Fighting the fast-fashion juggernaut
The poor social and environmental impacts of fast fashion are undeniable. Why, then, do Aussies still buy so many fast fashion garments? Sian Donazzon reports.
It was only a few years ago that Maggie Zhou would see a stack of PR packages at her door from big fashion brands and feel giddy at the thought of receiving free clothes to promote on her Instagram page.
But then, something shifted.
Zhou started to notice how many clothes she was receiving that she didn’t actually wear regularly.
“It started to make me feel icky." Most Aussies are in a similar boat, it seems, as a Levi’s 2021 report states that the average Australian only wears 50 per cent of their clothes on a regular basis. With more Australians like Zhou waking up to the fact that 200,000 tonnes of clothes go to landfill each year, slow fashion and prioritising a circular fashion model is growing, steadily being driven by social media influencers at the heart of this movement.
“Everyone is involved in fashion, whether they believe it or not. If you choose to wear clothes on your body, you are making conscious decisions…”, says Zhou.
“I really wanted to take a stand against fast fashion, and I did so publicly.” (Supplied: Maggie Zhou)
“I used to be a consumer of fast fashion.”
But if you follow the 24-year old content creator and features editor at Fashion Journal now, you’ll know that she’s exchanged “trendy” for other well-worn terms in her vocabulary, like “pre-loved” and “second-hand”.
Although creators like Zhou are making a difference, the slow fashion movement faces unrelenting opposition.
Creators who promote fast-fashion trends contribute to what’s called “social comparison” and — intentionally or unintentionally — plant the seeds to make their followers want to purchase more clothes, according to Dr Gigi Foster, behavioural economist and professor at the School of Economics, University of NSW.
“When somebody you respect or a group you admire is making a particular decision about something, it has a pretty strong influence on a person’s decisions, Foster says.
“Some of us think we make reasonably independent decisions and we’re not influenced by people online, but there are a large number of human beings for whom their own consumption purchases are very much influenced ... by these online communities... when they hear about what famous people are doing.”
Zhou agrees. “Influencers have a massive part to play in swaying public opinion and influencing consumer habits. I think we’ve really witnessed that in recent years with the uptake of trends being very much driven by social media,” she says.
But Zhou says fashion creators can’t be the scapegoat for the creation of fast fashion garments, while also acknowledging their obligation to use their position of influence wisely.
“I don’t think it’s every fashion influencer’s responsibility to turn into a sustainability advocate, it’s very much an individual choice,” she says.
“I hope, though, that they realise the significance of the platform they have and the impact of their posts ... recognising that it is a privilege to reach so many people with what you’re saying online.
“Especially with how trend-driven social media is, I think it’s really important to spread the message of slow fashion and for people to think twice about their fashion consumption habits.”
A content creator in the slow fashion space, Catherine Jia (@project.catherine) says that big fashion brands are to blame for pushing a fast fashion agenda onto consumers who want to fit in with societal norms.
“Large corporations are targeting vulnerable consumers to make them feel like they’re not trendy or stylish enough. They’re just pushing out a lot of micro-trends that you can’t keep up with. They market it in a way that makes you feel validated and that you’re part of a community if you buy [a particular piece of clothing]," she says.
“[Corporations] appeal to a wider [audience] through these dangerous and fast marketing approaches.”
Catherine Jia showcases her slow fashion outfit details on Instagram. (Supplied: Catherine Jia)
Recalling the time when she began to transition to a slow fashion lifestyle, Jia says, “I felt like I wasn’t dressing like my friends or people on the street. I just wanted to be seen as being fashionable.”
Foster says consumers also have another hurdle to jump when trying to shop sustainably: greenwashing.
“In the face of gathering reliable information, people want to do the ‘right thing’, and so when an influencer comes onto Twitter or TikTok and says, ‘I’m buying this product because there’s a commitment this company has to reducing child labour’, then that’s very seductive [for consumers] as a reassurance that your purchase won’t promote child labour.
“There are problems with this. The fact that this hook exists means that you can sometimes get various kinds of initiatives purporting to be helpful in a particular area, but don’t really deliver the kind of help that is implied.
“There’s a mistrust of corporations in younger people ... so influencers on social media are more influential [than fashion brands’ marketing teams]. That’s true for the reasonable majority of young people purchasing clothes.”
Zhou also says the general mistrust of big fashion brands is linked to greenwashing.
“The information consumers are getting from fast-fashion brands a lot of the time is not going to be accurate.
“I hate it because it feels like fast fashion brands are preying on consumers’ very valid concerns for the environment and for people. They’re almost co-opting this very real concern of eco-anxiety that we have and saying, ‘Just shop our recycled materials line!’ or something to that extent.”
Even though it’s prevalent in many industries, Global Compact Network Australia notes there is no consistent regulation of greenwashing in Australia.
Dr Taylor Brydges, research principal at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, says: “We know that consumers value and are willing to pay a premium for more sustainable garments. So, businesses are going to want to articulate those values and need to be prepared to have the evidence to back that up [to consumers].”
Buying from fast fashion brands has a huge environmental impact and the release of garments isn’t slowing down anytime soon, she says.
“Ultra-fast fashion, which has recently emerged, has beat fast fashion at its own game in terms of being online and direct-to-consumer.
“We saw fast fashion in the 2000s go from four seasons a year to sixteen seasons. Ultra-fast fashion is daily drops, so the magnitude of what’s being put out on the market is staggering and trends are just fleeting.”
According to the UN Environment Programme, the triple planetary crisis of climate, nature and pollution is being fuelled by fast-fashion pollution, waste and emissions.
Zhou says: “I think influencers are aware of the environmental impacts that influencing, receiving gifted products and working with fast fashion brands has, but in turn, I think they’re also acutely aware of how alluring this industry is, including the pay packets and items they’re receiving.”
“It’s really enviable, and it’s a massive trade-off [to decide against accepting these benefits].
“Most people — not just influencers -- are aware, at least on a surface level, about the environmental impacts of fashion. But the most systemic issues in the fashion industry around garment makers and labour — I don’t think that’s as widely understood at all.”
Both Zhou and Jia are living proof that there is a way to be a successful creator without having lavish PR packages arrive at your door, but rather, by being conscious about what you wear.
“If an up-and-coming fashion influencer’s main mission is to work with brands, potentially [they would be] at a detriment [by not accepting PR from fast fashion brands] and just wearing either clothes in their wardrobe or second-hand clothing,” says Zhou.
“But being someone who promotes second-hand clothing myself, that opens you up to another wide variety of audiences and brands.”
As Jia says: “You can easily transition into this space. You can start right now. Because the clothes that you already have in your wardrobe are the clothes that you should be wearing for many years to come.”