Get in Loser, We’re Going Shopping: A Guide to More Sustainable Fashion in the Era of Instagram

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“Get in loser, we’re going shopping,” an iconic line uttered by Queen Bee and fashionista, Regina George, from the cult classic Mean Girls. Amongst its quotable one-liners and tongue in cheek humour, the movie explores important themes including a look at the murkier side of being a female. We follow protagonist Cady Heron as she navigates her way through the cutthroat ‘girl world’, which she likens to the African jungle. It’s survival of the fittest, with the fittest competing to be the most popular, prettiest and of course, fashionable. In girl world one ‘ugly effing skirt’ or single social faux pas, such as forgetting to wear pink on Wednesdays, can firmly cement your place at the bottom of the social food chain.

We watch as Cady Heron submits to social pressures, throwing all she valued at the beginning of the movie away, in favour of more superficial values. Whilst the movie is an over the top account of the social pressures young woman face, the screenplay for the movie was based on a self-help book for parents struggling to help their young daughters navigate their way through the realities of adolescence. 15 years after the release of the movie and it seems not much has changed in the girl world. In fact, now young women have a much larger playground than high schools, colleges, and offices to compete in. It’s called Instagram. Six in ten adults have it, most of which are young women, aged 18-29.

Instagram allows us to share the highlights of our lives. And share we do, with millions of pictures being uploaded to the app each and every day. But much like the movie earlier referenced, Instagram draws women into a competitive world, in which they are striving for the most likes and followers in the worlds’ largest popularity contest. Along with ‘on fleek’ make-up, and lavish displays of wealth, fashion-forward outfits and trendsetting looks are a key part of being a Queen Bee on Instagram. Many studies show how the platform is detrimental to users’ mental health and self-esteem, however, a negative factor of Instagram that is often overlooked is how the platform influences consumerism.

Influencers with millions of followers promote a plethora of products, from clothes to weight loss pills, to nipple fillers, and 60% of users say they have learned about a product or service from Instagram. Popular hashtags include things such as #ootd, meaning outfit of the day. This tag allows users to showcase their sense of style and their latest clothing purchases, and according to the Guardian, 1 in ten Brits confess to buying clothes with the sole purpose of posing in them for Instagram.

A common social faux pas, often fuelled by Instagram, is something called outfit repeating. Outfit repeating is when young women don’t want to wear the same outfit more than once for a big night out in fear of criticism or judgment, or because of the confidence boost wearing something new gives them. On outfit repeating one student said, “Once I’ve worn an outfit I tend to dislike the piece of clothing after, I don’t know why. I think it’s more of a confidence boost thing. There’s something so satisfying about putting together a new banging outfit and your pals being like ‘I love your outfit’. If you’ve worn it before you don’t get any compliments and I like attention.”

Speaking candidly about the role she thinks Instagram plays in the fear of outfit repeating she said, “I don’t post pictures of myself to Instagram so I don’t care about my followers seeing me in the same outfit, but I guess because there are so many “influencers” posting pictures of themselves in their many outfits it gives you outfit ideas and you do find yourself buying more clothes. I also think it’s become a competition of who can put the weirdest but nicest outfit together. Like I said, I don’t post pictures of myself so luckily I can avoid that, but it’s clear girls on Instagram are all fighting to be the biggest style icon.”

With this in mind, it is fair to suggest that Instagram and pre-existing social pressures fuelled further by the app’s existence, are a pivotal driving force in consumerism, and the growing problem of fast fashion. Fast fashion is when clothing companies produce clothes as quickly and cheaply as possible in order to keep up with the latest trends. At a glance, this may seem like a good thing. It means a typical fashion conscious young Instagrammer can keep up to date with the latest trends, and mimic the style of their favourite celebrities and influencers without breaking the bank. However, fast fashion has many cons that out way the positive cost factor.

Fast fashion never takes into account the impact their materials and production methods have on the environment, and the environmental impacts of the fashion industry are astonishing. By 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world carbon budget, making it a key contributor towards climate change. And every single second one garbage truck full of clothes is landfilled or burned. Not only that, half a million tonnes of microfibers from clothes, made from materials such as polyester, enter the ocean every year when they are washed. That’s equivalent to about 50 billion plastic bottles.

These facts only cover some of the environmental impacts the fast fashion industry has on our earth, and don’t even begin to cover the harsh working conditions and unfair pay checks imposed on factory workers across the globe.

Environmental issues are extremely topical at the moment thanks to activists such as sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, and activist group Extinction Rebellion. Single-use plastic is a topical issue popular with the Instagram crowd, with individuals and businesses choosing to boycott items such as plastic straws, due to the negative impact these products have on the planet and wildlife. There are over 1.2 million posts on Instagram with the hashtag #plasticfree, despite this an independent survey I carried out revealed that 56% of Instagram users didn’t even know the meaning of the term fast fashion, despite it being one of the biggest polluters in the world. The same survey also revealed that all participants shopped in popular high street stores, which are the biggest contributors to fast fashion. 53% of participants said that the price was the most important factor they considered when buying clothes. Nobody said they considered sustainably sourced clothes as their most important factor.

an independent survey found that 56% of people weren’t aware of the term “fast fashion”.

All participants who were aware of the term ‘fast fashion’ cited they would like to adapt their habits to become more sustainable and ethical, with many saying price was a factor in why they didn’t. One participant said: “Frankly my budget comes first but I would like to get to the place where I can afford other clothing that doesn’t impact the environment negatively, sources sustainably, and the workers get good wages.”

Another said: “It is something that concerns me but at the same time, it’s difficult to avoid. I usually find myself participating which I hate, but I can’t always find an alternative.”

I spoke with Instagrammer Fiona McVitie who runs the Instagram page ‘liveconscious_’, a blog that refreshingly goes against the grain of the majority on Instagram, as it exists to educate and spread awareness on how to live sustainably, rather than push unrealistic lifestyles or fuel commercialism. Fiona was inspired to set up her page upon learning about issues such as corruption in the food industry, the severity of climate change, and fast fashion. Discussing the role Instagram has to play in fuelling fast fashion Fiona said: “I think there is a big problem with the Instagram world in this sense. The vast majority of people are following influencers who make money by promoting unethical and unsustainable brands. Even worse, they promote the idea of always needing something new and overconsumption of fashion in general. Many young girls just don’t make the connection between this and our environment or the people who make the clothes – they just want to look and feel a certain way.”

Adapting your fashion to become more sustainable can feel like an impossible task. Especially when you need to consider factors like budget, and the social pressures from your peers and social media to look on trend. However, being more sustainable doesn’t always mean you have to stretch your budget and opt for purchasing exclusively ethical brands, with sustainable fabrics and production methods. There are lots of little steps you can take to make your shopping habits more sustainable, while still remaining budget friendly and stylish.

The simplest step is opting to shop in charity shops, rather than High Street stores, or their online counterparts. This is a method backed by Fiona McVitie who said: “For students, and anyone really, I would recommend second-hand shopping as the first port of call. I personally buy most of my clothes second hand and vintage. Charity shops are a great place to find amazing pieces at very, very low prices.” Throwback vintage fashion is very on trend at the moment, in particular 90s inspired looks. It makes it easier than ever to make thrifting fashionable.

In fact, vintage fashion is so on trend right now that there has been a rise of vintage clothing fairs popping up across the UK. Vintage clothing fairs cumulate a variety of vintage clothes, often with designer labels, you can browse through and buy at these pop-up events, often for as little as £15 a kilo. Another small step to becoming more sustainable is by using apps such as Vinted. Vinted is an app that allows users to sell their preloved clothes, as well as purchasing other users preloved items. The app also has a unique feature that allows users to directly swap items of clothing. The swap feature of Vinted is a great solution to the problem of outfit repeating, discussed earlier. It allows young women to save money by trading one outfit for another and prevents basically new items of clothing going to landfill.

Finally buying from ethical and sustainable brands is a key part of being more sustainable, as well as a responsibility we have as consumers, and ethical doesn’t always equal unaffordable. Fiona recommends brands such as Boody and Organic Basics. She said, “They are a bit more expensive but it’s about changing your mind-set around the value of items – these brands produce high-quality products that last much longer than items from high street brands.”

The conclusion of the movie Mean Girls sees Cady shift her values from the superficial ones she obtained during the course of the movie, back to the more wholesome values she had at the beginning of the movie. Values like kindness, intelligence, and acceptance. Ultimately she is happier for it.

Beating fast fashion also relies on young women shifting their values and changing their perceptions. Should we really be prioritizing appearance and popularity, likes and followers over our planet? It’s easy to blame companies for the impacts of fast fashion, but those companies can’t thrive without our business.

Once upon a time, most make-up companies tested on animals, and whilst animal testing sadly still exists, there has been a decline in make-up companies who test on animals with reports from the home office citing there was a 5% decrease in scientific animal testing in 2016. This small step in the right direction was due to consumers standing as a collective for an important cause, and refusing to give money to these companies.

We as consumers have this power, and with that power a responsibility.

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