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How fast fashion and social media fuel a high consumption, low quality world

Two Municipal Police officers coordinate the queue of people to enter the first physical SHEIN store in Madrid, on 02 June, 2022 in Madrid, Spain. Chinese 'online' fashion brand Shein opens its first 'pop up store' in Madrid after the good reception it has had recent similar openings in countries such as France, Mexico and the United States. The store opens its doors today and will be open until June 5, where customers will be able to shop for women's and men's fashion collections. (Photo By Cezaro De Luca/Europa Press via Getty Images)
Two Municipal Police officers coordinate the queue of people to enter the first physical SHEIN store in Madrid, on 02 June, 2022 in Madrid, Spain. Chinese 'online' fashion brand Shein opens its first 'pop up store' in Madrid after the good reception it has had recent similar openings in countries such as France, Mexico and the United States. The store opens its doors today and will be open until June 5, where customers will be able to shop for women's and men's fashion collections. (Photo By Cezaro De Luca/Europa Press via Getty Images)

TikTok is full of influencers posting “fashion hauls,” unpacking huge boxes of cheap polyester clothing.

Clothes from brands like Shein might be ultra-fast, but they’re low quality.

Can consumers recognize a beautifully-crafted garment anymore?

Today, On Point: Clothes have gotten worse. And social media and ever-changing trends aren’t helping.

Guests

Danielle Vermeer, product manager. Veteran thrift store shopper. Runs the secondhand fashion newsletter Goodwill Hunting and co-founder of startup Teleport. (@DLVermeer)

Mandy Lee, freelance fashion writer and trend analyst. She runs the TikTok and Instagram accounts “Old Loser in Brooklyn.” (@oldloserinbrooklyn)

Also Featured

Sydney Green, Gen Z shopper who feels conflicted about buying new clothes.

Interview Highlights

On a definition of quality fashion

Danielle Vermeer: “For quality fashion, there’s elements of both objective and subjective measures. So, for example, objectively, there could be a quality garment that has great durability. It lasts a long time, or there’s great workmanship. The craftsmanship, the garment construction, the functionality of the materials and the material composition are higher quality. And then there’s also subjective characteristics. It’s the look and the feel, how it wears over time, the esthetics, the creativity, all of those combined create a higher quality or the inverse, a lower quality garment.”

On Shein’s business model

Danielle Vermeer: “There’s definitely more of a social listening aspect, whereas traditional fashion industry has been very top down. The brands, luxury houses, they create these two seasons capsules typically, and then that trickles down into mid-tier and mass fashion. Shein is really turning that model on its head to see what are consumers interested in. Let’s do these small batches to start and then ramp up if there’s greater demand. And in theory that’s great because you’re having less waste.

“And Shein does report that they have less than 1% of unsold inventory, whereas in the fashion industry overall, the average is between 25% and 40%. So a lot of overstock, and I think we as consumers see that with all these end of season sales, markdowns, clearance racks that are overfilled with things that people just didn’t buy. And while on demand is a great start, there’s still a size and scale of how much you are creating as a brand like Shein that frankly, is pretty low quality and is not built to last.”

On accessibility to quality fashion

Danielle Vermeer: “Accessibility incorporates both price and affordability, but also things like size, inclusivity, keeping up with trends, convenience. And then after I read thousands of comments, particularly from Shein shoppers on social media, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, they also bring up things like nihilism, which is really interesting from a consumer insights perspective.

“Almost to say, well, the world is already burning, so why can’t I look cute and buy this $3 top from Shein or from somewhere else? But the biggest ones in terms of accessibility are where do you even find quality fashion, and can you afford it? Will it fit me? Will it actually be something that I like, and that’s cute? And for many younger consumers, Gen Z in particular, they have not been exposed to quality fashion and don’t have a ton of access to it yet.”

On Gen Z nihilism towards fashion

Danielle Vermeer: “There’s a lot of pressure that Gen Z feels where they feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders, that they have to be the ones to fix some of these world issues. But they also have grown up as digital natives being bombarded and immersed in social media. And that’s why, according to Thredup, one in three of Gen Z feel addicted to fast fashion and one in five feel pressured to keep up with the latest trends and buy, buy, buy.

“Because they see it. They are engaging with it every day on social media. And so they feel these really negative emotions like guilt and feeling addicted, feeling pressure. And that is not what I think fashion should be about. I think fashion should be a vehicle for self-expression, creativity. It should be fun, it should be feel good. And I don’t think feeling guilty or addicted is something that we should support.”

On fashion’s cycle of abundance

Mandy Lee: “The accessibility factor in the price point for fast fashion, for example, that accessibility is very attractive, and it creates this idea of abundance. You can buy a lot of things at one time with the same amount of money you would put towards a higher quality, maybe one piece of clothing. And this sort of abundant mindset creates this almost revolving door mindset when it comes to your wardrobe.

“Meaning, I can replace pretty much everything in my wardrobe for a very low price. I’m going to just keep rotating in and out, depending on what’s trending or how my taste is evolving over time. And that, I think, is really part of the root cause in this sort of ever revolving cycle of buy, buy, buy, throw away. Because garments made by Shein and other fast fashion retailers are not good quality. They may just disintegrate, literally disintegrate in the wash over time.”

On how social media shapes how we shop 

Mandy Lee: “[Social media] plays a massive, massive role and is a huge driving factor in this, you know, abundant mindset that we’re talking about. And kind of what Danielle was talking about a little bit earlier about haul culture, these videos perform extremely well, and they provide polarizing content. Some people may be very, very against it. And, you know, add engagement, you know, comment like this is bad, blah, blah, blah. So sort of that end. And then other people will fight about it. So it creates this really polarizing piece of content.

“And then the user who has just purchased, you know, 20, 30 garments from Shein is getting a dopamine hit. because their mentions and their notifications are blowing up because their video is going viral. These pieces of content perform very, very well. And it sort of reminds me of, you know, if you buy something online and you’re waiting for it to come in the mail, you’re kind of floating on this dopamine hit of getting something new. And it really reminds me of the same feeling as, you know, watching a video or an Instagram post or Twitter thread that you posted go viral as well. They’re connected. And I feel like those feelings are very similar and have a lot of overlap.”

Do you foresee any sort of changes or pullback by the fashion industry itself from these practices?

Mandy Lee: “It’s tough to answer this because from what I’ve observed and experienced in the industry, luxury and fast fashion. I do not see an end to this problem in the near future. And I think the efforts of the individual are really admirable. But I think a lot of people blame individuals for this problem. Where if you’re buying from Shein, yes, you are contributing, but that is not who is, you know, running this machine.

“It’s so much bigger than the individual and it spans to the entire industry. It’s not just a Shein problem. It’s kind of an everyone at this point problem. And if you pick up on what the guest just now, we’re talking about there, what they have in common is practice. They have put the effort and time in to identify what is good quality and what is not. And you need to have that experience for yourself. It’s not something you can really, you know, watch online and know how to touch, and feel and exactly what to look for in person. That is an experience that you earn, almost.

“And I think that a lot of folks do not want to do that because, again, this instant gratification that comes with buying fast fashion even, you know what influencers sort of push is like, you know, monkey see monkey do, buy on the spot. Trust me. You know, it really does take time and effort to build those skills into how to identify clothing. And I think that practice has really been lost over the last ten, 20 years. And I just think it’s so human to want to do that. So I honestly am not sure how we get back to that, if that’s even possible. I like to think I’m optimistic, but at the current time, I am not sure how this problem will end.”

On building a new culture around fashion

Danielle Vermeer: “I think consumers, particularly younger ones who haven’t been exposed to quality fashion yet, I’m excited for when they do have that ‘Aha’ moment of when they can touch and feel and try on and even smell what a well-made item is. And that’s likely going to be through secondhand and vintage because those clothes were built to last.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.