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Inside what’s pushing Gen Z to consume fast fashion

Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, are known for their understanding of environmental and social issues. Yet, they are also recognised for an obsession with low-cost fashion.


Brands such as H&M, Cotton On and Sportsgirl use outsourced labour and mass production to create products that replicate current clothing trends. (Photo by Lucy Slevison)

Eugenie Dixon, a 19-year-old member of Generation Z and RMIT student, told The Swanston Gazette that young people buy fast-fashion items because of a desire to keep up with evolving fashion trends. 


“It’s very intertwined with what’s trending, whether that be on social media and in real life,” said Dixon. 


According to ‘Good on You’, an online directory that ranks fashion brands on the ethics of their labour and environmental practices, fast fashion is defined as “cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from catwalk or celebrity culture” and then recreates garments quickly to “meet consumer demand”.


Brands are able to recreate more expensive designs at a low-cost because they outsource their manufacturing to countries with underdeveloped labour policies.


For example, Cotton On’s public supplier list shows the brand has contracts with numerous suppliers in India, China, Bangladesh and other countries. Despite Cotton On being an Australian-founded brand, only 3 of their 347 suppliers are Australian.


Just over a week ago, garment workers in Bangladesh received attention for protesting a proposed minimum wage increase that was deemed not enough.


The fashion industry currently lacks an official code of ethical conduct, providing context for why fast fashion’s mass production has flourished unchecked. 


Organisations such as Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index have established plans for the industry’s improvement. The Higg Index is a program where companies self-assess the environmental and social sustainability of their supply chains.


Another guideline that is endorsed by the fashion industry is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s  'due diligence guidance' for ‘responsible supply chains’. In this framework, the OECD highlights the need for fashion enterprises to collaborate and consult with employees, suppliers and trade unions to mitigate the risk of exploitation.  


Both these frameworks are voluntary and neither are legally binding documents. This means even brands that choose to sign the frameworks will face no legal repercussions for their failure to adhere to regulations established in the frameworks.


While individual brands may choose to implement their own internal code of ethics into their business model, there is no requirement to actually abide by company policies.


This gives companies like Shein the power to pay their Chinese factory workers 0.27 yuan, or 58 Australian cents. The Shein ‘Code Of Ethics’, available on the brand’s website, states it “strives to meet the highest labour standards” while “maintaining working environments that respect individuals’ dignity.” 


Fast fashion’s links to environmental damage and human rights issues are well established. In 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapse resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 garment workers and created widespread discussion about the ethics of global supply chains.


The United Nations claims that the global fashion industry is responsible for 2-8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 


Yet, many Generation Z continue to consume from brands including Sportsgirl, H&M, Shein and Glassons.



Sweden-based H&M is one of the world’s most famous fast fashion brands. Their clothes often replicate fashion trends. (Photo by Lucy Slevison)


Jorja Rehfisch, 19, is a member of Generation Z, and considers herself to be environmentally aware, with a strong passion for social justice. Her interest in social issues has led her to study politics, philosophy, and economics at Monash University, in Melbourne. 


She is also an avid consumer of fast fashion. Rehfisch’s wardrobe consists mostly of the fast fashion brands Glassons and Cotton On. She told The Swanston Gazette she is influenced by “trendiness.”


As a young university student, Rehfisch finds the cheaper costs of these brands are more appealing to her because she is already familiar with their clothing quality, and it is convenient to keep buying brands she is already satisfied with. 


Despite this, it seems the main allure of fast fashion is not cost or convenience; for Gen Z, the obsession stems from a desire for trendiness.   


The attraction of these brands for many Gen Z, is their ability to replicate fashion trends when demand is highest. Brands with ethical production, termed ‘slow fashion’, cannot match the mass production model that fast fashion is based on.


Rehfisch’s method of changing her wardrobe based on “how [she’s] feeling” mimics the attitudes of many of her Gen Z peers, who are reported to have $150 billion in spending power. Spending power, or purchasing power, is defined by Cambridge Dictionary as “the degree to which people have money to buy products and services”. Collectively, Generation Z buys $150 billion worth of material items each year. This includes fast fashion purchases.


“Trends change so often, if you’re constantly buying from ethical brands, you're not going to be able to keep up,” she said.



Cotton On, an Australian retailer popular amongst Generation Z consumers, outsources its clothing production to China. (Photo by Lucy Slevison)

Not only are members of Gen Z consuming fashion excessively to keep up with trends themselves, there is also an interest in constantly purchasing items to sell them for profit. 


Lee Callister is an Art & Design Director, with three decades of experience in the advertising industry. He told The Swanston Gazette that “fashion is a currency”, that has become increasingly “temporary” in online communities such as Depop, where clothes taken from secondhand shops are resold at higher prices. 


Callister said the increasing influence of the internet has ensured that if you want to be “found by young people”, TikTok, Instagram and Facebook is “where you want to be talking to them.” Generation Z are more influenced by their peers' perception of what is popular, rather than advertising appeals. 


He notes the cyclical nature of the fashion industry means the “only constant is change” and that “there’ll be something different tomorrow.”

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