Fashion, Life & Style

Can Generation Z put the brakes on fast fashion?

UK consumers buy more clothes per person than any other European country and five times more than we did in 1980. Fashion brands are pumping a compelling message that we need the latest ‘on-trend’ items to be unique, powerful and successful and this is driving unprecedented demand on the textiles industry. Added to that, a new wave of entrants to the fashion industry are targeting teenagers and young women to accelerate fast fashion, pushing consumers to buy and dispose of clothes at an alarming rate. 

In this special guest blog, Alex Crumbie from Ethical Consumer Magazine reveals the publication’s latest reports into fast fashion and gives advice on how we can help guide our young people through a complex psychological onslaught from the online fashion industry. 

Cheap and dirty fashion

Our fashion industry is fundamentally broken and fast fashion has taken hold. Clothing is produced fast, consumers make fast buying decisions, delivery happens almost instantaneously, and all to often clothes are worn infrequently and discarded after only a few wears (or even after just one outing).

It’s true to say that the ethical fashion revolution is also growing and more clothing brands are getting involved with sustainable initiatives, but a new type of fast fashion is also infiltrating the mainstream market, and it’s having a hugely negative impact. 

New ultra-fast fashion brands, such as Missguideed and Boohoo and Pretty little thing, are aimed at Generation Z, our teenagers and young women who are just starting to find their identity and their image. And they are being sold a harmful message. 

Online fashion companies, such as brands those mentioned above, have made fast tracks into this market in recent years. These behemoths of fashion pump out cheap clothes like they’re, well, going out of fashion. 

Hundreds of new pieces are added every week in a never-ending stream of mass-produced individuality, where catwalk trends can be replicated and online within a matter of days. At the time of writing, Pretty Little Thing had 1001 items classified as ‘new this week’ and Missguided 1,096. With over 500 items listed as under £5 on the Boohoo website.

Using a tribe of Instagrammers, influencers, pop stars, vloggers and bloggers, Boohoo and Missguided are creating a strong and compelling image. They drive the message that female empowerment, individuality, popularity, and confidence is accessed through the way you dress. Having watched a few fashion influencers unwrap their £500 ‘hauls’ (orders) on YouTube, it’s easy to see how the buzz of the purchase and the status of the influencer can manipulate young minds.  

It’s not always clear if the influencer is being sponsored, or paid in kind and, as with many YouTubers and reality TV stars, the lines between reality and make-believe is blurred. 

But it’s not just the influencers who are acting as ambassadors for fast fashion. Anyone can receive cash for driving new customers to these companies.  The social network and fashion marketplace 21 Buttons was launched in 2016 as a hub for fashionistas to upload pictures of themselves wearing their shoppable outfits. Users tag each shoppable item so that viewers can click directly to the brand’s online website and purchase the outfit. The user gets a kickback of between 4-6% of the retail price on sales. This clever and effective model turns customers into the most powerful sales team – at a fraction of the price of advertising. 

The premise behind this whole industry is to push cheaply made, disposable fashion that is quickly outdated, driving a continuous purchasing pattern.

The cost of fast fashion

A recent survey by Barnardo’s found that 37% of young people aged 16-24 would be too embarrassed to wear an outfit more than once if they wore it to a special occasion and 17% wouldn’t wear an outfit again if it had been on Instagram. You can’t help but think that this behaviour is correlated to the ready availability of fast, cheap fashion promoted by social media stars.

This multi-billion-pound industry shows no sign of slowing down and we’re increasingly aware of the social and environmental consequences. It fuels the carbon emissions behind the textile industry and of course, when you can buy a bikini for £1, you can bet that no-one is being paid a fair wage to make it. 

Indeed, a Financial Times exposé in 2018 showed that workers in Leicester factories, which supply these brands, were being paid as little as £3.50, which is under half the legal minimum wage in the UK, for workers over the age of 24. 

Meanwhile, The Ellen McArthur Foundation recently reported that the textile industry emits more greenhouse gases each year than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, that’s a staggering 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. A recent cross-parliamentary inquiry discovered that of the 1 million tonnes of textiles that the UK’s discards each year, 300,000 tonnes go in the bin. 20% of that is sent to landfill and 80% is incinerated. But the disposal of textiles is the tip of the iceberg – 70% of the carbon footprint of a garment sits in the manufacturing process.

Fighting fast fashion

Campaigners such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace are calling for the fashion industry to develop a circular economy. Instead of a linear ‘produce, use, dispose’ approach, the circular, closed-loop structure would see clothes made from durable, recyclable materials so that clothes last longer, can be repaired more easily and can be recycled into new outfits. But we can’t just rely on others to act.

It was Shakespeare who wrote the words “Oh, when she’s angry, she is keen and shrewd!” about protagonist Hermia in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  We too should be angry about the influence that fast fashion is having across a whole generation of young women, and must also be shrewd in our response.

As young people, or as the mothers and fathers who shape them, we can help to mitigate the messages that are being streamed into our homes. This starts with educating our children about consumerism and prompting them to ask questions of brands and our government. 

In schools, we can push for more education on consumerism: 

  • Organisations such as TRAID provide education packs for teachers and parents to discuss the issues behind a throwaway culture.
  • We can lobby for sustainability to feature more highly in the curriculum, particularly in PSHE, Textiles, and Design and Technology subjects. 

At home, we can live by example and demonstrate our commitment to slowing down fashion:

  • Repair or reuse clothes wherever possible – teach children how to sew and mend clothes
  • Replace items only when necessary and only buy what you need
  • Shop second-hand wherever possible
  • Swap clothes with friends
  • Give outgrown children’s clothes away and accept those offered to you
  • Give clothes that no longer fit to charity for resale or recycling
  • If you need to buy new clothes, buy from ethical retailers who are committed to sustainable production – see the Ethical Consumer product guide for a full list of the fairest brands 
  • Start asking questions of your favourite brands and get your kids involved too – use the hashtag #whomademyclothes on social media to force brands to be more transparent about their supply chains
  • Get involved at protests and support organisations who are fighting the slow fashion revolution – such as Greenpeace and Fashion Revolution

We’d love to hear how you are making an impact and driving action. Comment below to share your ideas with other readers. 

Find out how your favourite brands rank on their approach to sustainable fashion in our high street product guide.

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Whilst I would rather shop in bricks and mortar shops all of the time, we all shop online, be that out of convenience or necessity. I, personally, live a bit more rurally and don’t always want to do a 20-mile round trip to buy plastic-free toilet paper, so online shopping it often is.

It’s often assumed that online shopping is bad for the environment, but on the contrary, online shopping can, in some cases, be better for the environment than bricks and mortar stores. A 2009 report from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that although packaging accounts for 22% of the carbon dioxide emissions of an item purchased online, customer transportation accounts for 65% of emissions when buying the equivalent item at a retail store.

This is concurrent with some research I did for work about 15 years ago, when I worked as a transport policy researcher, that showed that one truck doing many deliveries was more carbon-friendly than many people getting in their individual cars and driving to the shops.

Of course, over those intervening years, online shopping has changed dramatically and there are now caveats to the rule. For example, express shipping cancels out any carbon savings. Meanwhile, making multiple single orders rather than sitting down and making one single order also cancels out the carbon savings. This, in particular, is a relatively new consumer behaviour brought on by the rise of voice-activated devices such as Amazon’s Echo device, that can offer voice-controlled shopping. In short, if you want to be climate-friendly, don’t pick the express shipping option, and consolidate your orders. And of course, the biggest one: not buying stuff that you don’t need.

What about the online shopping packaging?

Whilst in shops you can bring your own bag or your own containers with online shopping there is no escaping the packaging.

I try and reuse all packaging that comes my way – boxes, bubble wrap and padded envelopes for things I’ve sold on eBay; brown packaging paper for wrapping up gifts; and so forth – but even then it would be great if shops could use more sustainable options, because there’s only so many times you can reuse packaging before it ends up in the bin. And don’t get me started on those grey plastic mailer bags that I haven’t found a way to reuse and can’t be recycled. Many online shops still have a long way to go on the packaging front.

Step forward noissue.

Next time a company posts you something in non-recyclable packaging then why not point them in the direction of noissue – a sustainable packaging company aimed at businesses large and small – that also plant trees with every order placed.

noissue didn’t set out to be an environmentally friendly packaging company – the founders were looking at eco friendly packaging for a previous endeavour, and couldn’t find exactly what they wanted, and realising a gap in the market switched focus and founded the company in 2017.

The noissue product that I am most excited about is a 100% compostable mailer, which replaces those pesky non-recyclable grey plastic bags. I’m always skeptical of industrially compostable items as so few of us have access to industrial composting facilities – most local councils won’t take items that are industrial compostable only – but thankfully noissue’s mailer is home compostable, breaking down within 180 days in a domestic composter (including in wormeries).

What I particularly like is that companies can buy in quantities as little as 100, making it accessible for smaller companies as well as larger ones. Too often eco options for businesses are only available at too big a scale for small companies to be able to warrant. noissue believe that sustainable packaging doesn’t have to be unattainable which resonates well with me.

noissue’s other packaging products include custom branded compostable packaging tape and stickers, which are both printed on FSC Certified paper using soy based inks, as opposed to traditional petroleum-based ink.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Their tape uses a starch-based adhesive which activates when wet, preventing storage issues and avoiding the problem of wax/plastic coating on most other available custom packing tapes.

Their other main offering is custom printed and branded tissue paper. Like noissue’s other products, the tissue is FSC Certified, and all the ink used is soy-based – making this a great eco-friendly packaging option for craft sellers and jewellers. Worried about buying in bulk and then the paper deteriorating over time? All of noissue’s paper is acid-free paper, meaning that it won’t deteriorate or yellow as quickly as conventional paper. From a customer perspective, acid-free paper lasts longer and can be reused more.

Of course, more environmentally friendly packaging won’t save the planet on its own – we all need to be more mindful of our own consumption and stop buying stuff we don’t really need but at least for the things we do need to buy online it’s reassuring to know that better options are out there.