The cost of a "like"; how the fast fashion industry has utilized behavioural data

-- By EstherStefanini - 09 Oct 2020



Since its birth in the 1990s, fast fashion, a term used to describe the throwaway fashion of clothing of relatively poor quality bought at ultra-low prices, has thrived. In addition to affordability, a large proportion of its recent growth has been attributed to three internet-related factors; (i) social media influencers, (ii) targeted ads and (iii) copycat online retailers. This paper considers the social and environmental impact of fast fashion and how the internet has accelerated its growth.

The impact of fast fashion on the environment

Every year, 62 million tons of clothing are consumed globally which is set to rise to 102 million tons by 2030. The industry’s CO2 emissions are expected to rise to nearly 2.8 billion tons per year by 2030, the equivalent of the annual emissions produced by 230 million passenger vehicles. Textile production is one of the most polluting industries, producing 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) annually which is more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping. Furthermore, the industry contributes over 92 million tons of waste per year and uses 79 trillion liters of water. Notwithstanding the global impact, the environmental impacts at local level on poor regions that are home to clothing manufacturers is huge.

Textiles and clothing now play a key role in the global public discourse on climate change, chemical society, water shortage, and human rights. Basic issues such as water supplies tainted by the effluents of industrial waste from garment factories are commonplace in the Asian sub-continent, for example. On top of the environmental issues are issues of poverty pay, long hours and unsafe working practices. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised by the West taking advantage of cheap labor and poor environmental standards in developing countries that are the engine room of the textile industry. Given that we largely created the problem, however, we should also consider it a moral duty to be part of the solution

The psychology of targeted ads and influencer culture – why is it so effective?

A 2019 report from e-commerce personalization platform Nosto showed that of 2,000 U.S. and U.K.-based shoppers surveyed, 52% of consumers want the fashion industry to follow more sustainable practices, but only 29% of consumers would pay more for sustainably-made versions of the same items. Additionally, 62% of consumers would like to receive discounts on sustainable clothing items.

Why does this dichotomy exist? I posit that the addictiveness of getting hold of the latest fashion and being able to post it to the world on Instagram trumps, for the average 16-24-year-old, the desire to put into action their inner woke thoughts. Or maybe their environmental conscience is simply not strong enough, as yet, to make a personal sacrifice. Of course, the causes may be more sinister and less obvious to this cohort that the generations before them. They have grown up with targeted ads that use information about what you have previously searched for and purchased to entice you with other products that they have calculated you may also be interested in. for. Indeed, the desire to conform and not give up accustomed “convenience” also hinders young people from changing their behavior. Generation Z have grown up with the ease of the internet and social media at their fingertips and consequently an over-proliferation of fast fashion too. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that going without both – social media and constant purchasing of fast fashion – may come as a culture shock to them.

Influencers paint the picture of an aspirational lifestyle, available at either designer and knock down prices with the added benefit of disposability. Because of social media, the average person can now publicly document their life in outfits. The rise of influencer culture and marketing has opened up a niche for fast fashion brands, specifically online retailers, to flourish. Thanks to social media’s constantly changing, visually-driven nature, brands have developed a symbiotic relationship with popular celebrities and influencers, like the Kardashians, who have the ability to turn whatever they wear into an instant trend. As such, the personal identities of young people nowadays are often intertwined with their consumption of goods which they share online – Veblen wrote in 1899 that the consumption of goods is linked to status in society. Little has changed today. The fast fashion industry is so deeply intertwined into our culture of conspicuous consumption that a move away from unsustainable levels of consumption will require a major cultural shift.


Where do we go from here? The issue with legislation is that without cross-border co-operation, the impact is likely to be ineffective. Tariffs could be route to explore, bringing cheap clothing closer to parity with their better made counterparts; tariffs are generally unpopular with voters, affecting their disposable income, looked upon dimly by trade partners who may retaliate and have a ceiling assuming the nation state actually lives by WTO rules. Another possible legislative angle is the introduction of minimum quality standards which would render the “barely lasts one wash” garments unsaleable.

Encouraging the growth of clothes recycling or renting has been proposed by environmental activists and government advisory groups in recent years; whilst noble it would do little to dampen the effect of fast fashion specifically given its short shelf life which is unlikely to create a buoyant secondary market. Notwithstanding this, coupled with efforts to reverse the growth trend of fast fashion, this is a solution that should be pursued.

Perhaps, however, the greatest change will have to come from the consumers themselves. As one report earlier this year concluded “Consumers must understand fashion as more of a functional product rather than entertainment and be ready to pay higher prices that account for the environmental impact of fashion”. It may be too tall an order but the cycle needs to be broken and it may be time for consumers to start taking personal responsibility for their consumer habits.

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