aspect magazine

Fashion Kills: Consumerism And Fast Fashion In An Instagram Age

By Serena Haththotuwa
Illustration by Sarah Fay

If you’re anything like me, then you’re someone who loves fashion. I often scoff at intellectuals who claim fashion is vapid and irrelevant. Rather, I view high-fashion as pieces of art, and clothes as historical artefacts, artefacts that have the power to tell us instantly about a previous time. 

In many ways, ‘fashion’ doesn’t get the credit it deserves and the fashion industry as a whole is put down and viewed as shallow and disingenuous – in part, because it is a little bit. 

Nonetheless, the fashion industry is one of the most lucrative industries on the planet. Yet, it is denigrated and made to feel pointless – potentially because it is one of the only industries largely ruled by the ‘feminine’.

Despite my feelings about the positive impact fashion and clothes can have on society, it is difficult to ignore the myriad of negative aspects of fast fashion. But what exactly is fast fashion? 

According to scholars, fast fashion is “a term used to describe the readily available, inexpensively made fashion of today. The word “fast” describes how quickly retailers can move designs from the catwalk to stores, keeping pace with constant demand for more and different styles.”

Fast fashion is the dominating form of fashion of our generation. Instead of four seasons of fashion a year, there are now an astonishing fifty-two fashion seasons every year. Yes, you heard correctly, and no, there are still only four actual seasons in existence. So, when did this all start?

To understand how and when fast fashion came into fruition, we must understand capitalism’s best mate – consumerism. Consumerism can be defined as ‘the human desire to own and obtain products and goods in excess of one’s basic needs.’ Arguably, we don’t all need a new outfit for every single event we’re invited to or every upcoming holiday, and yet something inside us tells us we do.

Many psychological studies have shown that consumerism is propped up largely by our basic human instincts to feel secure, appreciated and loved. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that we consume so many clothes every year. 

You only have to look at Boohoo’s 2020 super sale, where anyone could buy clothes for as little as 16p, to realise how fast fashion has really become. Brands have clothes left over, and when they are not bought, many of them are incinerated, burnt or go to landfill (often in developing countries). 

To make things worse, we are bombarded with targeted adverts and told what to buy in more nuanced ways every year.

Instagram is a massive source of advertisement for fast fashion brands. According to Fairtrade, the majority of clothes consumers are women. This demographic also happens to be the largest proportion of Instagram users. Everyone has witnessed the rise of the ‘Instagram influencer’. If you haven’t, then it is what it says on the tin, a person on Instagram who is influential, primarily due to their large following.

Many influencers are sponsored by fast fashion companies and are either paid or given free clothes to promote a specific brand – which ultimately contributes to our consumption of unsustainable clothing. 

In many ways, Instagram is a virtual reflection of consumer capitalism – individuals instead of businesses creating their own brand. Now, consumers look to the people they follow on Instagram to tell them what to buy, instead of TV advertisements and magazines.

The world of consumerism and fast fashion is changing. Indeed, if we look at how our relationship to the clothes we buy has changed in the past 100 years, we can see a drastic change in attitude. As the world has become more globalised and capitalism has grown, so too has consumer culture. 

In the 1950s, Western culture was becoming more consumerist, and it was common for people to buy fewer pieces of clothing for a higher price. People were prepared to pay more money for something that would last a long time. Clothes were made to last longer for this reason too.

But expecting people to spend more money on sustainable clothing, becomes an issue of class. Not everyone can afford to save up money to invest in something of better quality, that they will own for a longer period of time. 

After paying rent or mortgage, paying for food and basic necessities, many people don’t have enough money to buy expensive, ethically sourced clothing. Buying from fast-fashion brands affords luxury to many, as it allows the buying of lots of pieces of clothing without breaking the bank, whilst still giving a sense of security and making us feel good.

This piece isn’t proposing a concrete solution to fast-fashion consumerism. Because honestly, I do not have one. Rather, I am highlighting the impact fast fashion can have on our society. The ability of fashion brands to make us feel like we are constantly ‘without’ and the power of clothes to make us feel secure and complete. 

The rise of the Instagram influencer and its compatibility with fast fashion illustrates this. In order to feel these things we emulate those who seem to be the most adored in our peer group, we can see how many people follow them and how many people ‘love’ them. If they’re wearing an outfit I can afford, why wouldn’t I buy it?

If I could suggest a potential solution, then I would suggest what is needed is a conscious shift in our cultural psyche. A shift away from feeling like we always need the ‘new thing’ to make us feel accepted and complete. 

A step in the right direction and something I frequently do now, is ask myself “do I really need this?” when I’m in the checkout of an online shop. Often the answer is “no”, and I proceed to log out and throw my phone across the room. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe the responsibility of rectifying the impact fast fashion has should fall only on consumers. As fashion brands should be scrutinised for their targeted advertising campaigns and how ethically they are making their clothes.

Questioning whether we actually need a piece of clothing won’t be something everyone wants to do. But I think it’s important for us to check in with ourselves and recognise whether owning something new is actually beneficial to us long-term – for the planet, but even for ourselves. Why should we feel like we need the next best thing to feel relevant and good about ourselves? After all, if it’s just going to be another piece of clothing sitting in our drawer or one we only wear once, then maybe it’s not worth the purchase.