Smouldering to Oblivion

by Katie Weatherstone on 04 February 2022
Smouldering to Oblivion
Fashion trends are killing the planet. This is how to escape the cycle

When you think of fashion trends, what comes to mind? Maybe leopard print, flared jeans, sock boots, double denim, fuchsia pink, fringing, faux fur, ad infinitum. But what do we mean by the term ‘fashion trend’? A fashion trend refers to a particular look, style, item, innovation, detail, colour, material, texture or print that is popular at a particular moment in time. Trends are an integral part of fashion’s history, but our interconnected modern world has accelerated the rise and fall of fashion trends. It’s out of hand and the environment is paying the price.

Following fashion trends is not an innate desire central to the human experience. Cavemen did not tend to surrender their grass skirts for Big Leaves just because they saw a highly admired hunter-gatherer adorning a new leafy ensemble. Clothing’s use, essentially, is to cover our bodies. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, clothing’s purpose is related to the physiological needs for warmth, shelter and safety (as a form of protection). Once these two basic needs have been met, clothing starts to become more of a tool suitable to fulfilling needs higher up the pyramid: belonging, esteem and self-actualisation. That’s where fashion comes in.

Experimentation with fashion and the ability to follow changing trends is a luxury that corresponds to the upper half of Maslow’s pyramid. So it’s not surprising that (although views differ in detail) all theories of fashion’s emergence seem to be dependent on three things: leisure time, disposable income and the desire to belong. The idea of changing your clothes on a whim dates back to the 14th century. It began as a way for royalty and the upper classes to demonstrate their wealth and status. Consequently, the way they dressed – particular looks, styles, items, details, colours, materials or prints they exhibited through their clothing – were imitated by ordinary people in an attempt to look and feel wealthier and more powerful than they actually were. This is referred to today as the ‘Trickle Down’ effect.

How does this explain the rise and fall of different fashion trends, as we understand them today? Well, in some ways little has changed: once a particular fashion trend trickles down from top designers through the social classes and is adopted by the high-street goers (or copied by Primark), it loses all value to its instigators, who promptly create or adopt new styles to differentiate themselves anew from the masses. This is a cycle of change called macro-trends. The most famous macro-trends are the styles that we tend to associate with particular decades: drop-waist dresses with the 20s and bell-bottom jeans with the 70s and shoulder pads with the 80s,

Fast forward to the modern world… In the 21st century, trends evolve in five main ways: the runway, celebrities, street style, fashion capitals, and, most recently, through online influencers. In previous years we used to look to models, movies, celebrities and magazines to set the trends that we (often diligently) followed. This group of people was small, and access to them was neatly curated, limiting the public’s exposure to potential new trends and fashion cycles, which wheeled along on a regular time scale. Now, with the rise of social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, almost anyone has the tools to influence the masses, creating thousands of potential trendsetters who can reach millions of people in an instant.

Look in the mirror: you’re a micro-influencer

Social media and the digital age have generated an acceleration in the adoption of trends as ideas. Social media has allowed consumers to dissect the meaning of different trends and relate them to societal realities. Visuals can be disseminated more rapidly now than ever; new trends spring up and spread faster than ever. This, coupled with the emergence of fast fashion in the early ‘90s, has given birth to a new type of trend: the micro-trend. A micro-trend is a fashion trend that rises in popularity and falls even faster, lasting on average for just three to five years. Micro trends are accelerating the fashion cycle, and the faster the fashion cycle, the more waste the industry sees. Consumers will likely buy more pieces to keep up with the higher volume of overlapping trends and wear them for a shorter amount of time until they go out of style and a new trend comes along. To be able to maintain this level of consumption, trendy earners are purchasing their clothing from cheap fast fashion brands known for using synthetic materials to produce poor quality pieces designed to be produced quickly (definitely not made to last).

Waste lots, wants lots more

Consumers view these items as disposable, almost as if they are designed to be thrown out when their stylishness has expired. Today, the average consumer buys 60% more clothing than 15 years ago, and they keep each item for half as long as they used to. An estimated £140m worth of clothing is sent to UK landfill each year. It is not only the amount of waste these micro-trends accumulate that is alarming, but also the quality of the waste produced. As it stands, around 63% of our clothes are made from synthetic fibres, such as polyester and nylon, which are all made from non-renewable fossil fuels, and producing these fibres uses approximately 342 million barrels of oil every year. Synthetic fibres can take up to 200 years to biodegrade. And that’s not to mention the huge quantity of microplastic pollution that synthetic textiles contribute towards every year. What’s easy to forget is that real people made these clothes from tangible materials which won’t disappear when we throw them in the bin. Micro-trends, coupled with the access to fast fashion brands, are causing the wheel of consumption to spin out of control, annihilating the valuable emotional attachment between consumers and their clothing, and as a result, consumers are starting to drown in a sea of polyester of-the-moment must-haves.

Back to basics

The concept of trends has been an integral part of our fashion history for many decades. But why do we follow trends today, and are they a key to the future of fashion? If we look back at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, following fashion trends helps us to satisfy our need to belong, it can boost our Esteem and be used as a tool to help us reach self-actualisation. Let’s break these down. Maslow’s third tier states that after our physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the third level of human needs is the desire to belong and for acceptance among a social group. Following a fashion trend that is popular among a particular group may help us to assimilate into that group, provoking feelings of acceptance, respect and love. Maslow’s fourth tier, esteem, explains that we have a visceral need for respect, derived both from others (“lower” esteem: status, recognition, attention) and yourself (“higher” esteem: competence, self-confidence, independence and freedom). Humans can follow a particular fashion trend or dress in a certain way in order to gain respect and status from their peers, and many common reasons for following trends, such as to feel cutting edge (edgy, perhaps), modern and fashionable, can increase our own confidence and self-esteem.

You are what you wear

Following certain trends can also be linked to Maslow’s fifth tier, Self Actualization, which is the desire to become more, to become everything that one is capable of becoming, to achieve one’s potential. It’s the desire to become the best version of yourself. Stick with me here… Think of a white lab coat. White lab coats are typically worn by doctors, scientists and those who tend to pay a lot of attention to detail. A study found that when a group of people that associate these traits with a lab coat put on a lab coat, they adopted these detail-oriented qualities. The group of people made half the number of mistakes in a visual search task than a group not wearing a lab coat. This is the theory of enclothed cognition, which describes the effect that specific items of clothing have on the wearer, explaining why trends such as the female power suit gained so much popularity so rapidly.

New year, new second-hand noughties mini skirt

So, how will trends look in 2022? ASOS’s 2021 Trend Report predicts a continuation of micro-trends, specifically those centred around 2000s fashion. Low rise jeans, double denim, mini skirts and bright colours will be temporary hits. But 2022 isn’t just any old year: after the trauma of the pandemic, consumer mindsets have changed. We are more socially aware and have a stronger desire to contribute to the greater good after a collective trauma. Think of our empathy towards key workers or friends struggling with mental health, as well as those further away, such as underpaid garment workers in Bangladesh. The climate emergency is another key factor shifting consumer behaviour.

Consumers are already making more considered and thoughtful purchases, turning away from trend-driven pieces in favour of a more timeless (and retro) style. This is apparent from the rise in the use of second-hand fashion platforms such as Depop, as well as an increase in charity shopping. According to Deloitte, in 2021 a third of consumers claimed to have stopped purchasing certain brands or products because they had ethical or sustainability-related concerns about them. Luxury consumer buying habits have morphed sharply away from trend-led items and towards more practical, investment-type purchases. Online luxury fashion retail platform Farfetch has even seen a rise in seasonless fashion which, their editor-in-chief states, has become “very popular; these are timeless and well-made, beautiful pieces that won’t date and can be worn flawlessly from season to season”.

What if this year we strayed away from business as usual? Perhaps an alternative to following micro-trends could be a movement focused on embracing individuality, finding your own style and wearing what feels good to you. But are trends so ingrained in our experience of fashion that it’s unrealistic to shun them altogether? Natalie Dickson, head of women’s luxury buying for Flannels, believes “customers always want newness, inspiration and fresh ideas”.

Is there a way for trends to promote sustainability? Interestingly, The Economist believes that 2022 will see an increase in the popularity and demand for African fashion following the release of the Black Panther sequel later this year. Done authentically, this could benefit smaller producers in African countries and redirect fashion back towards the art and creativity that the industry has strayed so far from. This return to natural materials and craftsmanship also fits the niche of sustainability that today’s consumers are looking for. Perhaps another alternative is to see an increase in ‘sustainable’ trends, such as the use of natural fabrics and recycled polyester.

It seems that consumers need to see trends in some shape or form from fashion, so it’s unlikely that the fashion’s future will be free of trends altogether. But it’s also clear that the level of consumption that micro-trends promote today simply cannot be sustained by our planet. What if we, the thousands of micro-influencers online today, started to use our platforms for good? What if we use our interconnectivity as a tool for change? How about a trend shunning polyester or a movement towards individuality over conformity? What about a new focus on craftsmanship and natural materials? Or a campaign to promote upcycling? We now have the digital tools to promote and encourage the necessary change that the fashion industry needs to see. Can we really afford not to use them?