Generation Z and the paradox of fast fashion

Every young person knows Shein. Considered by Time magazine as the most popular fashion brand in the world, the Chinese brand has amassed a dedicated following of fashion-conscious young people looking for affordable trends. Focusing on super-fast fashion, releasing thousands of new styles daily, Shein achieved $23 billion in sales in 2022. In the Philippines, the brand’s massive reach can be seen in the big number of “shopping videos” posted by local TikTok users. to display their big Shein purchases.

Last week, however, the brand faced intense backlash as critics voiced their vehement opposition to propaganda-like content promoting the brand’s manufacturing practices. These videos were created by six young influencers who joined a Shein-sponsored trip to China, ostensibly to observe the process of clothing production. Many were quick to point out that the factory visited by influencers was just a “model unit” and did not represent the working conditions in the 6,000 factories the company hires to produce its wares. Influencers were also heavily criticized for easily echoing the company’s press release and ignoring independently published reports about the brand’s problematic supply chain. Among these was a 2022 documentary that revealed how some workers are forced to work 18-hour shifts to meet the high volume of orders. As sustainability has become both a trend and a core business practice, this incident illustrates how easily young influencers could be naively co-opted to help controversial brands establish a facade of sustainability and ethics.

Generation Z, the cohort born between 1995 and 2010, is often praised for their social and environmental awareness. Having grown up in a world threatened by climate change, resource insecurity, and waste pollution, many Gen Zers are strong advocates for better environmental practices and conscious consumption. However, numerous studies indicate that young consumers find it difficult to defend their values ​​of sustainability in the face of cheap and trendy clothes. In a 2020 study titled “The Fast Fashion Paradox”, researchers Malthe Overgaard and Nikolas Rønholt found that while environmental impact was a major concern for young consumers, it did not necessarily translate into buying behavior. real. This gap is largely due to the pressure from social media to keep up with the rapid turnover of trends as a form of self-expression, but with a very limited budget to do so. As Overgaard shared in an interview, “It’s become fashionable to call yourself a sustainable consumer, but it’s another thing to see that reflected in your behavior.”

Perhaps the desire to reconcile these conflicting ideals makes young people vulnerable enough to readily adopt branded “green initiatives,” even if they serve primarily as optics rather than real steps towards realizing a sustainable value chain. . Coupled with the allure of easy money, sponsored trips, and free merchandise, it’s easy to see why many influencers are unlikely to scrutinize stories curated by these companies or turn down paid opportunities.

At the heart of this problem is the need to reclaim the concept of conscious choice from marketing campaigns that falsely encourage young people to consume more, without guilt. Our goal should be to increase consumers’ awareness of the complex interdependencies within our ecological, social and economic systems, and how these dynamics relate directly to their lives. We need education programs that would force people to think more critically about their fashion footprint and the negative impact a fast-paced consumer mindset could have on the planet and our collective future.

One promising take comes from Aditi Mayer, a Gen Z sustainability activist who uses her online platforms to challenge the throwaway culture and our tendency to feel detached from the clothes we buy. By helping young consumers have a more intimate understanding of the true cost of each garment in terms of natural resources, manual labor and cultural impact, Mayer hopes to encourage more people to adopt a lifestyle that actively resists climate change. extraction and exploitation. Locally, sustainable brands like ANTHILL Fabric exemplify efforts to humanize the production process by sharing the stories of the people who make their clothes. For example, I had heard that Ate Belen, a seamstress ANTHILL works with, was saving up for a new sewing machine, which made me appreciate the clothes I bought from them even more.

As for Shein, it’s doubtful that public criticism will affect the company’s bottom line. Unfortunately, this is more likely to tarnish the reputations of young influencers, who I believe have been unknowingly exploited for their lack of understanding of supply chains. May they learn from this experience and be more discerning about which brands to lend their voice to.


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