When actress Zoey Deutch was filming the 2022 movie Not Okay, she wore an outfit that was, at the time of filming, very Gen Z. She had blond streaks in her hair, a miniskirt, a split hem top and a beaded phone strap attached to her iPhone. You knew exactly the type of influencer she was trying to emulate.
The movie, in which Deutch’s character fakes a trip to Paris to increase her following, was supposed to be a satirical commentary on internet culture. It was intended to be a supermodern take on social media, but the problem is that by the time it came out — in July, less than a year after filming — it was already considered outdated.
Because of the internet, trend cycles and microtrends move so quickly it’s nearly impossible to accurately capture them in real time, especially in a format like a movie or TV show that requires months of editing and postproduction.
When Mean Girls came out in 2004, it didn’t seem outdated by 2005. The fashion and the slang in the movie encapsulate the whole era of the mid-2000s, not just a single year.
Now it seems like fashion changes month to month, especially on TikTok.
“Trends have moved forward so fast that it almost feels outdated,” one TikToker, commenting on set photos from Not Okay, said in a video. “But you look at these outfits and instantly know it’s from last summer.”
Microtrends have a larger impact than belittling movies like Not Okay as a failed attempt to be as up to date with trends and culture as possible. This new fast-paced fashion cycle is unsustainable and contributing to the rise of fast-fashion brands like Shein, Fashion Nova, Zara and H&M that can quickly manufacture items that are trendy for cheap.
“The trend culture and poor quality of the products also contribute to the idea of clothing being disposable,” Niharika Elety told In The Know by Yahoo. “Microtrends themselves devalue perfectly good clothing.”
Elety is a sustainable fashion advocate and designer. She credits her South Asian upbringing and childhood in India with shaping her understanding that being sustainable is an everyday act. She founded and co-created Tega Collective, a sustainable fashion enterprise that promotes Indigenous artisans.
Elety replied in a duet with the TikTok about the Not Okay costume design and called the situation “sad.”
“Something that was considered beautiful is considered ‘outdated’ just one year later,” she said in the video. “This is primarily due to microtrend culture and haul culture that’s perpetuated by apps such as [TikTok].”
When Elety talks about “haul culture,” she’s referring to the trend across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and other video-first platforms that have influencers showing off what they’ve bought. According to Elety, microtrends and hauls create a feedback loop that only further devalues good, ethically made clothing and encourages the purchase of cheap clothes.
“With more and more seasonal closet cleanouts and hauls, our thrift stores are filled with fast-fashion items,” she explained to In The Know. “Thrift stores nowadays cannot handle the amount and quality of clothing since it is all fast fashion.”
For years now, thrift stores have reported being overwhelmed with donations. According to NPR, it started ramping up in 2019 thanks to Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. But as recently as last year, a report found that even local, smaller thrift stores have been overrun with fast-fashion discards — making it impossible for thrift shoppers to find quality clothes and driving up stores’ operating costs.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Cosette Joyner Martinez, an associate professor in the department of design, housing and merchandising at Oklahoma State University, said that as consumers donating we “often fantasize” that our donations are “going to a good home.” But it’s not necessarily true.
Clothes have to be in a certain condition in order to be resellable to someone else. Thrift store employees typically have to comb through donation bins and make that decision, and the unwanted clothes have to go somewhere too. Unfortunately, that means they can end up getting shipped overseas or end up in landfills.
“If they cannot use the clothing, they export it back to countries in the Global South that have created the clothing in the first place,” Elety said. “Accra, Ghana, and Panipat in Gujarat, India, are two of the biggest clothing landfills in the world where companies dump their clothing excess and donations go to sit.”
The donations seemingly never stop, especially since trends move so quickly. A 2022 investigation by Maggie Zhou for Good on You found that Shein’s business model is so fast that it’s technically considered an ultrafast-fashion brand. The turnaround time for Shein to go from design to production can sometimes be as quick as three days.
There is a clear correlation between TikTok’s rise in popularity and Shein’s surge in app downloads and shoppers. Shein posts thousands of new items every day, and Business of Fashion found that the company produced 314,877 new styles in a year-to-date analysis, compared to H&M’s 4,414.
The root of the problem, according to Elety, is that influencer culture creates the image to followers that success looks like having the most fashionable items and never repeating an outfit in photos.
“Culture around clothing is rooted in overconsumption,” she said. “Buying less and well will save you much more money in the long run compared to shopping fast fashion. It will change your relationship with clothes from a disposable to a cherishing one.”
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