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 to be vapid and irrelevant. Rather, I view high-fashion as pieces of art, and clothes as historical artefacts. Artefacts which 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 effects that fast fashion has on the world. But what 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 up-coming 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 people 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. In addition, 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 don’t look to TV advertisements and magazines to tell them what they want, they look to the people they follow on Instagram.
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 1950’s, Western culture was only just becoming consumerist, and even at this time it was common for people to buy less 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 into something of better quality that they will own for a longer period of time. When many people have paid their rent or mortgage, paid for food and their basic necessities, they don’t have enough money to buy ethically sourced clothing. Buying from fast-fashion brands affords a luxury to many, as it allows the buying of lots of pieces of clothing without breaking the bank. Whilst still giving us 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’, whilst buying clothes has the potential 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 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 which I frequently do now, is ask myself when I’m in the checkout of an online shop ‘do I really need this?’. 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? Afterall, 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.