gen z fast fashion: uncovering the truth behind the eco-warriors

by Mariel Fuentes
January 17, 2023

We all know Gen Z is the “eco-warrior” generation, but do they really walk the walk? Turns out there’s still some unsustainable practices that have Gen Z in a chokehold. We held a series of Koi Pond interviews with various Gen Zs to discover their opinions and behaviors on fashion and sustainability. The short answer is that despite our views on sustainability and environmental impact, most of Gen Z is still very reliant on fast fashion. Surprised? Us too. When we dove deeper, what we discovered about Gen Z & sustainable fashion was not so simple. It was easy for everyone to talk about sustainability in fashion but when it came down to their shopping habits, the story switched up. It was almost like every Gen Z we spoke to had a dirty little secret: they still shop at Target, Walmart, SHEIN, and Amazon. So what’s going on here?

Throughout the interviews, the topic of fashion trends kept coming up. Whether it was funky prints, chunky headbands or the resurgence of ultra-mini skirts and corsets, all of us have fallen victim to the ever changing trends of the fashion industry. Sam, 21 year old student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, says, “Fast fashion is heavily influenced by microseasons, with fashion cycles that used to take 50 years now lasting as little as 2 weeks.” This, she said, contributes to the overproduction problem in the industry. Interestingly enough, many other interviewees also pointed to rapid changes in trends and the impact of social media as major factors driving fast fashion. 20 year old Karina says, “I feel pressured to keep up with trends I see on TikTok, usually buying clothes I don’t actually like, leading to a pile of clothes I’ve never worn.” Maribel, 21 year old Koi Ponder, says, “Everytime I open TikTok, I can’t scroll more than 3 times without getting some sort of haul, fashion must-haves or other video of that sort. I end up buying stuff that I probably could’ve gone without if I hadn’t seen the video. I know it’s my fault but it is literally so hard to avoid.” 

Trends are going out of style 

Picture this: you’re scrolling through Instagram and see Kim Kardashian post in some new glasses. Within hours, we’ll open TikTok to hundreds of videos with dupes to the Kim K glasses. By the time you wake up the next day, SHEIN will have a similar style on their website. Trends are a big part of what makes fast fashion so fast. They create a sense of "gotta have it now" for the newest styles leading people to treat low-priced garments as disposable, discarding them after just seven or eight wears. And let's be real, with social media and influencers always showing us the latest looks, it's no surprise we're always looking to stay on trend. New trends are in before the old ones are out. This, along with the emergence of in-app shopping features, means we can get our very own Kim K glasses in as little as 5 taps. Talk about “fast”! With brands releasing new collections on a weekly basis, influencers posting multiple GRWMs and OOTDs on the daily, and social media platforms pushing out content after content, it's a wonder any Gen Zer is able to hold back. In fact, the trend cycle is SO fast that it is nearly impossible to keep up with. Trends no longer have time to be trendy before the next thing is “in.” Should trends that last a few days even be considered trends at this point?

What will it take for a change? 

All answers point to Gen Z: We know we’re the problem, and now it’s time to fix it. Sam emphasized that "Fashion shouldn't be so fast and disposable. It's important for us to have a wake-up call, because if consumers don't change their attitudes towards fashion, brands won't change either." She

encourages people to develop their personal style, rather than following trends blindly. There’s already plenty of talk about personal style and trends on the timelines, mostly being pushed by creators with an expertise or focus on fashion. You may be thinking that going away from trends means going into a bland style era where everyone walks around in neutral tones and an office-looking wardrobe, but this creator perfectly shows the essence of a capsule wardrobe-owning pieces that you can constantly reuse and style differently. Karen, 24 year-old who holds a Bachelor's degree in Apparel Merchandising, added that nothing will change until consumers stop buying. “There needs to be a change in consumer mentality at mass levels so that it is felt by the brands. We need to go back to being okay with the basics.” She hopes that in the near future, staying on top of trends becomes less desirable and switches to being looked down upon and cringe. 

Although consumers are a big part of change, there are a number of companies that are doing their part to minimize the effects of the fast fashion industry. Take for example Patagonia who has built a social responsibility program to reduce the harm caused to workers and communities in their supply chain; and Allbirds, who is working to reduce their carbon footprint by shifting their farming practices, using renewable materials and responsible energy. Yet despite the number of brands out there that are trying, none of our interviewees could name drop at least one brand that was practicing social responsibility. Karen is very skeptical of brands that claim sustainability because eventually their dirty laundry always gets aired out. In order for her to fully trust that a brand is socially responsible she said, “I look for full transparency. I want to know where they produce their garments and the details of their supply chain. I want to be able to look up the factory they say they produce at and see evidence that workers are being paid what they deserve. I want to see a brand who isn’t afraid to put it all out there.” It seems like the perfect brand or consumer isn’t out there yet but we’re making small steps in the right direction. We need to keep calling brands out and holding each other accountable.

How is Gen Z doing their part? 

Instead of chasing after the latest fashion trends, an increasing number of Gen Zers are looking to find their personal style, opting for high-quality clothing items that will last for many years, and dedicating time to thrift shopping. Even though they are still buying from unethical brands (for affordability and convenience reasons), they are doing so less frequently. Maribel says, “Right now Target is what I can afford and I’ve told myself it’s okay as long as I’m being intentional about the stuff I buy. If I have $50, I’m not going to buy five ten dollar shirts from SHEIN. Instead I’ll buy one or two shirts that I know I can reuse and keep for a long time.” Karen mentioned that when she purchases a new piece of clothing, she considers how frequently she will wear it. Over time, she has learned to shop less often and avoids impulsive buying. Karina also follows a similar mindset: "When I shop, I think about all the different ways I can wear it. I prioritize clothes that are versatile, durable, and worth the cost."

So: will Gen Zs be able to completely cut off from fast fashion? Likely not. But if there's anything Gen Z is, it's resourceful. Until Gen Z acquires the wealth to exclusively shop sustainably, they’ll continue to make small, intentional steps with their fast fashion: rewearing, upcycling, and extending its life. It won’t be long till fast fashion catches up with Gen Z!