How is the accelerated trend-cycle destroying our planet, and what could be done to stop it?

Several years ago, high fashion would dictate the rules. Luxury brands presented collections twice a year on the runway, and similar pieces would later appear in affordable retail stores. Contemporary fashion world follows the same logic, albeit with a catch: social media have a much bigger say in what constitutes a trend… And fast fashion brands cater towards that, destroying our planet in the process. 

Trends are not bad… Or are they? 

Trends are not a novel concept. For hundreds of years, fashion trends served as a reflection of the current state of society. Be it a disease, war, or a political figure — everything could sway fashion into the direction of a new trend. Trends, however, are not inherently bad; the accelerated trend cycle is. 

Even in 2012, before the rise of intricate interest-based algorithms and influencer culture, Zara took only two weeks to design, produce and deliver a new garment to stores. And it would be hard to call these garments “timeless” or “classic” – in other words, pieces that would stay relevant for several years after being bought. 

Social media brought a way to instantly share text, images and videos not just with one person, but with millions, if given the right platform. The average user spends 145 minutes on social media daily, and if they are not posting, they are viewing the content of others. Additionally, the rise of niche internet communities has brought about various “aesthetics”, which influence contemporary trends. 

Why is social media relevant to the accelerated trend cycle? With social media, the speed with which news spread has never been quicker. And this also relates to the speed with which new trends can be picked up on by users and other influencers. The feed has become the new runway, where influencers and models parade new outfits for consumers to copy, as fast fashion factories race to cater to newly-emerged trends. 

Image via Charlota Blunarova on Unsplash

What’s the big issue? 

Such a race for the attention of the consumer has produced disastrous effects on the planet, which will only escalate with time. Presently, fashion production comprises 10% of world’s carbon emissions – to compare, emissions produced by transport comprise 16%. In eight years, emissions from textile production are projected to increase by 60%

Fast fashion is notorious for using synthetic fabrics, such as polyester due to their low production cost. This has led the industry to contribute to 35% of overall microplastics in the ocean from producing and laundering synthetic fabrics. Moreover, using cheap fabrics and low-quality production for fast fashion makes such garments… well, bad. 

An astonishing 85% of produced textile goes to waste every single year. Not only is this because unsold items are often thrown out (or worse, burnt), but also because these items are of such low quality, that they rarely last long. Sweaters pill, shirts stain, finer fabrics thin and rip. An average American generates up to 40kg of textile waste each year – most of this waste ends up in landfills, and breaks down into microplastic.

With the accelerating speed of the trend cycle, consumers buy more to imitate those they see online – be it friends, family or celebrities. Oftentimes, they choose fast fashion chain stores due to their low prices and wide range of garments, related to current trends. The attractive affordability of fast fashion is, in fact, a devil in disguise for our planet. 

Image via Janko Ferlic on Unsplash

What can the industry do?

The numbers paint a bleak picture; the fast fashion industry is gradually destroying the planet. Therefore, instead of placing blame on the consumers, the industry has to first be reformed from within – preferably without performative action and greenwashing. 

Urging brands to stick to a longer design-to-delivery window can help slow down the accelerated trend cycle. Instead of seeing new items in stores every two weeks, we will be seeing them only once a month or two months. This will urge brands to produce items that are less relevant to the microtrend of the moment, lowering consumption that is caused specifically by consumers’ desire to follow trends. 

Textile waste occurs not only after the selling process, but also during production, when scraps of fabrics are disposed of, because they are not enough to make a whole garment. A solution to the latter issue would be to upcycle scraps into completely unique pieces. Unsold garments could be returned to factories in order to be re-imagined in new ways, instead of being thrown out completely. 

Furthermore, enforcing stricter regulations regarding garment quality would allow individual pieces to last longer, preventing them from ending up in the bin within a few months. Certainly, higher quality production will require an increase in cost, but this can provide avid shoppers with incentive to shop more mindfully, or look at other sources, such as second-hand or clothing swap. 

Although it is virtually impossible to turn back time and stop trends completely, smaller steps towards a slow approach to fashion will make a difference. Massive clothing brands already have the money and the resources to become more sustainable – some just don’t want to, choosing to place the responsibility on the shoulders of the consumer. 

Image via Hannah Morgan on Unsplash

What can we do individually? 

It is always easy to blame the individual consumer on their environmental effects. Stop buying from fast fashion stores! Stop following trends! Stop buying clothes for cheap! No, we will not judge you if you don’t dress trendy (but we also will). Individuals are pressured to make the “right” choice in a system that is rooted against it. 

There is no magic pill for everyone to take in order to solve this issue on an individual level – it all depends on one’s personal and monetary circumstances. Some cannot afford to buy second-hand or vintage (which is becoming pricier with its rising popularity) instead of fast fashion. Others may not even have access to second-hand or sustainable stores. 

However, what everyone can do is be more mindful of what they buy: check whether it is a classic, timeless piece, or something that will go out of style in a few months. Usually, the latter possess unique tailoring and decorative details, and are frequently seen on social media. Adopting a more classical style, with simpler silhouettes and minimal colors may be the way to go in the long run – and it will also solve the constant “what to wear” issue. 

Everyone can also be more careful with the garments they already have, by washing them properly and mending those that can be saved. Upcycling may be a solution (and a new creative outlet) for pieces that can be re-imagined in new ways. If you feel that it is time to let go of a piece, avoid the bin and look for donation centers or sustainable waste collection points. 

Destruction of the planet for the sake of self-expression through clothes is not the way to go. Although this is a situation that requires a comprehensive solution for the industry and the consumer, even small steps can bring us closer towards slower and more sustainable fashion. And by taking individual action, we can set off a new trend and influence those around us to do the same. 


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