Fast Fashion vs Gen Z: The Big Break Up

As seen over at Fashion Roundtable.

Model: Casey Kees / Photographer: Nansi Marshall / Make-up: Heidi Owen

Like many of you, the last month has been a time of sheer disbelief at the state of things and I’ve taken every opportunity to focus on kindness and positivity in all its forms. It’s been particularly refreshing to see that the luxury sector has favoured philanthropy– with Ralph Lauren donating $10 million to coronavirus efforts and Louis Vuitton converting its perfume factories to offer free hand sanitiser. There has also been some amazing philanthropic energy closer to home with Central Saint Martins’ staff rallying the public to jump in on the collective effort of mask-making and of course Fashion Roundtable’s vital work in securing masks and personal protective clothing for the NHS.  

In stark contrast to this, fast-fashion brands such as Primark and Matalan have cancelled and suspended orders in an effort to minimise profit loss. This has set off a domino effect with workers in the murky waters of fashion supply chains suffering. Since the pandemic began, 1 million garment workers in Bangladesh alone, have been laid off and are anxious about how they will care for their families. 80% of workers in the supply chain are made up of women in low-income countries – these women are both socially and economically vulnerable. If this shared global experience has taught us anything it’s a blatant reminder that globally we are connected, and this is a figure I’m not sure we can ignore.

A recent report by Accenture revealed that 58% of Gen Y and Z consumers will pay more to companies that stand authentically for issues they care about. Further, 49% are interested in companies that provide credibility in the sustainable fashion space. Perhaps unsurprisingly then Gen Z has an abundance of feminists at its helm, from Sunday Times columnist Scarlett Curtis to poet Bronwen Brenner. Fast-fashion and its blatant lack of transparency is a feminist issue and comes at a complete disparity to what Gen Z are demanding culturally. Similarly, one of the leading voices for climate change, environmental activist Greta Thunberg, also falls into the Gen Z bracket. Inspiring millions to stand up for the existential crisis we’re now facing globally and speaking out against industries that value money over their carbon footprint.  

That being said, for every environmentally and socially conscious Gen Z consumer, there is another shopping for fast-fashion on their phone. This need for cheap, fast-fashion is a direct result of the extreme pressures faced on social media to look good and to shop ‘new’ even in times of a pandemic. The trend of discounting began after the 2008 financial crisis and set the bar for the latest trends at a fraction of what they ‘should’ cost. These cheap prices coupled with the influencer culture are a big draw card for consumers that want to look good without the price tag.  Sites like ASOS, although not deemed an ‘essential’ business are still in full swing. Turning to steep discounting in a bid to clear inventory it seems that fast-fashion companies are still bringing in the profits, even though worker’s feel unsafe.

After reporting better than expected trading, fast fashion e-tailer Boohoo has said it’s now poised to buy up struggling brands— it’s been flagged as a potential buyer for Oasis and Warehouse which collapsed into administration last week. Neil Catto, Boohoo’s finance director, said: “Our priority at the moment has been the wellbeing of our teams and coping with the crisis… Our balance sheet is strong and we have the ability to look at opportunities to help other brands through the crisis. It is likely many opportunities will arise in the coming weeks and we will take a look at those and make an assessment on whether we can add value.” This concept of “adding value” must be re-examined in the wake of the pandemic. In order to change the way the next generation of consumers approach fast fashion, we must put ethics and sustainability above profit-making.

There is some comfort in knowing that Gen Z are highly invested in Depop (a site that champions circular fashion), with its 13 million users collectively messaging each other around 85 million times per month and bringing in around $50 million in revenue so far. Meaning that support for thrifting and circular fashion is on the rise. This feels like the natural successor to fast-fashion as it’s not only better for the environment, but also means users can tap into the value of their unused wardrobe. With £30 billion worth of unused items in UK wardrobes alone this could be a much needed solution to tackling waste.

Our relationship with fast-fashion and its complete disregard for workers and the environment is toxic— now more than ever, it’s the time to invest in authenticity and fidelity. I can’t help but think that brands will need to re-evaluate how they approach tenacious Gen Z role models and the percentage demanding transparency and authenticity, if they wish to succeed post-pandemic.