In 2020, when the world was in lockdown, my classes moved online, stores and restaurants were closed, and social media was the only entertainment left, I spent hours flipping through Instagram Reels. My feed was flooded with fashion videos, try-on hauls, and product unboxings. Even though I had nowhere to be, it was fun to click through these posts, discover new online stores, and plan future outfits.
Still, the sheer volume of clothes being advertised to me was alarming—not to mention the low cost. I was used to paying $30 for a T-shirt, but I was shocked to see similar items selling for under $10, making them seem almost disposable. I had been aware of the fast fashion problem, but it wasn’t until then that I realized the issue was much larger than I’d imagined. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, worldwide clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, and consumers are keeping clothing items about half as long as they did in the early aughts. McKinsey also suggests that the cheapest items tend to be worn the least, with some consumers wearing a piece of clothing just about seven or eight times before getting rid of it. A staggering 70 percent of clothing and shoes end up in landfills, according to 2018 data from the US Environmental Protection Agency, with many items containing microplastics that will take years to degrade. But it’s not just landfills that we should be concerned about. A 2021 report from the World Economic Forum listed fashion production as the planet’s third largest polluter (after food and construction), releasing 5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The industry creates more CO2 every year than shipping and aviation combined.
This destructive cycle has been gaining momentum for several generations, but it seems especially pressing for my teenage peers. In 2019, one teenager told the New York Times that she would wear a new dress only once or twice before getting rid of it. “Because I’ll normally be in photos when I’m wearing it that are then posted on social media,” she explained. The problem is clearly amplified by social media, which we consume for multiple hours daily. This is also because some of the most influential people with extremely high followings on social media can be paid by brands or encouraged by the algorithm to push retailers like Shein, Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo toward their often-young audience. Then, purchasing the items becomes as simple as swiping on a post and entering a credit card number.
It’s easy for adults to assume that teenagers keep sustainability top of mind. That’s partially due to activists like Greta Thunberg and climate marches led by young people. But we’re also caught between competing pressures: our social media feeds are filled with influencers parading around in new styles that are easier than ever to purchase with just a few clicks, and the constant documentation of our lives means that we’re often thinking about how we’ll be perceived by others. For a teenager with little income who is overwhelmed by fast fashion content and greenwashing from every corner, is there a way to break out of this wasteful cycle?
It’s probably no surprise that the pandemic has changed the way young people buy their clothes. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians spent around $84.4 billion online in 2020, but only 9 percent of those surveyed had ever made an online purchase before that year. Store websites and browsers now also provide the option to save payment information, making it easier for teens—who might use a parent’s credit card for a purchase—to hit the “place order” button. (This feature is not only bad for the planet but it also makes it more difficult for a teen, who is still learning to manage money, to spend responsibly.) At the same time, ultrafast fashion brands have become even more popular and have also partnered with celebrities. In 2020, Katy Perry partnered with Shein and promoted its products on her Instagram page to millions of followers. Perry also has a page on the retailer’s website where she lists her fashion picks. If companies like H&M and Zara are considered fast fashion, Shein has been described as ultrafast fashion. While Zara lists 600 items in its “new in” section, Shein adds 6,000, according to an investigation by CBC Marketplace. Many of these items are in the $10 to $30 range.
Meanwhile, many sustainable options are out of reach for teenagers. Even when compared to typical teenage stores at the mall, such as American Eagle, Urban Outfitters, and Brandy Melville, sustainably produced brands are much more expensive. For example, items at Reformation and MUD Jeans—two hallmarks of sustainable fashion—can cost upward of $150. This makes sense, as fair trade and ethical work environments mean a higher cost of production, but it also makes the items inaccessible. Moreover, these stores are not geared toward teens in terms of what they sell. They often produce clothes in neutral colour palettes, simple silhouettes, and mature styles. In other cases, brands muddy the waters by pretending to be sustainable when they are not, making it more difficult for young shoppers to select worthy options, even if the environment is their first priority.
Despite all this, I’m still passionate about trying to do better—even if it isn’t perfect. I asked Georgia Napper, a designer and sustainability influencer based in Australia, for her advice for teenagers. “I’d suggest shopping at your local thrift stores or online platforms like Facebook Marketplace, Depop, or thredUP for pieces that you know you’ll wear long into the future,” she said. Shopping second hand is, of course, great for those on a low budget. But she also suggested tweaking your social media algorithms to avoid temptation. She said she stopped her apps from recommending hauls by unfollowing fashion brands and influencers.
This is perhaps the most interesting idea: even if teens can’t fully become sustainable shoppers, we begin to disengage from the overall culture of overconsumption. Lily Fang, who shares resources for sustainable fashion literacy on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and her blog under the name “imperfect idealist,” discusses this concept in a video. “While consumer culture is influenced by marketing and capitalism, we aren’t forced to overconsume. We have individual agency,” she says, while still urging viewers to continue to be engaged in discussions around larger-scale reforms.
In the meantime, the most sustainable thing I can do is “shop” in my own closet, even if many of my clothes are from fast fashion brands. This includes washing my clothes less often and storing them properly. If something doesn’t feel like me anymore, I can give it to a friend or sibling or take it to a local nonprofit or thrift store. I can also learn to mend my own clothes by getting the support of a family member or trying out a youth sewing class. When I do buy new, I can use tools like Good on You to help me figure out which brands are actually sustainable. The website rates thousands of retailers on the basis of ethics and sustainability and even has an app so shoppers can search the directory on the go.
As part of one of the most environmentally aware generations, I am saddened to see the lack of transparency and sustainability in our most worn brands. The bottom line is that brands will not take action toward sustainability if we, the consumers, keep purchasing from them. It may not feel worth it to shop sustainably because just one more mass-produced tank top won’t change anything, but fast fashion is destroying this planet. If each shopper opted out of another fast fashion item and supported brands that put ethics first, huge strides would be made. After all, changing the way we shop starts with the shoppers.