Cheap Clothes, Climate Change, And Gen Z: A Black Friday Call For A More Sustainable Approach To Fashion

MADRID, SPAIN - JUNE 02: Two Municipal Police officers coordinate the queue of people to enter the first physical SHEIN store in Madrid, on 02 June, 2022 in Madrid, Spain. Chinese 'online' fashion brand Shein opens i... MADRID, SPAIN - JUNE 02: Two Municipal Police officers coordinate the queue of people to enter the first physical SHEIN store in Madrid, on 02 June, 2022 in Madrid, Spain. Chinese 'online' fashion brand Shein opens its first 'pop up store' in Madrid after the good reception it has had recent similar openings in countries such as France, Mexico and the United States. The store opens its doors today and will be open until June 5, where customers will be able to shop for women's and men's fashion collections. (Photo By Cezaro De Luca/Europa Press via Getty Images) MORE LESS

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

“I have nothing to wear,” I complain to my closet every morning, despite the fact that the closet is filled with rows of stacked clothes. 

Finding faults in every piece of clothing I own is a routine. Like many of my fellow Gen Zers, curating the perfectly coordinated outfit can consume hours, sometimes days, only for us to throw up our hands, arriving at the conclusion that we simply do not have enough clothes. 

Not coincidentally, fast fashion brands are rising in popularity among Gen Z consumers. The industry continues to grow, fueled by our generation’s desire to stay “drippy” and trendy. “Massive Haul” videos, created by YouTube or TikTok content creators fresh off a “successful” shopping trip, celebrate this trend — they usually feature 20–50 pieces of clothing bought at once — motivating young shoppers to buy from brands that often have insanely cheap tags, but questionable ethics. 

While we may think that a piece is cheap on the rack, the real price is paid elsewhere: in its contribution to the climate crisis. The fashion industry is among the most significant contributors to climate change today, fueled in large part by fast fashion. If Gen Z is serious that its biggest concern is climate change, our generation will need to rethink its enthusiastic relationship with these brands. 

Fast Fashion Media Bombards Us and Swells Gen Z Closets

The term “fast fashion” emerged in the 1990s to describe bands such as ZARA and Express, which employed manufacturing and designing methods that made and put clothes up for sale in less than 15 days. Cheap tags on fast fashion attracted more buyers. The brands rely on the media, fashion trends, and the perception of exclusivity to create urgency in shopping environments; they create what is known as “artificial scarcity,” telling consumers that a piece of clothing is only available for a limited time, or is a limited edition. Buyers then scramble to buy that piece, even though they may never wear it. 

Today, it’s simple economics: the supply of such clothes is increasing in part because the demand for cheap clothes is increasing, fueling a vicious cycle of overproduction and overconsumption.

While the fast fashion model has been in the U.S. for decades, social media has taken it to a whole new level. In “massive haul” videos, a content creator buys a ton of clothing at once. Often these come from fast fashion brands; influencers will spend over $300 on 30 pieces, making everything $10! They also suggest to their audience that buying dozens of clothing items in one shopping trip is normal and something we all should do. 

These “massive haul” videos enforce the idea that the more you buy, the trendier you’ll be. One such popular brand that is flaunted all over the internet is Shein: viewers of these videos see quantity and price, not quality and ethics. Influencer posts have fashion brands written all over them, making it hard for viewers not to find these things attractive. 

For Gen Z, this cycle is the day-to-day reality on social media — except many are not aware of the harm that one photo with a $10 fit, repeated many thousands of times over, begins to bring to the environment. 

Modern-day fast fashion is a direct threat to sustainability and humanity. The UN Conference on Trade and Development has stated that the fashion industry is believed to be the second most polluting industry in the world. It produces over $500 billion in waste from underutilized and not used clothing every year, and produces 20% of total global wastewater. It produces up to 10% of global carbon emissions, according to the UN — a figure that, astoundingly, is more than maritime shipping and international air travel. (Not only is fast fashion harmful to the environment, but it also often relies on a supply chain that includes cheap and exploitative labor, found in developing countries.) 

Somehow, these conversations — our reliance on fast fashion brands and our fear about our climate future — rarely overlap. I put out a call on social media for other Gen Zers who wanted to speak with me about how they deal with mainstream fast fashion and the world of  “drip or drown” slogans that motivate unethical consumption.

The Dreaded Label of ‘Outfit Repeater’ and the Pursuit of Drippiness

“Pretty much everyone I know shops fast fashion, because of how accessible it is,” says Natalia Gevara, one 23-year-old shopper I connected with. A primary driver, she says, is the common taboo among younger people of “outfit repeating,” which is exactly what it sounds like: repeating the same outfit twice, often in the same month or week. However, the term is widely used when people simply re-wear a clothing item. 

“Whenever I think about outfit repeating, I think of the Lizzie McGuire movie when Lizzie gets shamed by Kate at her graduation for being an ‘outfit repeater,’” Gevara continued. “I feel like repeating outfits as a taboo is something ingrained into us from a young age via media.” 

While the Lizzie McGuire reference comes from an early 2000s show that was, at the time, poking fun at those who criticize others for repeating an outfit, it’s become a very real fear for Gen Zers in the era of “massive haul” videos. Even though most of us are (and should be!) outfit repeaters, the shame of doing so is increasingly the reason why younger generations have embraced fast fashion.

“Haul videos on social media are the most obvious way influencers push fast fashion, but there are also subtler ways,” says Clare Ashcraft, a 19-year-old I spoke with. “For example, there’s a trend about how to dress for your body type right now that is encouraging people to change their whole wardrobes.”

The concept of “drippiness” favors micro internet trends, and since they are micro, their hype eventually fades, and so does the appeal of the product. (“Drip,” coined in hip hop, is now used by younger generations to say that a clothing item has a trendy cool appearance. If a person has a good outfit, you might say, for example, “you got drip.”)

“Our view of good style is predicated on what new micro trend is going around,” says Gevara. Micro trends, she continues, “have been one of the worst things to come from social media, every week there is a new fashion trend, inevitably everyone buys it.”

For some Gen Zers, enthusiasm for fast fashion may not be ignorance so much as resignation: They don’t think it makes much of a difference whether they buy from fast fashion brands. “I think a lot of people are at least somewhat aware of the impacts of fast fashion but are under the impression that abstaining from shopping from there will have little impact in the long run,” says Gevara.

Recognizing that the issue is one thing; taking personal and systemic steps to address it is another. That’s true of fast fashion, but also any number of other conversations on climate change: Ensuring that we all take ownership will be the only way we can combat this.

A Call for Sustainable Fashion

There’s a term for alternatives to fast fashion: “slow fashion,” which proposes ethically sourced and made clothing, that will change the fast-paced environment of fashion today. Of course, it could take years, maybe even decades to fully fix the problem we’ve started. But there are personal steps consumers can take to address and combat unethical fashion. 

First, probably the most obvious, is not shopping from these brands. (Trust me, I know it seems hard when everyone has jumped on the bandwagon! But doing this one person at a time will help reduce the overproduction by these companies.) 

Secondly, if you already own something from a fast fashion brand, don’t throw it away. In fact, never throw away your clothes. Donating items to a thrift store or charity will allow for a product to have more use, thus decreasing overconsumption. If you regularly buy from these companies look to thrift stores to find similar styles at cheaper tags. 

Changing the narrative on outfit repeating will need to be done through social media; making versatile styles acceptable will slowly change the way we think. There is so much that we can do to hold ourselves and those around us accountable, but all of us, not just Gen Z, will need to start asking more questions. Questioning where these products are made, who makes them, and what is in them is key to changing the direction we are headed.

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