Fast Fashion and Social Media: Our Planet Hangs in the Balance

Updated: Mar 23

By: Sophene Avedissian

(Courtesy: @averyloves2shop TikTok; @shein_official TikTok; @jayjaymariie TikTok)

Popular platforms such as Instagram and TikTok heavily influence the fast fashion industry, with fashion trends changing more frequently than ever. Large social media figures and influencers can easily prompt new fashion trends overnight. The rapid change in fashion trends leads not only to landfills full of waste but also to carbon emissions, leaving a lasting and consequential impact on the environment. Though social media allows users to spread awareness around prominent issues, social media continues to fuel the fast fashion industry. While the severe impacts that fast fashion has on the environment have been acknowledged as an issue by a large portion of society, the effects of social media on this problem are often overlooked.

According to a Nielsen survey, 48% of Americans reported that they would be willing to change their “consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.” Additionally, 53% of those ages 21 through 34 explained that they would “be willing to forgo a brand in order to buy products that are environmentally friendly.”

On Instagram alone, there are over 100,000 posts using the hashtag #stopfastfashion. However, while some social media users are striving to shed light on the issue, the perilous effects of fast fashion continue to take place.

In September of 2021, TikTok announced that the platform has reached over one billion users. Instagram has a monthly audience of this size. With social media’s ever-growing popularity, fast fashion is becoming more and more normalized, and often goes unnoticed.

Hashtags on TikTok such as #fashiontok have over 2.6 billion views, while hashtags including #stopfastfashion have around 22 million views. Though content using #fashiontok may seem harmless, its ultimate effect on consumerism and fast fashion cannot go unrecognized, as social media’s neverending trends fuel the consumption of fast fashion. For instance, influencers constantly produce videos of themselves unboxing the abundance of clothes companies have provided them from well-known fast fashion brands such as SHEIN and Zara.

If change does not occur, the fast fashion industry may ultimately be responsible for about a quarter of the Earth’s carbon budget by 2050.

“For me, it’s all about Instagram and it’s all about the influencer,” Rupert Esdaile, a social media expert, said in an interview with HuffPost, “Fast fashion labels target the audiences where influencers reign. Engaging people on Instagram is key to selling these products and the influencers are the best tool.”

The number of creators posting clothing haulss from mass producers of fast fashion is increasing, but more notably, these types of videos continue to receive a lot of attention across multiple social media platforms. Instagram presents over 2.5 million posts with the hashtag #haul. Similarly, the hashtag #sheinhaul on TikTok has over 4.2 billion views.

Social media’s impact on fast fashion is partly concerning because consumers are the ones establishing trends, rather than designers or retailers, exacerbating the fast fashion industry immensely. When consumers are in control of creating new trends, fast fashion becomes even more widespread.

For example, Emma Chamberlain, an Internet personality, posted a picture on Instagram of an outfit that sparked yet another trend on social media. The post featured her outfit consisting of flared yoga pants and a crewneck.

After a countless number of Instagram users saw Emma Chamberlain’s post, flared yoga pants, crewnecks, and turtlenecks gained interest and attention from those engrossed in social media.

However, the posts of well-known people are not the only contributors to sparking trends, which, in turn, perpetuate the fast fashion industry. More widespread trends include “VSCO girl,” an aesthetic that has now earned the title of a “subculture.” The phenomenon of the “VSCO girl” trend, according to Seventeen Magazine, is “basically just the beachy-cool, laid-back vibe of an effortless California girl.” The trend demonstrates the prominence of social media, and how what is considered to be “in fashion” can change at the drop of a hat. Fast fashion becomes concerning when social media trends end as soon as they begin.

While fast fashion is toxic for the environment due to its carbon emissions fast fashion is also believed to provide affordable and accessible clothing to those with a limited budget. However, society cannot use this argument to stop progress from being made on the complicated issue of fast fashion. Low-income individuals are not responsible for perpetuating fast fashion, as they do not have the means to keep the cycle of fast fashion profitable. Companies who are part of the fast fashion industry are to blame.

Though a handful of influencers post pictures or videos of clothing hauls, the hauls tend to cost large amounts of money, thereby defeating the main benefit of fast fashion. In other words, influencers are taking advantage of the benefits of fast fashion that are meant to be used by those who can’t afford to splurge on expensive clothing.

With clothing hauls costing hundreds of dollars being posted on a daily basis, social media reiterates the false narrative that fast fashion trends are benign, along with the dangerous idea that the fast fashion industry, as a whole, is innocuous.

Discussions around fast fashion inevitably prompt the question of what alternatives are available to low-income individuals. Everyone deserves to enjoy clothing and to dress the way they desire, and for those who are low-income, fast fashion is the only way to do so.

Low-income individuals who are forced to resort to fast fashion should not be judged. Environmentally-friendly clothing needs to be inclusive and a choice for all. The first step towards a solution must be taken by businesses. Companies need to promote affordable and quality clothing.

Shopping ethically is a luxury for some. Those who can afford to shop while being environmentally conscious should do so.

However, consumers can also play a role in changing the status quo. Consumers can influence an increase in demand for ethical fashion.

Sunny Williams, the founder of the sustainable clothing brand House of Sunny, explained, “People build systems to cater to an audience. As soon as the audience is convinced, they can change their direction slightly, so can other companies. This happened naturally with organic food, so hopefully we’ll see the same with clothing.”

Buying excessive amounts of clothing from the fast fashion industry must be minimized or stopped to make sustainable fashion a reality. Short-lived trends do not come before the planet. Current aesthetics do not come before the planet. Massive clothing hauls do not come before the planet. Without change, the planet will continue to be in danger. By understanding the role social media plays in perpetuating fast fashion, achieving sustainable fashion will become more attainable.

Our Earth hangs in the balance.