Gen Z Contradictions: The Fast Fashion Paradox

Why Gen Z fight for sustainability more than any other generation and still consumes fast fashion the most 

gen z

Author: Julia

  • Contradiction 1: Genz Z want quality and quantity as well as exclusivity and mainstream
  • Contradiction 2: As a sustainability generation, addicted to fast fashion
  • Contradiction 3: Stardom and money come before ethical values

Confessional or educational spaces

No other generation demands more sustainable and ethical commitment from brands than the Generation Z. They are expected to develop into the strongest group of buyers in the coming years, and there are high expectations in their role as the engine of positive development in the fashion industry. But perhaps this hopeful view is too simple. After all, this cohort is not only familiar with the rising threat of climate change, but also grew up with the boom of fast fashion and social media.

This results in a historically unique pressure: Gen Z want to follow the latest trends, almost weekly, and is therefore at the forefront of fast fashion consumption. A blatant contradiction to their sustainable mindset. So what exactly does Gen Z stand for? How compatible are their consumer behavior and their efforts for a healthy planet? And how can confessional and education spaces offer a way out?

Gen Z: The Sustainability Generation

It is now wonder that the Gen Z are considered to be particularly conscious: every group is influenced in its behavior by globally decisive events. events such as the impact of Covid-19. The pandemic has shown the Gen Z not only that it is possible to produce and consume less, but also how positive it is for the environment. That doesn't mean that Covid triggered the Green Revolution - but definitely that it has been accelerated by it. And that's exactly why Gen Z should now rewrite the rules of the game in the fashion industry and establish conscious consumption as the New Normal .

At least according to the First Insight survey The State of Consumer Spending Gen Z consumers are demanding sustainable business models. They prefer to buy sustainable brands and would even pay 10% more for it. In addition, 75% require workers and consumers to be treated safely. Which means fair working conditions as well non-toxic and therefore health-friendly materials have to be the standard.

gen z

Generation Z will also dominate tomorrow's luxury market , therefore seeking dialogue and emotional connections with exclusive brands and demanding social responsibility from them. But this is where the contradictions come in. While Gen Z are influencing the future of the luxury segment and becoming its key target group, it is also the main target group of the fast fashion giants. So it's not about quality instead of quantity and exclusivity instead of mainstream, but about quality and quantity as well as exclusivity and mainstream.

At the intersection of responsibility and temptation

Imagine this: cheap trendy goods that are styled with sustainable luxury products. SHEIN meets Stella McCartney? No way. If you want to compensate for CO2 emissions with your purchasing decisions, you also have to deal with the fact that other pieces in your own collection could violate human rights in the Global South. And yet more and more studies are revealing that Generation Z are shopping on a large scale from mainstream providers such as Amazon, SHEIN or Fashion Nova. Providers who need to be questioned in terms of both sustainability and ethics.

The recently released Gen Z Fashion Report by the vintage platform thredUP found that 1/3 of the respondents describe themselves as addicted to fast fashion and 72% bought those trending fashion items in the last year. One possible reason could be the media behavior of the generation. Around 40% said they browse fast fashion websites or apps at least once a day, while 50% watch haul videos on social media weekly or even more often.

gen z

Source & Copyright by thredUP

But: At the same time, the report shows that the generation wants to replace the consumption of fast fashion with more sustainable habits. While 45% stated that they find it difficult to resist the temptation of fast fashion, 51% want to stop or at least reduce their consumption. In addition, 65% want to shop more sustainably and with higher quality. This is because Gen Z is well aware of how damaging fast fashion overproduction is to the planet. So it is very important to understand why this group still consumes far too much fast fashion and willingly accepts a guilty conscience for fleeting and environmentally harmful trends.

Gen Z's "Fast Fashion Paradox"

In 2020, researchers Malthe Overgaard and Nikolas Rønholt examined this contradiction between sustainable consciousness and fast fashion consumption under the title "The Fast Fashion Paradox". In a broader sense digitization is responsible for this contradiction. Specifically, Gen Z's main information channel: social media. And the associated social pressure to follow trends and the resulting urge for self-expression. Fast fashion brands use social media as a platform to spread aggressive marketing campaigns and set new trends daily. Inscrutable algorithms also convey the image of being omnipresent. The result: A must-do mentality for the feeling of belonging or even of being someone.

According to BoF, SHEIN alone, which is probably the most polluting and yet fastest-growing fast fashion brand, launches up to 3.000 new styles per day and markets them specifically to Generation Z via social media such as Instagram or TikTok. A particularly popular tool: influencer marketing. Gen Z celebrities are neither Hollywood nor out of touch. Instead, Stardom often arises in children's rooms and is gained through supposed closeness and identification. This is how influencers move at the interface between celebrity and friends, which is why their lifestyle is not only desirable, but also achievable. Their word is also a promise of quality. The result: thanks to influencer marketing, fast fashion is seen as a representation of an exclusive lifestyle and as a ticket to an exclusive community.

gene z 2-4

Source & Copyright by thredUP

It is therefore not clear why influencers represent their brand in this way. After all, the media criticism of fast fashion is massive. Which sooner or later means bad publicity for collaborating influencers. However, in this case, as too often, the cost argument prevails: giants like SHEIN have horrendous marketing budgets and resources for customer acquisition. Resources that sustainable brands can only dream of.

Why greenwashing and wokewashing can no longer be an excuse

  1. What is noticeable: More and more fast fashion brands seem to recognize the sustainable mindset of Gen Z. That's why they try to turn the contradiction between sustainability and fast fashion into an interaction. They are launching more and more "Conscious" or "Sustainable" collections that glorify a minimal amount of recycled textiles for sustainable top performance. Taking a closer look, it quickly becomes clear that these are only empty shells and Greenwashing cases instead of true progress.
  2. The same applies to diversity: The brand ambassadors and advertisement clearly stand for Inclusion, exude belongingness and positivity. So far, so good - representation matters. However, the problem here is that many fast fashion brands do not create sufficient internal structures to treat and empower the equally of everyone. Starting with the reproduction of structural grievances such as the exploitation of workers in the Global South.
  3. A crucial question: Isn't Gen Z actually too "woke" to fall into the Greenwashingor wokewashing trap? Finally, there is an awareness of what sustainability and ethics actually mean and fast fashion brands definitely do not live up to these criteria. Where there is no transparency, brands usually have something to hide.

Why sustainability needs more clout in consumer decisions

In addition, size and price accessibility are often cited as reasons for consuming fast fashion. However, the argument of size accessibility can be easily refuted: More and more eco-brands like Reformation are size inclusive and many made2order-brands allow people of all shapes to have made-to-measure garments.

In terms of price, things get a little more complicated when it comes to Gen Z. The ECC Club Study 2022: Future needs of Generation Z found that 72% of those surveyed put more value on the price than on the sustainability of a product. In addition, 1/3 believe that sustainable consumption is only possible in connection with cutbacks. A possible explanation for this opinion is the current Zeitgeist. More than any other generation, the Gen Z have grown up with the perceived privilege of consuming cheaply, quickly and as much as they can. And they are not willing to lose this level of comfort.

Ultimately, it comes down to the problem of defining value. It seems that Gen Z - at least in part - only sees the value of a fast fashion product from a monetary perspective. And forget the price paid by workers and the environment. In addition, sustainable fashion is often associated with opportunity costs such as a higher search effort. So what is needed for a rethink? The value of a piece of clothing should not be measured by its suitability for trends, but rather by new values, such as timelessness, durability, sustainability and ethics.

What's next: Awareness for and against the contradiction

Though Gen Z's toxic relationship with fast fashion is worrying, there's hope: Like the Gen Z Fashion Report thredUP has shown, the generation wants to break their bad habits. And that's exactly why the platform launched a "Fast-Fashion Confessional Hotline" - a kind of telephone consultation - to support Gen Z shoppers. Aiming to equip the generation with a unique resource to dissuade from fast fashion and introduce them to sustainable shopping habits. If you dial 1-855-THREDUP, you can confess your fast-fashion sins. In such case, they are not met with condemnation, but with understanding, advice and an educational service on the environmental impact of fast fashion and sustainable fashion alternatives. Extra plus: callers can access a carefully curated selection of second hand-pieces.

Initiatives like this are definitely an important step in the right direction and food for thought. After all, social media seems to be, at least in large parts, the source of the fast fashion paradox. Accordingly, it is productive to expand confessional or educational spaces such as the thredUP hotline on social media and by this way create places where Gen Z can raise their awareness within the framework of their community. Social recognition for a sustainable mindset instead of an ephemeral trend selfie. In essence, it is about creating even more customer-oriented offers in order to transfer the theoretically existing awareness into practice. Since brands are ultimately driven by profit, they will only improve if consumers change their demands.


Always informed about the latest lifestyle trends, architecture, design & interior, as well as current technologies around sustainability.

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