Oct 11th, 2021, 08:44 AM

Is Sustainability Just Another Passing Trend for Gen Z?

By Michaela White
Shein Shoulder Hoodie (Image credit: Shein)
If Gen Z demands sustainability and transparency, why do fast fashion brands like Shein continue to grow and profit selling to teens and young adults?

Shopping sustainably has been a leading factor in my consumer decisions in the past year. It's a gradual progress and transition, but I am slowly achieving a sustainably curated wardrobe.

I am not perfect. Occasionally, I buy Zara or Nike products. However, I can proudly say that I have never bought clothes from Shein, known as the evil fast-fashion conglomerate. I didn't know much about Shein until a recent shopping experience that appalled me. This summer I decided to purchase an eco-friendly bathing suit from Hoaka, a brand that has been transitioning to sustainable fashion and has succeeded in producing high-quality bathing suits. A few weeks after making my purchase, I was shocked to discover that Shein had taken their design, replicated it, and was selling it at two-thirds the price.

This was not the first time Shein had used similar smaller e-commerce designs. Shein is known for its completely legal copycat model of design to keep up with trending styles. Smaller e-commerce businesses cannot compete with Shein's low prices. 

It also happened with two designs (see below left) created by Eli Rioux, the small e-commerce and eco-friendly boutique Hoaka founder. Hoaka emerged several years ago, initially making most of the designed bathing suits from neoprene. Neoprene is specific material used to give bathing suits high quality in "regular water" and saltwater without obstructing the fabric over time. Over the years, Hoaka has transitioned into an ecofriendly and sustainable boutique while still manufacturing high-quality bathing suits. These bathing suits are priced at $60 to $80 dollars and, additionally, for every order placed with Hoaka plants 10 trees around the world. 

While designs for this small boutique can take several months and often include collaborations with aspiring artists, Shein replicates the suits at a fast speed and low price. Below (right) are two designs with astounding similarities to Hoaka's original designs, which consumers can purchase for under $15. Unfortunately, there is not much these brands can do to protect their designs from being replicated by fast fashion brands.

Hoaka Bikinis: Dino/Raptor and Flora Design LEFT: Credit Hoaka + Shein Bikinis: Dino/Raptor and Flora Design RIGHT: Credit Shein

Shein dominated the fashion e-commerce world overnight. As with other fast fashion brands, Shein's products are not designed to have long-term value. Still, Shein's prices and numerous styles/collections have made the brand the top retailer in new production. In the fashion industry, manufacturing high volumes of designs has proven devastating for the environment. Shein clothing, for example, is made mostly of polyester and synthetic materials. These materials are nearly impossible to recycle.

Another controversy surrounding fast fashion brands like Shein is the issue of their use of slave labor.  According to Reuters, Shein was under fire for misleading factory reports. The company claims they do not use child or forced labor; however, they fail to comply with British law requiring transparent information disclosure on the entire supply chain. The company has also been the target of allegations and investigations regarding the state of their facilities and working conditions. Nonetheless, since the pandemic the brand's sales have skyrocketed, leaving Shein with an estimated annual profit of $10 billion. 

Who buys Shein's products?  The brand's primary consumers are American teens and young adults. There appears to be a major contradiction here. 

According an article in Forbes Magazine, Gen Z wants green, shops green, and demands others to do the same, so much so they are labeled as the 'sustainable generation.' The climate crisis has been labeled as Generation Z's main concern, and their vocalization on brand sustainability has led to a shift in the corporate/consumer world. Consumers now purchase based on brand values. According to CNBC, younger generations are more likely to purchase from a brand if manufacturers produce ethically and sustainably. That younger generations desire brands to have brand values and have the brand values align with their social justice, environmental, and political views. Gen Z uses social media as a solid tactic to vocalize their demands and expectations from brands. Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube have allowed advocacy of social issues to be presented more clearly and faster than in previous years.

If Gen Z is so eco-friendly, how is it possible that the same generation that advocates brands that sell sustainable products still purchase from Shein, a fast-fashion company that releases 2,000 new designs weekly

Perhaps big label brands such as Shein, Alibaba, and ASOS are manipulating younger generations into buying and over-consuming because this age group is easier to influence and persuade with 'low prices' and 'sales'. Still, it is easy to wonder if Gen Z's demand for sustainability is exaggerated, or just another trend to follow but impossible to achieve due to fast fashion consumerism. 

Photo by Francois Le Nguyen on Unsplash

An essential distinction between purchasing slow fashion products verse mainstream products is the realization that committing to a sustainable life is not only about shopping ethically. It is not only about purchasing clothing made from recycled clothing or sustainable fabrics. It is recognizing that contributing to slow fashion is marked by your consumer purchasing behaviors. Over-consumption and fast fashion are paired together. Sustainable behavior is heavily linked with the ideology that society needs to consume less. 

One of the biggest arguments, that I have heard for why Gen Z still purchases and remains the primary target audience for Shein is that Gen Z is one of the poorest generations and can not afford sustainable fashion brands and, therefore, needs to buy most of their clothes from fast fashion brands.

This argument is not valid. If Gen Z uses this as an argument, they are misinterpreting the responsibility and commitment associated with supporting the shift to a sustainable brand environment. 

Sustainable behavior is consuming less. Sustainable behavior is making conscious consumer decisions. Buying hauls of clothing from brand conglomerates like Shein is a blaring sign of over-consumption, leading to overproduction. Overproduction is detrimental to the climate crisis. Gen Z may be a leading generation in the fight for a sustainable future, but are they the top contributors? Probably not. The youth want sustainability and trendy styles, which leads to the rabbit hole known as Shein irrevocably forgetting their sustainability cause. 

Gen Z may only see sustainability as the current trend to follow. We need sustainability to become a long-term movement globally.