The Shopper’s Dilemma: Sustainability, Gen Z, & Privilege

Avery Chien, Staff Writer

You may have heard the buzzwords “Shein,” “fast fashion,” and “sustainability” become hot topics in younger generation’s social circles and media. The online fast fashion brand Shein has taken Gen Z by storm over the pandemic, advertising trendy clothing with low price tags ranging from $5 to $20. 

However, these affordable prices come at an ethical and environmental cost. Fast fashion refers to the business of selling and marketing mass-produced clothing at a low cost, an often extremely profitable and exploitative process. Freshman Keira Castanares Soto, whose mother is a fashion designer, says, “Fast fashion can create environmental, internal economy, and labor issues.”  Junior Ryan Duong elaborates on the labor issues of fast fashion and says, “A lot of fast fashion shops produce their clothing in different countries. When companies produce in Asia, they can use children as workers because of the different laws there, and that’s a major reason why a lot of people avoid fast fashion.” 

The age of information and social media has allowed young people to become more informed about the reality of the world, including the harsh treatment of factory workers and negative environmental impacts of manufacturing clothing. Sophomore Eli Galit says, “Companies should share how their workers are treated and let people know what’s going on behind the scenes.” To protest against these companies, many have been turning to “sustainable fashion,” a movement promoting greater ecological integrity and ethical change in regards to clothing production. Thrifting and buying secondhand, upcycling or transforming already owned clothing, and purchasing from sustainable brands are all examples of how people have implemented sustainable practices into their lives. 

Unfortunately, the sustainable fashion scene has its fair share of issues too. The growing popularity of environmental fashion has allowed the privilege, inequality, and elitism in the fashion industry to expand rather than highlight the necessity of environmental and ethical action. Galit says, “Ethical fashion can be pretty classist. I’ve seen a lot of people shame others for buying from Shein. You should only buy from ethical fashion brands if you have enough money.” When it comes to fast fashion, it is not low-income people who are keeping the brand afloat; it is people whose incomes allow them to over consume and overbuy at an alarmingly regular rate and then quickly dispose of the clothing. Veronica Kassatly, a sustainability analyst in an article for Fast Company says, “It doesn’t matter how sustainable the materials are that you’re using. If you’re wearing an outfit six times then disposing of it, you’re wasting resources.” Fast fashion brands like Shein, Princess Polly, PrettyLittleThing, and FashionNova are notorious for funding wealthy social media influencer’s shopping habits, with videos featuring hauls of hundreds of dollars worth of purchased clothing being popular on YouTube and TikTok. These clothes are often worn only once for Instagram photos. 

Other barriers include the high cost of sustainable fashion and lack of size inclusivity. Senior Celine Chen, as well as Galit, Duong, and Castanares Soto all say the high price tag on such brands makes it hard to shop sustainably. Chen says, “With sustainable brands, like Reformation, often their clothes are really expensive.” Reformation is one of the most well-known brands in the women’s sustainable fashion movement. It is widely praised for being eco-friendly yet on trend, and sells clothing ranging from $50 basic tops to $400 dresses. Duong says, “With fast fashion I can get a couple pieces for the price of one sustainable item.” If money is tight, people are going to turn towards cheap fashion rather than hundred-dollar pieces. And while shopping sustainably is not limited to buying from new ethical and eco-friendly brands, Sirin Kale for The Guardian write, “Buying vintage or secondhand is not always an option, particularly for young people who want to dress fashionably but do not fit into so-called straight (meaning six to 18 ) sizes.” 

Fatphobia is rampant in the environmental fashion movement, and is reflected in many sustainable brands’ non-inclusive sizing. Plus-size people are sometimes forced to buy fast fashion because of the lack of affordable sustainable options. Fast fashion company PrettyLittleThing is known for its inclusive sizing, often having fashion shows that showcase a variety of models with different body types, something that many higher fashion brands have failed to provide. Sophie Coates, a student from Yorkshire, reflects on a PrettyLittleThing fashion show for The Guardian, saying, “Honestly, it looked incredible. There were models of all sizes and shapes. You feel like you’re wanted in those sorts of brands.” 

Sometimes, sustainable clothes just are not in style now. Castanares Soto says, “Usually what’s trendier is found on less sustainable clothing sites.” This is true, as the nature of fast fashion brands such as Shein and H&M allow companies to quickly produce and market trendy clothing in a matter of days. Shein alone drops almost 6,000 new items daily, according to The Economist. Fast fashion companies are able to utilize social media and online influencers to drum up attention for their new products. Castanares Soto says, “Sustainable brands aren’t marketing towards younger generations, like on TikTok for example.”

Despite the high entry cost into the elite world of sustainable fashion, some teens have found creative and cost-friendly ways to remain sustainable at home. Duong says, “I want to start doing my own customs. I’ve seen a lot of people paint their own designs on pants and shirts, so I want to try that and take old clothes that are bland and switch them up so I can wear them again.” Maintaining or upcycling existing clothes you already own is one of the best ways to stay sustainable, as it reduces the amount of new material you buy. Galit says, “I’ve experimented with sewing and fixing clothes whenever I need to.” Similarly, Castanares Soto adds, “If I’m done using a certain item of clothing I’ll revamp it or tailor it. My mom is a fashion designer so I’ve learned everything from her.” This trend of upcycling is reflected in larger Gen Z culture. Over quarantine, social media saw a notable increase in teens learning to sew and make their own clothes at home. 

When it comes to personal shopping, IHS students have their own methods to stay conscious of what they buy and how much. Castanares Soto says, “First, I try to think about what’s in my closet and if I really need another black shirt… I really don’t. There could be another person who needs that and I don’t really need it; I have enough in my closet already.” If she has clothing she does not want anymore, she gives it to her little sister rather than throwing it away. Duong says, “I set myself a budget limit. Every few months I’ll set myself a budget of like a hundred dollars to spend on clothing. I don’t see something I instantly like and just buy it. I wait it out and choose which items I like the most, usually like two or three items.” Chen only shops from Depop, an app where users can buy and resell second-hand clothing, and Galit thrifts all of his clothes. In an article for Vox, fashion journalist Aja Barber echoes, “Being the perfect ethical consumer isn’t the point. Thinking about your consumption is.” 

The battle between consumer and corporate responsibility is a demanding one in the fashion industry. Individuals are at odds when attempting to shop eco-friendly and ethical, pulled by the new trends and low prices while questioning the morality of such purchases. In an interview with The Guardian, Mikaela Loach, a 23-year-old student and climate activist from Edinburgh says, “The fashion industry is designed to be exploitative and that opaqueness, the lack of transparency, is what allows it to exist.” Galit says, “Brands are not open enough to the public. Even brands that say they are sustainable definitely have stuff going on behind the scenes.” He adds, “Do your research on brands you’re buying from, that’s it.” While there is no clear answer to how we should tackle this, the conversation around sustainability proves it to be a much larger dilemma than just environmentalism and ethics.