A self-reflection on fast fashion
Many regard Generation Z (Gen Z) to be the most environmentally-conscious generation yet. With 90% of Gen Z consumers feeling that companies have a responsibility to address issues relating to environmental and social concerns. From climate change activism to veganism, it’s clear that Gen Z appreciate the need to be vocal in working toward a more sustainable future. The changing demands on businesses to align themselves to the principles of this new eco-conscious generation is proving challenging to balance ethics and morals with the all-important bottom line.
What do we mean by ‘sustainable’?
I think it’s important to establish what we mean by sustainability. Sustainability has three main pillars. The first being ‘environmental sustainability’ which focuses on maintaining the environment and reducing our impact on the natural ecosystems. The second is ‘social sustainability’ which refers to putting in place systems and processes that do not exploit people. The final principle is ‘economic sustainability’ this means that the business or person take steps to support long term economic growth whilst ensuring honest accounting and regulatory practices. A company requires all three of these pillars in order to be truly sustainable.
The attitude-behavior gap
There’s one industry in particular that’s having an interesting time navigating between Gen Z and cancel culture: fast fashion. Don’t get me wrong, brands get pressure from the public via social media but we’re still seeing huge sales figures. I, too, am guilty of this – as a vegetarian Gen Z who does her absolute best to avoid single-use plastic, I always seem to turn to fast fashion sites when the next social occasion arises.
This is a classic example of the attitude-behaviour gap, a concept used to explain the difference between a consumer’s intentions and their actions. Attitude refers to the viewpoint held by the consumer on a chosen issue, in this case that being sustainability. The consumer then acts in a manner which contradicts the values they hold despite maintaining the belief in them.
Multiple factors play into this, yet I would argue that the marketing approaches brands use are one of the main causes in widening this gap. Fast fashion brands are experts at using many marketing methods tactically to subvert the principles of this sustainably conscious generation, allowing brands to continue to post record profits year-on-year.
Gen Z targeted marketing
A sure-fire marketing technique is to target your audience where they are. In the case of Gen Z, that’s on social media. Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok – you name the platform, I guarantee there’s some form of social commerce going on. One of the main marketing techniques from fast fashion brands such as Pretty Little Thing and Shein is through social media. Brands have integrated purchasing into popular social media platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest and TikTok. This allows 97% of Gen Z consumers who use social media as their main source of shopping inspiration, to use new features to seamlessly transition from scrolling to checkout before questions around sustainability can arise. When combined with regular sponsored influencer posts and #gifted items, it’s hard not to be tempted by cheap, trendy fashion. Especially with growing social pressures, since it can feel criminal to be photographed in the same outfit twice on your Instagram grid!
Greenwashing: Past, Present, and Future
Ironically, the fast fashion industry has become more aware of the need to appeal to the sustainable consumer to ensure profits. An example of this is H&M launching ranges which include ‘recycled materials’ and ‘conscious choice, bamboo and brown paper’ branding, whilst being exposed and sued for explicit greenwashing. No doubt the results of that lawsuit won’t affect me and the rest of the masses from queuing up in their stores. This certainly got us talking however, net sales have inevitably increased.
Boohoo also upped their greenwashing game with their appointment of Kourtney Kardashian as their ‘Sustainability Ambassador’. Whilst the intent is there to show Boohoo as a sustainable company, but it doesn’t go further than a surface level attempt. Onsite you can see the collection uses a percentage of recycled materials, alongside a leaf icon, with a ‘Made in Turkey’ statement in the description. With little explanation of any actions to guarantee that sustainable labour practices were maintained during manufacturing.
Whilst I appreciate the effort, Kourtney isn’t exactly Greta Thunberg and most likely would never be seen in a £10 top from the Boohoo brand. But this attempt gets the words ‘Boohoo’ and ‘Sustainability’ in headlines with a little help from the Kardashian name to ensure viral marketing coverage. This subconsciously ticks the sustainable box in the eyes of many which makes the next purchase feel just a little less guilty.
How do we fix this?
I won’t sit here and claim I have all the answers to this Gen Z wide problem. But, I do have a few suggestions as to how we can begin heading in the right direction.
Something I’ve tried working on is distancing myself from shopping triggers such as social media, including Instagram reels of influencers trying on multiple outfits with pieces I’m sure to be tempted by. Alternatively, I’ll look to buy pre-worn vintage and second-hand clothing from apps like Vinted or the local charity shop to find more unique pieces and do my bit for the circular economy.
Despite 60% of consumers saying transparency is important to them, only 20% actively look to find out more information before making their purchasing decision. The ‘Good on You’ platform provides easily accessible information on the ethical and environmental practices of fashion brands through a simple rating system. Allowing for consumers to evaluate brands either on their phone or laptop before making a purchase.
Although without denying the obvious, one of the reasons Gen Z are attracted to fast fashion brands is due to the low price point. It’s near impossible for brands who include ethical practices and sustainable manufacturing processes to beat this. Luckily, they also publish handy content including articles about; how to care for fast fashion clothes to increase their longevity and maintain quality. Whilst also promoting discount codes to use on sustainable and ethical fashion sites.
It would be great to see Good on You go even further by creating a plug-in extension you could add into your browser, that would pop up as you shop online. Allowing a customer to be presented with clear and reliable sustainability information when shopping.
If you are within the fast fashion industry and are looking to instigate change, there are innovations which are aiming to tackle the impact the industry creates on the planet. Such as using AI to ensure sustainable manufacturing, water and chemical free dying methods and the creation of circular business models to reduce waste.
In summary, this is a reflection on myself as well as Gen Z, and fast fashion brands. I know this issue won’t change overnight, and I’m not saying young people are all brainwashed by marketing. But it’s definitely important to question the authenticity of the next sustainability ambassador that comes along or the newest ‘eco’ range.
Next time you’re about to click add to cart, ask yourself the question, do the morals of this brand align with my own?