The Cost of Being Trendy

Issue 7, Volume 112

By Elizabeth Kolbasko 

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When going through your closet, it is likely that you’ll find something that was trendy a while ago but is not popular anymore. It could be skinny jeans that have been left in the back of a drawer. Though this occurrence may seem common for many types of clothes, it is happening at a substantially higher rate than before. The prevalence of social media in the fashion industry creates short trend cycles called microtrends. These are articles of fashion that rise and fall in popularity in mere months, contributing to the immense waste problem that plagues our environment. This phenomenon promotes harmful fast fashion practices in an attempt to satisfy young consumers.

People have always followed trends, whether it was bonnets in the Victorian era or low-rise jeans in the early 2000s. However, modern day fashion trends come and go at a rapid pace, leading consumers to resort to fast fashion to stay on trend since it is the most convenient and cheapest way for a person to obtain fashionable but low-quality clothing.

Through the rise of influencers on Instagram and TikTok, trends can be created by one person alone. An example is YouTuber Emma Chamberlain, whose video titled “What I’m Wearing This Summer” from earlier this year amassed over four million views and led to thousands copying her style. Many companies know the popularity of an influencer can make a product sell out in an hour and exploit that profitability. Microtrends can appear through the oversaturation of a product, which cuts the trend cycle of rise, culmination, and decline-incline in half. Once popular users on social media participate in the trend, average consumers are influenced to possess the article. This process occurs rapidly, creating a replaceable nature of clothing.

The constant disposal of trends promotes overconsumption and exceeds the sustainable limit for purchasing and discarding clothing. If these patterns continue, the global consumption of apparel will rise to 102 million tons in 10 years. Social media pressures people into avoiding repeat outfits and disliking a piece of clothing when the trend for it is over, and quantity is valued over quality. Consumers may actually enjoy wearing a certain trendy piece, but once the popularity is over online, they are discouraged from wearing it, sacrificing sustainability to fit in.

The sheer demand that microtrends create makes fast fashion practices extremely profitable. Consumers are encouraged to buy even more clothing because of the inexpensive price tag. One of the most prevalent fast fashion companies, SHEIN, made about $10 billion in sales in 2020, compared to $4.5 billion the previous year. This statistic alone substantiates that there is a positive correlation between the rise of microtrends and the popularity of buying from fast fashion companies. For a fast fashion brand, the supply chain, which is the process of concept to consumer, is sped up to maximize profit. A large fast fashion company can have an article of clothing from the drawing board to stores in as few as 10 days.

The environmental effects of waste created by these popularity spurts are important to understand. Much of the clothing produced by fast fashion companies is made with synthetic fibers, an inexpensive material ideal for mass production. However, they shed microfibers, which are one of the leading factors in oceanic pollution. The unfashionable garments that are created at the end of a microtrend end up in piles of waste. Fabric dyeing has also become a massive issue, with almost 20 percent of wastewater worldwide coming from material treatment. Turning away from short trends will prove beneficial to the amount of clothing that causes these problems.

It’s not just the environmental effects that plague these companies. Cheap clothing comes at a cost to other people, specifically in human rights. Of 250 fashion brands surveyed in 2020, only five had a clear plan for providing a living wage for their workers. Most large companies source their products from countries with loose labor laws, creating a harsh factory environment with little to no protection for the workers. Child labor is used to provide consumers with shockingly low prices while still maintaining large profit margins. Especially prevalent in the fast fashion industry is the hiring of children under false pretenses of fair wages, and countries with high poverty rates are targeted. With people buying from fast fashion now more than ever, fast fashion companies are not inclined to change their practices. Fundamental human rights are not being met, and it is especially foolish to promote that type of consumerism for a microtrend.

Of course, there are many nuances to each consumer’s reason for buying fast fashion. Being able to shop sustainably is a privilege that many cannot afford, and many sustainable companies do not always have inclusive size ranges like those of large fast fashion companies. Additionally, financial accessibility is imperative for many people and families. Most fast fashion companies are well established, while doing the research for a sustainable company is inconvenient. However, those who have the resources to help the environment and promote sustainability should try their best to do so.

Recognizing the harms of fast fashion creates thoughtful consumers who think twice about their fashion choices and their impact on the world. As consumers, we need to be aware that participating in microtrends and falling into the desire to be fashionable come at a huge toll on sustainability. It is almost impossible for microtrends to become obsolete, but with conscious consumers, they may become less harmful. By influencing others to enjoy sustainable clothing and promoting an eco-friendly lifestyle, microtrends can become irrelevant. These conscious decisions include shopping at second-hand stores, upcycling old clothing, and most importantly, finding a personal style. Despite what social media may try to convince consumers of, wearing a piece multiple times is not a deplorable action. Trends will always keep the public interested, but don’t buy clothes for a microtrend that will be considered hideous online in two months.