Are we witnessing a sustainable fashion revolution? Earth-conscious young adults and teens have been busy during the pandemic exploring fashion hacks to look trendy while going easy on the environment.
They’ve helped drive the rise of clothing resale platforms such as Vinted and Depop as well as rental apps like Hurr and ByRotation.
You can see this culture of cool sustainability emerging on social media platforms like TikTok. Rather than showing off fast-fashion purchases from Zara, ASOS or H&M, shoppers are making videos with hauls from thrift shops, tapping into streetwear and Y2K trends.
Young influencers have all kinds of tips for how to give old clothes a makeover. There’s customization advice and MIY (make-it-yourself) tutorials. Arts and crafts such as knitting and crochet are cool again, rebranded as craftcore.
But for all this hype about recycling, is Gen Z, the cohort most worried about the planet, really going to turn the established fashion industry on its head? Even though there are signs of sustainable habits taking root, this transformation will probably take more than one generation.
Fashion is often seen as frivolous, with good reason: The $1.5 trillion global apparel market is one of the world’s most environmentally damaging industries. Carbon emissions, water consumption, pollution and the exploitation of workers are just a few facets of fashion’s ugly side. With these issues largely fueled by the mass production of fast fashion, brands and consumers will need to make much bigger changes in what they produce and buy if we want to preserve the health of the planet.
And while #thrifthaul and #knitting have a not-insignificant 456 million and 478 million views respectively on TikTok, #Sheinhaul — in which users showcase purchases from the ultra-cheap, ultra-fast fashion store SHEIN — has 2.3 billion. Fast fashion continues to grow in sales and popularity.
The disconnect between what young consumers say they want and what they buy likely comes from online pressure. In a world driven by a thirst for new content — and outfits — sustainable consumption becomes trickier, especially for a generation raised on social media. Even being a sustainable influencer is a conflict-filled endeavor.
Fast fashion and social media mirror each other in how they provide dopamine hits and instant gratification, explains fashion psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell. “More sustainable fashion practices like slow fashion, or buying less, almost runs in opposition with everything that social media really is, which is quick, fast, shiny and new.”
The good news is that Gen Z is still picking up useful, sustainable habits, even if this is less about the environment and more about economics. Young adults aren’t flush with cash. To fuel their desire for fresh looks and style experiments, they’re trying to make more with less: customizing items to add value, making clothes they’ll love, reaching for cheaper secondhand garments or earning some cash by selling items they no longer want.
Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution and author of Loved Clothes Last, believes this habit-forming is all the better when driven by style and finances, rather than eco-friendly reasons: “Things that are spontaneous are better than things that are prescribed … When the penny drops [on the environmental impact of clothes] they will already have the aesthetic to go with it, so it will be twice as strong.”
There are signs that the penny is dropping. Of all the generations, Gen Z is the most willing to pay a premium for a sustainable t-shirt.
The upside to all this is that Gen Z is learning how to get more value out of the garments it buys, while platforms such as Depop and Vinted are extending the life of $20 dresses and $5 bikinis by keeping them in circulation longer, reducing what would have previously ended up in landfill.
There’s still a long way to go to make fashion a more planet- and people-friendly industry, but Gen Z is on the right track.