By Alaa Essafi – Student Journalist
Hanya Hassan seldom wears the same outfit twice, especially not on social media. This is why, at least two times a year, she cleans out her closet and replenishes it with an entirely new collection of clothing.
“The more stuff I buy, the less I wear them,” said Hassan, a 22-year old biology major and senior at Rutgers-Newark. “The majority of the outfits in my closet I’ve only worn once, some I haven’t even worn yet. It’s an addiction.”
Fast fashion, a billion-dollar business model has unfortunately not gone out of style, in fact, it has been exacerbated in the months of the pandemic where consumers had nothing better to do than to mindlessly scroll through online shopping sites. Fast fashion is defined as cheap, occasionally lower-quality clothing that is outsourced from foreign countries with minimal labor wages. Instead of following the traditional fashion world standard of clothing production according to the four seasons of the year, the fast-fashion model has 52 seasons as their sole mission is to keep customers buying and buying constantly.
Resell apps like Depop and Poshmark have popularized thrift and vintage clothing as well as hauls on social media that promote engaging in retail therapy with local thrift stores and consignment shops, but it hasn’t been enough to curtail Gen Z’s gravitation towards well-known fast fashion brands.
There seems to be little correlation between intention and action as the generation that produced Greta Thunberg also consumes 80 billion new pieces of clothing per year, worldwide. According to statistics published by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, at this pace, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will increase by 50% within the next decade.
Platforms like Instagram and Tiktok boast hundreds of clothing try-on-haul videos with millions of views as buyers show off piles and piles of clothing, essentially serving as free marketing for several fast fashion brands. The links to each item are conveniently placed in the video or on the creator’s Instagram account. A practice that has no doubt motivated hundreds of otherwise unaware buyers into full-on shopping sprees from these brands.
Shein, an online retail company founded in Nanjing, China, packages fast fashion under a user-friendly trendy website with the slogan “everyone has the right to enjoy the beauty of fashion.” Their business has boomed from September 2020 as worldwide traffic to their website has skyrocketed from 32.7 million to 67.2 million monthly visits.
Brands like Shein, Nasty Gal, Pretty Little Thing, etc. have created a vicious, endless cycle of product placement and sponsorships as they partner with social media influencers who have made it their full-time jobs to create content based around those companies. Shein advertised their services tirelessly on the explore page and through partnerships with notable social media influencers. It seemed as though their products were unescapable online.
These online and in-store retailers capitalize off of FOMO (fear of missing out) and wield it as a powerful tool to instill in young women that wearing the same outfit more than once is unacceptable. Once these purchases deliver fatal blows to your bank account, young women then join an exclusive club of fashionable trendsetters. The goal? To earn a subtle nod of awe mixed in with envy from other women. In certain pockets on campus, women exchange compliments and copy dressing styles. A compliment from a fellow sister along with a dazzling smile makes any day infinitely better.
“Why do I have to keep renewing? If I have so much already, why do I have the need to keep buying? I realized as a college student, it was very stupid because we’re all in debt. I would rather spend my money on something more beneficial. At some point, I do feel pressured to keep up with social media influencers and bloggers and their new styles.” said Hassan, as she chuckled nervously.
The Facebook Files, a multi-part series of articles published by the Wall Street Journal reported Facebook’s internal research on the negative effects of Instagram on teen girls and others, roughly 1 in 4 people say they see content that makes them feel worse about themselves (34% of teen girls).
The exception is the few who refuse to be coaxed by the unwavering outstretched hand of several social media platforms and influencers. 21-year old Aziza Malik does her best to avoid fast fashion by not engaging with social media platforms at all. Equipped with her “quality over quantity” motto she rejects the premise of fast fashion: that clothes are disposable.
Instead, Malik has a few core pieces of clothing in her wardrobe from which she builds several chic outfits through reusing pieces and styling them in different forms. The Rutgers-Newark senior majoring in Management information systems and minoring in Business in Fashion revealed a stark contrast in her shopping habits in comparison to Hanya.
The two college students, who are on opposite ends of the social media spectrum in terms of activity, with Hanya being an avid user and Aziza not having a single social media account, explained that they see the marketing tactics aimed at their demographic and the clear lack of clothing quality offered by these brands but still find it hard to resist.
“I wanted to quit buying so much, especially from Shein. I heard about Shein in my freshman year of college from a friend, I started shopping more and more, and the quality started to degrade,” Hanya said.
Every two weeks like clockwork, James Ochoa, Rutgers-Newark student, and H&M sales associate prepared himself mentally and physically for the incessant unboxing and stocking of newpro.
“Tommy Hilfiger has only 100 pieces out in a season while H&M has 3 or 4 times that amount in stock,” Ochoa said.
Ochoa outlined the style model H&M follows when it comes to ensuring their products are up to date with current trends, he said, “When I initially started at H&M, we had training showing that they follow specific people for their style inspiration. On the men’s side, it was like David Beckham and some K-pop artists that they looked to. On the women’s side, they mentioned the name, Emma Chamberlain.”
Clothing brands and fast fashion companies have even set their sights on capitalizing off of the modest dressers, especially the populations that are religiously motivated. Banana Republic released a line of headscarves catered to Muslim women and orthodox Jewish women as well as H&M which launchd a modest fashion campaign two years ago.
Most young women, especially those who subscribe to a lifestyle of modest dress, are left to fend for themselves as “modest fashion companies” sell their products at ridiculously high prices, leaving the door open for fast fashion brands to swoop in and make billions.Funnily enough, these companies often founded by Muslim women are ignored by the general population because they are unable to shop at that price range, thus leaving the door open for fast fashion retailers to snatch up modest customers.
The playing field that hijabis and modest dressers had to work with pre-pandemic and post-pandemic has remained relatively the same, although small modest boutiques have launched during the pandemic with the support of community members.
“We have to add more layers and pieces to halalify these outfits,” Hanya said. Halalify refers to the changes made to something in order to mold it into something that subscribes to Islamic law, in this case, clothing.
“Men get a fresh cut and have nice joggers on and they’re set. When it comes to guys, the company they have on their shirts or joggers or belts matters. Buying a hoodie from Nike is timeless for them.” said Aziza.
There are several moving factors to the surefire success of marketing hyper-consumption of clothing, in particular to young women who have yet to find their styles and rely on cues from popular social media figures or follow the trend wave for how they should dress.
Fast fashion isn’t a new phenomenon and public awareness of its many harms has made the rounds in blog posts, articles, and the widely known Netflix documentary “The True Cost” have all shed light on the dark side of the seemingly endless supply of clothing.
But with the widespread engagement with fast fashion that has been passed along to Gen Z comes the question of responsibility. Amongst themselves, Gen Z has placed the responsibility of championing environmental accountability versus being fashionable in the eyes of their peers squarely on their shoulders. According to Pew Research, among US social media users 45% of Gen Z adults have interacted with content on social platforms that focuses on the need for action on climate change by following an account, liking or commenting on a post, or posting or sharing content about the need for action on climate change.
Retailers establish and market sustainable initiatives to appease the demands of consumers who want clothing companies to be more mindful of the environmental implications of mass clothing production. These calculated maneuvers are facades to ensure that buyers remain in the dark about and disassociate from the reality of the clothing production process.
“We have a recycling collection, if you bring a bag of clothes we’ll give you a coupon, “ Ochoa said. “We also have the H&M Conscious, but we put that tag on any product and they’re still made in the same place as the rest of clothes like Bangladesh or China.”
Professor Fan Wu, who teaches the Business of Fashion at Rutgers University had a more optimistic and proactive perspective to offer on the future of fast fashion. He said, “I try to inspire my students to understand that the solution is not pointing fingers but it’s developing new material to address the source of the problem.”