Words by Chloe Ward
Within the ever growing world of social media, the fashion industry is under more scrutiny than ever before for its environmentally polluting practices, which includes the rise of cheap and frequent consumption and short-lived garment use, also known as micro-trends. ‘Micro-trend’ is a difficult term to define, instead it is made up of multiple factors, including, but not limited to: internet fame, fast fashion, social media, the constant need for newness and the immense power of consumers.
The overconsumption of clothing has become an extensive issue within the environmental community, with the global North (mostly Western countries such as Britain or the United States) increasing the importance of shopping to such a level that many citizens are characterised as “commodity-choosing consumers”. Globally, 80 billion pieces of new clothing are purchased each year, with the majority of these items coming from the global South, such as China and Bangladesh. Moreover, within the United States alone, nearly 3.8 billion pounds of clothing annually is sent to landfill, amounting to approximately 80 pounds per person. One notable issue is the gap between the intentions and actions of consumers, with many convincing themselves that they are ethical yet still buying into the fast-fashion culture of waste and over-production. Moreover, micro-trends are difficult for fashion companies to produce in an ethical fashion, due to their quick pace at which they start and end, some only lasting weeks at most.
So too, many pieces of clothing are thrown away or not reused as effectively as possible. As explored by Long and Nasiry (2022), it was estimated that by “extending the active life of clothing by nine months, [it] would reduce carbon, waste, and water footprints by around 20%-30%”, meaning that lifespan is one of the most integral factors in decreasing the environmental impact of fast fashion.
Not only is the environment affected by the fast fashion industry, but those who reside within the global textile supply chain also experience similar negative side effects. Workers who process both natural and synthetic fibres, more specifically cotton and polyester, have been linked to significant health impacts, including fumes from pesticides that stimulate cotton growth. So too, dyes and heavy metals are sometimes released into surrounding streams, affecting native wildlife due to their hazardous nature.
Fast fashion consumers are often between the ages of 15 and 29 years old, meaning that University students are the majority of fast fashion consumers. This means that as students, we need to become more aware of the environmental impacts of fast fashion and make sure to buy into ethically made and sourced clothing that is timeless, rather than focusing on current trends or fads. There are many ways in which fast fashion companies appeal to consumers, particularly young people, including brand uniqueness, brand awareness and perceived value of the brand’s merchandise. By offering consumers “immediate gratification of continually evolving temporary identities”, brands are able to appeal to young people on the premise that they will be a part of a movement or emerging group of ‘cool’ young people that they can access through these clothes.
However, ethical clothing is not cheap. This inaccessibility of ethical clothing perpetuates the vilification of lower classes who can only afford cheap, mass-produced clothing. Although many consumers have a positive attitude towards ethically made fashion, this does not translate into consumer behaviour, once again depicting a disconnect between consumer attitude and behaviour. Research has discovered that the high monetary cost of slow-made fashion is one of the key factors as to why it hasn’t been successful or become more widely accessible to the average Australian. So too, ethical clothing is often difficult to find, with consumers reporting that it takes too much time and effort to purchase ethical clothing and therefore, it is too inconvenient for the buyer to purchase.
Additionally, to appeal to this consumer guilt that can be felt while purchasing fast fashion, many brands greenwash their clothing by claiming that they have ‘traceable fibres’ or ‘ethically sourced cotton’ to appease their buyer’s guilty conscience. Greenwashing is a major issue within the fast fashion industry, with it defined as, “misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or a product or service”. A specific example of this is H&M, one of the biggest and most prominent fast fashion brands. They have been widely criticised for their ‘sustainable collection’ that plays into trends instead of encouraging buyers to sustain their existing clothing. Furthermore, the majority of H&M’s clothing still follows the fast-fashion model, with only a small collection of clothing falling under a sustainable label, which, in itself, is quite ambiguous and misleading. While we, as consumers, can appreciate the effort to address some of the underlying issues within the fast fashion industry, the lack of transparency and ambiguous nature of H&M and other fast fashion brands with similar sustainability policy and initiatives allows them to continue to mass-produce clothing under the guise of being sustainable.
All of these factors depict an industry that deeply affects the environment and the people that work within it. As university students we need to become more conscious of the clothing that we buy, and buy timeless pieces instead of participating in microtrends that will only be popular for weeks at most. We can all make a difference by shopping at op-shops , saving up for an ethically made piece that we will wear for decades to come and being more conscious when being a consumer.