If the last year or so has taught us anything about Generation Z – the age group born post-1996 – it’s that they’re environmentally woke. While millennials’ memories of adolescence might consist of MySpace and MSN, for today’s teens and early twentysomethings, school strikes and climate marches to protest the state of the Earth are just another Friday. Then there’s 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, an emblem of Gen Z climate-consciousness, who in the past month has dominated headlines for her carbon-neutral yacht expedition across the Atlantic to speak at the UN’s climate conference. Millennials may have been the first group to grow up with an awareness of the climate crisis, but it’s their successors who are collectively taking action.
And yet when it comes to fashion – one of the most polluting industries on the planet – Gen Z presents something of a paradox. As the first cohort of digital natives, their coming-of-age has coincided with the height of social media and, subsequently, the advent of ultra-fast fashion brands that target young people online with enticing discounts and influencer partnerships. If sales are anything to go by, the strategy works: Boohoo PLC (which owns Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing and Nasty Gal, among others) is expected to hit $2.3 billion in revenue by the end of this year. Environmentally engaged yet seduced by what’s new and 'now', it’s tricky to tell whether fashion in the hands of the youngest generation is moving towards a more sustainable model – or if it's bound to be faster than ever.
Journalist and author, Lauren Bravo, whose forthcoming book How To Break Up With Fast Fashion tackles the adverse impact of our shopping addiction, has been encouraged by the greater conversation around sustainability; Oxfam's #SecondHandSeptember campaign generated significant media coverage, and fast fashion giant Zara has pledged to make its processes more eco-friendly. However, while Lauren is optimistic about the future of sustainable fashion, she understands why fast fashion is still so attractive to young people. "The cost of living has rocketed so much over recent years and everything feels so uncertain; it's hardly surprising that today's teens and twentysomethings are buying cheap clothes as small pick-me-ups," she says. "When expensive holidays, home ownership and other experiences are off the table, what do you do? You buy a $20 dress."
Lauren’s friend and "slow fashion frugalista", Caroline Jones, certainly has clarity on whether sustainable fashion appeals to Generation Z. The 51-year-old mom of three attracted press coverage back in 2015 when she committed to wearing only charity shop outfits for a year, later sharing the story of her quest in the book Knickers Model’s Own. She has two teenage daughters, 16-year-old Mary and 14-year-old Connie, and can relate to that youthful frenzy when you’re discovering new trends for the first time and developing your own style identity. "For me, in my 50s, I've seen all of these trends, they've been around the block," she says, "but when you're young, you don't know that, so everything's shiny, new and exciting."
While Mary and Connie occasionally accompany their mom on her thrifting trips, they’re not quite as charmed by charity shops, preferring the usual fast fashion haunts which, come Saturday, are packed with teenagers. Connie is a fan of Brandy Melville and Urban Outfitters, although their slightly higher price point compared to, say, Primark, means she’s more considered in her purchases. Mary's keen on Topshop, particularly its pants, which are sized by waist and length – something that’s rare to come by in secondhand stores – and admits she’s "a sucker" for Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo, both of which sell clothing that costs as little as a Pret a Manger lunch and boast social media followings most brands would kill for. "You see it all the time on Instagram and you see what these influencers are styling up and they're tagging [these brands]," she says. "Every 10 swipes or so you scroll down and it’s a Pretty Little Thing advert."
Fast fashion certainly isn’t a recent phenomenon, but it’s these online-only retailers that are giving new meaning to the term, churning out low-priced dresses, bikinis and bodysuits at breakneck speed. And unlike traditional fast fashion stores, their digital-first business model translates to much lower overheads, allowing them to slash prices and dedicate budgets to targeted marketing campaigns. Mary watches Love Island, which this year was sponsored by Insta-led fast fashion brand I Saw It First, and follows contestants such as Molly-Mae Hague, who recently launched a collection with Pretty Little Thing. She’s also a fan of Kylie Jenner – perhaps the ultimate Gen Z pin-up – who has over 145m Instagram followers. Kylie’s billion-dollar fortune means her stream of brand-new outfits often come from the likes of Balmain and Fendi, but stores such as Boohoo and Missguided are attuned to the tastes of their shared audience, and whip up imitations of her and her sisters’ looks for a fraction of the cost.
Even more so than millennials, Gen Z are not only constant consumers of social media but also the curators of their own feeds. Dubbed "the most photographed generation in history" by Gen Z expert Jason Dorsey, there’s an unwritten rule of not being seen in the same dress over and over again, especially once it’s been immortalized online. Connie says she often swaps clothes with schoolmates to avoid this, but with the staggeringly low cost of items from certain outlets, it’s increasingly viable to purchase a new outfit for every event, should you desire. For festivals, there’s the temptation to stock up on new looks exclusively for those two or three days; Mary recently attended Reading festival and checked out "My Reading Look" hauls on YouTube beforehand for outfit inspiration.
The throwaway attitude of the younger generation is both baffling and disheartening to Caroline, who grew up pre-online shopping, when it was "a real treat" to head to the mall with her mom. "It worries me on a wider level, this disposing of clothes, because it’s a lazy option, it's like buying a coffee, isn't it? [You think] I'll spend three dollars or five dollars [on a dress], I've got it, I'll wear it [and then] it doesn't owe me anymore." According to Oxfam, the carbon footprint of new clothes bought each month in the UK is greater than flying a plane around the world 900 times, while a recent article in The Guardian pointed out that simply doubling the length of time we keep our clothes would cut emissions by 44%.
Among Gen Z, an awareness of fast fashion’s environmental impact is certainly there. "I remember watching this show by Stacey Dooley all about fast fashion and how cotton is drying up areas of the world, and then just feeling really guilty any time I ordered clothes online," says Connie. Yet it’s not quite enough to totally transform their spending habits. "I do love fashion, so for the environment, I'd much rather make sure I'd turned off all my lights, not buy plastic water bottles…" Connie admits. "I wouldn't say I buy loads of clothes, but I feel like that'd be the one thing I’d most want to cling onto."
With endless encouragement to shop from all corners of the internet, giving up fast fashion can require considerable willpower. "It took me a few years until I was completely free of the chains of fast fashion and reached the point where I am now, shopping almost entirely secondhand," says Tolmeia "Tolly" Gregory, a 19-year-old sustainable fashion blogger and activist. It was the Rana Plaza tragedy that really sparked her interest, and she’s since become an active member of Extinction Rebellion, while also sharing snaps of her stylish outfits on Instagram. While Tolly’s commitment to the cause would be impressive to most, she doesn’t see herself as the exception. "I've actually been pleasantly surprised by the Gen Zers around me that shop secondhand or even upcycle and make their own clothes," she says. "I think it's becoming normalized now."
What’s more, where thrifting once meant heading to the local Goodwill, secondhand shopping has been given a digital refresh by apps such as Depop. According to the company, 90% of users are under 26, while it’s estimated that a third of 16 to 24 year-olds are registered on the site. Like Instagram, the platform allows its users to express themselves by curating their own profiles – but more importantly, it’s a quick and easy way to earn cash. "Resale sites like Depop have grown to mammoth proportions because of this generation’s interest in streetwear and 'drop' culture," says Rhiannon Mills, a foresight writer at The Future Laboratory. "Even at a young age, they’re business savvy and are approaching the resale market not only as a means to access the latest coveted item but increasingly so that they can become curators and independent retailers in their own right." Caroline worries that selling clothes on Depop simply fuels the appetite to buy more – but the fact that Gen Z is at least open to buying pre-worn is promising.
Rental fashion is on the rise too: US-based startup, Rent the Runway, which allows members to rent high-end pieces, recently earned a billion-dollar valuation. But is Gen Z on board? "I feel like it's a little far-fetched for some people for it to catch on in the mainstream," says Tolly, "but I'm obviously not against it and I think in the occasion-wear and luxury sector, there’s a real market for it." Mary considered the option for her junior prom (where, in a perfect embodiment of the Gen Z paradox, one classmate showed up in a bin bag to protest throwaway fashion, while another spent hundreds on a dress unlikely ever to be worn again). Although she eventually opted for a dress she found for $55, she admits she probably won’t rewear it and would "100%" consider renting in the future.
Despite these promising strides, social media is still king among this age group and right now the fast fashion brands are dominating those platforms, offering pieces that are affordable, on trend and influencer-endorsed. "Gen Zers do care about sustainable fashion, but they need brands to step up and offer them support to ensure that they can purchase sustainably without having to compromise on the look, feel and functionality of products," says Rhiannon.
Eco-friendly fashion brand, Reformation has nailed that Insta-friendly aesthetic and personable tone of voice; it’s a lot more expensive than Boohoo but its highly covetable items, worn by the likes of Kaia Gerber and Bella Hadid, are perfect candidates for "co-sharing". Meanwhile, emerging YouTubers whose niche is sustainable fashion or streamlined capsule wardrobes are an antidote to the endless hauls, and Connie and Mary admit that if eco-friendly brands and secondhand sellers partnered with their favourite influencers, their interest would be piqued.
For those advocating a slower approach to shopping, there’s an exciting opportunity to find fresh ways to tap into Gen Z’s interest in sustainability, taking to the online platforms they live on and learning to speak their language. But as scientists warn that we have only a few years to halt irreversible environmental damage – and fashion continues to be a key contributor – it’s a matter of getting it right, fast.