When they’re not embroiled in a heated discussion about skinny jeans and side partings, Gen Z is known for leading the charge against some of the most pressing matters of our time. From political corruption to social justice, they’ve proven that they’re more than just a TikTok-obsessed, woke generation and are well-informed of real-life issues – the biggest being climate change.
The rise of groups like Extinction Rebellion and the increase in social media advocacy for environmentalism has opened Gen Z up to a whole new world of understanding the realities our planet is currently facing. In turn, this has encouraged them to create the change they want to see – Forbes found that 62% of Gen Z prefer to buy from sustainable brands and are willing to pay more for ethically made products. While this is thanks to online awareness, social media can be a double-edged sword for this group of digital natives.
The majority of Gen Z state that they look to social media influencers for product advice so when Instagram feeds are filled with influencer collaborations and sponsored content for fast fashion brands, it presents Gen Z with a dilemma: stick to what they know or do something different for the sake of the planet? For a generation which has grown up alongside influencer culture and dealt firsthand with the pressures of social media, the decision to shop sustainably is often complicated by the affordability and inclusivity of fast fashion brands as opposed to the costliness and exclusivity of the sustainable fashion industry.
It’s clear that Gen Z is trying to balance wanting to be environmentally and socially conscious with not having the means to do so, and this is affecting the way they relate to fashion. So how do they really feel about it all? We spoke to 10 Gen Z’ers about their thoughts on sustainability, shopping habits and how their beliefs have impacted their fashion choices.
Sharmain, 23, urban farmer
"So much of the fashion industry is being greenwashed right now, so I think we need to be careful about what we understand as sustainability; I don’t see it as a singular product or commodity.
The three Rs we think about with sustainability are reduce, reuse and recycle, but reducing is not on anyone’s agenda at all. There was an incredible podcast I listened to about Kantamanto in Ghana, which is the largest secondhand clothing market in the world and also understood by locals as the dead white man’s clothing market. There’s this narrative we have created that people are walking around naked in these impoverished African and Asian countries and it’s that same narrative that allows our consciences to buy more and more clothing because we think that all of our old clothes will be a ‘godsend’ to children in Africa. So focusing on reducing our actual usage and need/desire for shopping rather than recycling our clothing plays a larger role in shopping for me.
I see a lot of fashion hauls becoming more and more of a thing on YouTube and especially on TikTok. Shein hauls are a big thing and folks will buy like $500 worth of stuff that is very trendy, not great quality and definitely not ethically produced. And everyone's doing it, which normalises it, and it’s honestly a little terrifying because people have this understanding of clothing as being disposable rather than a durable good.
But I think it’s because of the lack of accessibility and affordability of sustainable fashion. There’s also this disproportionate pressure placed on women to be ethical and sustainable, which is just another form of sexism. I watched a TikTok by @bestdressed and she said something like, 'Why is it more important for women to wash the period blood off their underwear than it is for men to stop buying cars with terrible gas mileage?' That’s not a part of the discourse at all, which is something we need to sit with."
Betul, 20, student and founder of Re-Denim London
"Social media has mostly helped my shopping habits and I think that’s partly because of who I follow and the content I am exposed to; I’ve discovered loads of independent and small brands or sellers on Instagram and Depop especially. It is tempting to buy compulsively when my explore page on Instagram is full of cute 'fits but I have to check with myself and see if I really need something new. Plus, most of what I see are influencers with large followings, partnering with brands like Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo because they’re trendy, but their products are overwhelming, unethical and poor quality which I find insensitive because they have the audience to inspire and advocate sustainable fashion. They might be affordable for us as Western consumers but it’s at the expense of our planet and the wellbeing of the poorest communities around the world.
Sustainability is a large factor when I shop, it’s a moral responsibility I uphold because I’m constantly learning about the detrimental effects of fashion, especially fast fashion, on our environment and garment workers in the early supply chain. I’m such an advocate for shopping secondhand, I find it so exciting and it’s sustainable – no new natural resources are being used to produce the product, it’s just being recirculated. I’ve also been more conscious and creative about upcycling/reworking what I already own – during the early pandemic I spent basically no money on fashion because charity shops and markets were closed, and this has inspired the work I do with Re-Denim.
When I do spend, I go to brands like Timberland, Raeburn and Patagonia – they really champion sustainability and ethical fashion and inspire me 'cause their morals are in check and they’re transparent, which is difficult to find in other brands. A lot of brands like to greenwash consumers because sustainability is ‘in’ right now, which is completely immoral and exploitative. I think it’s important to understand the brand identity and values of where you shop from and check if they align with the sustainable promise they are making."
Amy, 24, student
"For somebody like me, who expresses their queer self via their fashion, it is important to have a selection of wonderful pieces in my wardrobe so I spend a lot on fashion – probably too much! It does depend on what kind of piece I’m looking for and how much I fall in love with it. I find that shopping sustainably equals a more unique sense of style as most pieces you come across on places such as eBay, Depop or small businesses are more exclusive, unlike the regurgitated fast fashion industry.
I love to shop via a small business and will gladly pay the price tag for somebody's work over fast fashion. If somebody has utilised their craftsmanship for a piece, then I’d be more than happy to pay whatever they feel their work is worth, whatever that price may be, and could never consider their art to be expensive. People forget that when shopping via small businesses you’re not just paying for the item but the materials, the individual's time, art and all other costs that may go into it, as well as being more ethical and sustainable.
Instagram has been really good for discovering new small businesses to support that sell super cool individual pieces, like @gimme_kaya, @areaeighteen and @hazydayz_vintage but I’ve generally grown accustomed to detaching myself from all negative influences when it comes to overspending on clothing via social media platforms. As much as I adore supporting small businesses, my wallet doesn’t love it as much and as a working class student, it isn’t always easy. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few freelance jobs throughout the years to keep me going but it isn’t always that easy to say no to a stunning satin blouse with lace ruching!"
Shanne, 21, student
"In the first lockdown I kept buying clothes but I decided I needed to change the ways I shop as I was just buying clothes for the sake of buying them and I’ve never worn them. This realisation allowed me to change my shopping habits – I put more care into shopping now. I created a spreadsheet of items I have in my wardrobe and before shopping I look at it and decide if I need that item in the basket or not. Before I got into sustainability, I felt like I had to buy what influencers had on social media. I would constantly follow trends from them but now, if I do like what an influencer is wearing, I tend to screenshot the outfit or save it so in a few months I can either buy it or make it myself. And I try to buy stuff that’s affordable and that I can wear for a long time. I could never see myself spending £40 just for a top, it would have to be between £15-£20 which isn’t that far from £40 but that makes a big difference.
I’ve started to look at brands' 'About' pages as well, to check if they are ethical and if they’re not, I don’t shop with them. I’ve started shopping in H&M’s Conscious collection after reading into the reasons why they designed and created this collection; even though it is a fast fashion brand, they are slowly putting things in place, unlike brands like Shein, who’ve also come under fire for cultural appropriation and racist jewellery.
Recently I have become obsessed with ethical brands like Wray NYC, Nooworks and Fashion Brand Company. All these brands produce amazing clothes from prints to designs and are size-inclusive – as a plus-size person it is hard to find brands that are sustainable. If brands who are sustainable aren’t offering a plus-size option, how can plus-size people practise sustainability?"
Florence, 22, boutique director
"I always take sustainability into account; I think it’s important for the world moving forward but also for my conscience. It’s important that clothes I buy are ethically made and that they’re made by people and brands with really good welfare and care for those actually sewing our garments. Vic & Bert is one of my favourite brands; it’s Australian but the designer is English, her influence is 'where boy meets girl'. It takes up a lot of my wardrobe because it’s affordable and exquisitely made.
When I was a waitress, I would head to Topshop and I hated it but sometimes your money can’t stretch and you have to save where you can. Now I remember what my aunt has always said to me: 'You buy cheap, you buy twice.' I’m fortunate enough that I can head down the sustainable fashion route instead, even though it does cost more. The garments are made better and the quality matches the price so it’s worth it.
My habits have changed a lot as I’ve grown up. I used to buy without thinking and I’d end up either sending something back or wearing it once and putting it straight on Depop. I think that’s the problem for a lot of people. Now I’m more conscious when buying and try to visualise garments in various outfits, what’s in my wardrobe that will go with a particular item and not buying for the sake of it."
Aamina, 19, student
"With non-essential shops being closed because of lockdown, I’ve had more time to go through my wardrobe, have a proper clear-out and educate myself more on the dangers of fast fashion so sustainability has become a more prominent factor in my shopping.
H&M, ASOS, Weekday and Monki are some of my favourite brands, and the H&M group especially has been great at finding innovative solutions to the problem of sustainability within fashion. I feel that their brand has great transparency in terms of future plans to improve this. Another brand I've discovered is Silq Rose, a modest fashion brand specialising in hijabs and accessories which is focused on sustainability, ethical production and slow fashion. Sustainability is an area that is relatively untapped within the modest fashion industry, which is curious considering that the Muslim faith in particular actively discourages wasteful practices.
I worry sometimes that I am contributing to a wasteful culture of over-spending on clothing. I don’t really have a set budget I spend on fashion – I usually spend under £150 a month on fashion-related purchases and I’d say that spending over £40 on one item is expensive, especially as a student, as most things can be bought at a more affordable price point of £20-30. But I do try to counter over-spending by only purchasing items I can style over and over again as well as donating clothes I no longer wear. Social media is helpful in that sense because there’s loads of inspiration on how to restyle simple wardrobe essentials, but it’s also kind of unhelpful because it encourages me to spend more as there is a great deal of advertising everywhere."
Hali, 25, digital content producer
"Prior to the pandemic I would've done a lot more shopping IRL. One of my favourite activities is going to charity shops in new areas and seeing what I can uncover. During the pandemic I went through a very long period of not shopping at all as I wasn't really going anywhere; now I’m focusing more on online shopping via vintage shops or secondhand sites. For me, secondhand is always best. The small businesses or vintage shops that aren't actually making new clothes but sourcing them are the most sustainable in my eyes.
I do think that true sustainability happens when people stop shopping altogether. Though I do have a small wardrobe and am very considerate when it comes to shopping, I'm not sure I'm ready yet to stop altogether. Clothes are just too great. I tend to thrift most things so I love charity shop prices. New sustainable clothing can be expensive but only because they're paying their garment workers a fair wage and sourcing materials responsibly. I avoid the high street in general because no matter the price range, they will almost always be exploiting their garment workers. Fast fashion contributes to mass exploitation of workers, the majority of whom are women of colour, and as a Black woman I feel I should extend my feminism to these women. Capitalism allows for these women to go hungry while fast fashion CEOs are billionaires, and top influencers, most of whom are white women, can fund flashy lifestyles through spon-con for these companies. I try my best not to shop fast fashion but am not judgmental of people who do. More people, regardless of where they shop, should be advocating for workers all along the fashion supply chain to be given a fair wage."
Maddy, 18, student
"My biggest concern with sustainable fashion is whether the price is worth it. For me, affordable clothes are below £30 and anything above that is expensive. Many sustainable brands are quite expensive but I think they are for a reason. The clothes are well made and long-lasting so you can wear them over and over again. Sometimes I feel guilty spending so much on a particular item but then I remember that it is an investment piece.
Sustainability has become very important to me in recent years after seeing the damage the fashion industry has caused but trying to find sustainable brands who aren’t greenwashing has been quite tricky; a lot of brands throw around the term ‘sustainability’ without actually putting it into practice. Another challenge has been finding my style with sustainable clothing – breaking up with fast fashion has been pretty easy for me but Zara’s collections over the past few years have been exactly my style. I no longer shop there, instead I find people selling clothes from Zara on apps like Depop and Vinted; it’s cheaper and I have time to think a lot of purchases through! I’ve discovered so many incredible sustainable and ethical brands, my favourites include Fullalove Clothing, Nu-In Fashion, Waste To Waist and Laura Grace Fashion!"
Amy, 23, public accountant
"It's definitely harder to find certain pieces of clothing when shopping sustainably because the options are more limited vs shopping fast fashion. I try to find a sustainable option that works for me and my budget before considering non-sustainable brands because depending on the type of clothing or accessory, anything over $100 would be a little expensive for me.
I'm definitely not 100% sustainable in my fashion practices but I try not to impulse buy and really try to think on it before purchasing. I’ve started researching brands before purchasing from them to see what their sustainability practices are. Through social media, I’m able to discover so many sustainable and cool brands to shop from; Alohas is one of my favourite brands and they are very upfront about their on-demand production system. On the other hand, I definitely feel a little bit of that pressure to have to purchase whatever is cool and trendy. That is definitely something I am aware of now that I think about before making a purchase."
Shannon, 19, student
"My biggest concern with sustainable fashion is the lack of inclusive sizing and in particular plus sizes. It is difficult for many brands to have sustainable fashion which caters for all bodies, which is understandable but simply not good enough in the 21st century. I wish I did not have to use fast fashion websites to buy clothes but it is not possible to be sustainable when there are no clothes catered for my body type. And plus-size clothes can be really expensive so wherever I’m shopping, I always shop from low to high [price] to make sure I don't spend too much money.
In the first lockdown, I spent a lot because I would often shop online from boredom. I think influencer culture has created more consumption and waste of clothing as they wear the outfits once and then never wear them again, which is clearly a waste. In recent lockdowns though I have shopped less – I just decided I didn't need to keep shopping. Now I look at my own spending habits and consumer habits and try to change them by spending less and searching for more companies who are not fast fashion-orientated. I want to educate myself more on these issues."