How Social Media Fuels Fast Fashion

Who influences your consumer habits?

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Social media has had a significant influence on the fast-paced world we know today. The focus on speed on Instagram, an instantaneous photo-sharing app, has rubbed off on the fashion industry and consumer habits. The fashion calendar used to comprise of four collections a year (Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer), but nowadays, up to 52 micro-seasons are released annually. With Instagram being the most important social media platform for fashion business, it has not only impacted the way we view clothes but the entire cycle of our clothes.

According to a recent report by Deloitte, 47% of millennials admit that social media influences their purchase decisions, so Instagram, undoubtedly, fuels the fast fashion habit that many of us possess. Well Made Clothes, an ethical fashion marketplace, notes that “the aspirational nature of Instagram makes us more vulnerable to marketing ploys” and “can obscure the real faces behind our clothing and trick us into wanting what we don’t need”.

How Exactly Does the Fast Fashion Industry Benefit from Social Media?

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Instagram has given people access to runway shows in real-time – something that was previously unprecedented. As a consequence, consumers and fast fashion brands are quick to catch onto next season’s trends. Within a short timeframe, fast fashion brands capitalise on consumers’ desire by mimicking the catwalk styles and putting affordable alternatives on the shelves, ready to be snapped up by the public. Fast fashion brands benefit from social media by snooping on their competition, engaging with millions of consumers, and parading their latest trends round the clock.

Speaking of the most popular fast fashion brand on Instagram, whose social strategies have amassed over 14 million followers, Renee Cafaro, U.S. editor of the fashion magazine Slink, said that the beauty of the brand is its ability to generate social media buzz; “it’s everywhere”, she said. With online purchases, the brand includes a card that states “we (heart) the Gram”, encouraging consumers to post photos of themselves in their new garments, accompanied by a hashtag of the name used for consumers of that particular brand. The founder and CEO of the brand, who calls it the “fastest of the fast”, reportedly said that, unlike other companies, the brand brings countless new trends and benefits from posting on social media every 30 minutes. Due to its success, the Huffington Post predicts that more and more companies will begin to emulate this brand’s marketing model.

A speedy trend cycle is normalised

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Social media – Instagram in particular – encourages unsustainable consumption as it normalises a speedy trend cycle and throwaway culture. According to Fashion Network, the average consumer buys twice as many clothes as they did a decade ago. The Average American woman buys 68 new items of clothing each year and wears half of the garments no more than thrice. A survey reported by The Standard demonstrates the influence of social media on throwaway culture: of the 2,000 consumers that participated in the survey, it was found that 10% throw away an item of clothing once it has been photographed and uploaded to social media on three occasions. Additionally, 20% of the consumers admitted that instead of doing something useful with their unwanted clothing, such as donating it to charity, they just toss it in the bin. Given the plethora of clothing purchased nowadays by consumers, the amount that is discarded is incredibly detrimental to the environment. According to research conducted by Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a U.K. government agency, extending the life of clothes by just nine months would reduce carbon, waste, and water by between 20-30% per garment.

Despite the benefits of slow fashion, social media makes people susceptible to FOMO, a trendy new acronym that emerged in the early 2000s that stands for “fear of missing out”. FOMO makes people stay on-trend, and the super easy and fast swipe-up option on Instagram stories makes purchasing an outfit worn by someone you follow almost intuitive. Frequent “for a limited time only” promotions that appear on the Instagram feed of almost everyone, be it via followers or sponsored advertisements from the Instagram algorithm, only enhance FOMO and cause people to make impulsive purchases.

There is pressure to produce fresh content and present the best version of yourself

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Considering the pressure social media puts on users to avoid rotating garments in order to consistently post fresh content, it is no wonder that millennials throng fast fashion stores each week, scooping up the latest cheap styles. Many social media users dread outfit repeating, which leads them to support fast fashion brands to maintain a stream of new outfits and keep up with the latest trends.

According to Well Made Clothes, Instagram was designed to be relatable but, instead, became curated and aspirational, giving brands (and people) the opportunity to display a shiny version of themselves. It is therefore normal for fast fashion brands to run flawless, themed Instagram feeds that allow them to market new garments whilst shying away from offering an insight into their – often ugly – ways of operating.

The perfection of feeds such as these makes people want to replicate perfection in their own lives, or, at least, on their own feeds. A study conducted by Refinery 29, in which 2,000 women participated, found that the average 16–25-year-old woman spends 48 minutes per day taking selfies and takes seven selfies before selecting the one deemed fit for social media. In preparation for a selfie-session, 57% of people find a place with good lighting, 46% style their hair, 33% re-do their make-up, and 4% apply a fake tan.

It is influencers galore

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Influencers on social media are people who have built a large following and have influence over others’ buying decisions because they are considered trendy and reputable. Sometimes, influencers review products that they have purchased for the benefit of their followers, but oftentimes, companies pay such people to advertise their products. Companies also tend to give influencers a unique discount code to share with their followers, which the company uses to track the influence and calculate commission. “Influencer marketing used to be celebrities — think George Clooney with Nespresso”, said social media expert Rupert Esdaile. Nowadays, however, everyone has the potential to become an influencer, and, for some of the best, it can even be a full-time job.

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A massively popular trend on YouTube is the “clothing haul”, which involves influencers going on regular clothes shopping trips, spending an obscene amount of money, and documenting their purchases. The Huffington Post suspects that this trend gained popularity because people like to see clothes on a real person and appreciate honest reviews, instead of sponsored advertisements. However, viewers mimic this behaviour, which normalises reckless spending and a speedy trend cycle.

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Trends with a similar effect have made their way onto other platforms, such as the relatively new and trendy video-sharing platform Tik Tok. A trend called “What I’d wear if…” has TikTokers changing clothes three or four times in a single video to show what they would wear if they were in a particular film or TV show. Although perhaps a creative and fun styling challenge, multiple videos are being produced of people showcasing tonnes of clothing in a mere few seconds, clothes that they may have only purchased for the purpose of this recent trend.

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In particular, the fast fashion industry revels in the millions of influencers that it has access to on Instagram. “For me, it’s all about Instagram and it’s all about the influencer,” said Esdaile. He continues, “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.”

Countless serious influencers on Instagram (and other platforms, of course) push fast consumption across several sectors: travel, beauty, fitness, and food. Many influencers seem to spend their days travelling, shopping, exercising, and eating clean, whilst posing for snaps along the way to keep their followers updated.

Danielle Wagstaff from Federation University Australia, who studies the psychology of popular social media, explains how social media distorts reality: pre-social media, friends and family formed one’s social circle, but now, access to numerous influencers has made our perceived social circle enormous. Wagstaff continues, “it would be too exhausting to make a judgment every time you saw a new image of someone from this circle, so cognitively your mind automatically creates an average”. According to Wagstaff, the problem with this average is that the images on social media are highly curated and edited – even makeup-free and filter-free photos are selected – which means that the “average” that the mind creates is not an accurate representation of someone’s lifestyle, income, or attractiveness.

Still, as influencers (and celebrities) showcase their lifestyle – or apparent lifestyle – it makes people strive to live a similar, luxurious life, or at least appear to on Instagram. Consequently, people may replicate sumptuous spreads of food that will likely go uneaten, increase their carbon footprint through excessive travel, and buy into fast fashion because it’s an easy and cheap way to avoid outfit repeating and stay on-trend.

The Benefits of Social Media

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Good news: social media is not only harmful but also helpful. Whilst social media platforms have added fuel to the fast-fashion fire, they have also been an engine for positive change. The opportunity for brands to engage with consumers on social media has allowed consumers to raise important questions. A perfect example of this is Fashion Revolution’s #whomademyclothes movement, which has encouraged consumers to urge brands to provide information on their supply chain.

Social media has also created a platform for sustainable brands and the spread of information that helps people become more conscious of their shopping habits. The hashtag #sustainablefashion is used in over three million posts on Instagram and there are countless sustainable brands and influencers that use social media to promote a sustainable lifestyle.

So, how can you refrain from buying into fast fashion on social media? Evaluating your list of “following” is an excellent place to start; ask yourself, am I following people and brands that are environmentally-friendly and ethical? Reach out to brands to enquire about their supply chain – through social media, you can seek to discover how sustainable and ethical brands are. Watch out for greenwashing, though. Finally, challenging the practices of fast fashion brands and calling out wrongdoing helps spread awareness and encourages others to ask questions and perhaps realise the negative impact that their go-to brands may have on people and the environment.

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Millennials are watching”, explains Alex Silenshy, the CEO of the business consulting company OGS Capital. If consumers spew negative feedback at brands on social media, Silenshy argues that the brands will have no choice but to clean up their act. That said, Well Made Clothes states that brands will only take positive steps if they are motivated through a push for change – “and that’s a responsibility we all need to bear”.