point, fast fashion brands are aware that their target market is becoming more conscious by the day. Often, brands turn to greenwashing to persuade consumers they’re more ethical than they really are. They debut “conscious” collections that feature recycled materials or a small percentage of organic cotton, for example. But really, these ranges do nothing to mitigate the impact of the thousands of garments fast fashion brands churn out every day.
“We see growth every year in Gen Z consumers looking to understand the impacts of the brands they know and to shop more sustainably,” notes Sandra Capponi, the founder of sustainable fashion directory Good On You. “Ultra fast retailers know this and have also amped up the greenwashing to appeal to our values, even when their actions tell a more alarming story.”
Boohoo, for example, has a “sustainable” section on its UK website. But it uploads more than 100 new garments a day, according to a Vice investigation. Many are made with polyester, a plastic-based fabric that can take up to two centuries to biodegrade.
But fashion’s greenwashing is on a time limit. In an unprecedented move, New York could be the first in the world to actually hold companies accountable through the law. If passed, the new bill will see those who don’t clean up their supply chains subjected to naming and shaming and fines. It’ll also prevent them from selling in one of the biggest fashion markets in the world. To comply with legislation, they will have to produce science-driven targets and concrete plans for improvement.
“It’s no longer enough to just produce products from sustainable materials,” says Ana Kannan. As the Gen Z founder of sustainable fashion platform Toward, she is emblematic of the young conscious consumer of the future. (She even recently introduced customer spending caps in a bid to reduce overconsumption.) Kannan says she was “elated” by the New York bill. “Brands need to look deeper into the full lifecycle of their products,” she adds. “Ultimately, some of these measures might come from outside pressure.”
As Gen Z grows up, they will be the ones holding brands accountable for change. But it’s worth noting that the fashion industry as it stands may not last forever. For better or worse, our time spent in the digital world is consistently increasing. Gen Z already spends an average of 10 hours online every day. And that is going to change the way we consume everything; fashion is no exception.
A digital future could change fashion completely
In universities, fashion students are learning more about how technology intersects with design. Some recent graduates have even set up their own virtual fashion brands, which specialize in non-fungible tokens (NFTs). These are essentially one-of-a-kind digital items, like pieces of virtual artwork. While copies can be made, the actual NFT only exists in one form. (Just like there is only one real Mona Lisa, but you can buy a reprint of the Leonardo da Vinci classic on a postcard or a tote bag.)
In the fashion world, Hermès has competition from digital artist Mason Rothschild, who sells NFT MetaBirkins. Nike has launched Nikeland, a virtual gaming world where players can buy digital versions of its products. To illustrate how rapidly this sector is evolving, the NFT market value is now worth $41 billion. (The centuries-old traditional art market is $50 billion.)
NFTs can’t replace your favorite pair of jogging bottoms or your underwear, of course. But they might change how we view status items loved for their aesthetics, like a designer bag or a beautiful dress. The more time we spend in the virtual world, the less important physical versions of these items become.
“Fast fashion brands might want to look at what people are using clothing for. Is it for spending time online or social media?” says Patsy Perry, a researcher from Manchester Fashion Institute. “If it’s the latter, we don’t even need to produce a physical garment. Digital fashion is really interesting. If young people are spending more time online than in the real world, arguably, a digital garment would fit and look better than something you buy in real life.”
The future of NFTs is still unpredictable. It’s a way of consuming that we’re not really familiar with yet, so time will tell just how much a virtual economy will dictate our buying habits of the future. But digital society or no digital society, fast fashion’s coffin will see its final nail in the coming years.
Fast fashion is built on exploitation as a means for quick, cheap, overconsumption. It’s not a foundation that can innovate to keep up with Gen Z’s ever-increasing desire for fair and sustainably-made garments. If major brands want to look past this model, emerging themselves in the resale, vintage, or digital markets, they may have a seat at Gen Z’s future table. But if they don’t, they’ll be left outside in the cold. Not even the warmest of polyester jackets will save them then.