Why trends are bad for the environment

We all know that fast fashion is harmful for the planet, but one of fast fashion’s, and really, consumerism overall’s key traits – following trends, is something we haven’t addressed.

The pink Zara jeans, the sunset lamp, that octopus plushie thing that turns inside out with a happy/sad face on it – even though our generation might be a bit more aware of issues like sustainability and the environment, we’re still (probably even more so) obsessed with trends, and we’re definitely guilty of impulse purchasing the next big thing. It’s a routine you’re probably used to; you’re scrolling on TikTok, or maybe Instagram, and you see someone wearing a new style of top, or a new hat, and suddenly you’re seeing a few people wearing it out and about, or unboxing it in videos online – whatever they’re doing with it, everyone seems to have it. So you buy it, because you want keep up with the trends, or you just think it’s cool – fair enough. And for a couple of months, you wear it, enjoy it, and feel good in it, until it starts to become out of fashion, the novelty of your new item fades, and you notice no one’s wearing or using it anymore. Eventually you find yourself desperately trying to sell it on Depop/Vinted, or donate it to a charity shop. Maybe it doesn’t sell (because it’s now out of fashion and no one wants it) or maybe you don’t even bother trying to get rid of it, so it just piles up in your wardrobe, creating that feeling of having ‘nothing to wear’.

What is a trend?

The word ‘trend’ literally means ‘change’, so whilst it’s difficult to predict what it will be and when it will be, the only thing that you can expect from a trend is that it will happen quickly, and leave fairly quickly too. Trends aren’t a long term thing, so whatever you buy because it’s ‘trendy’ is likely to become out of fashion before long. What becomes a trend follows no logical pattern or reasoning usually; in other words, what is trending isn’t based on anything. Nowadays, trends are coming and going quicker than ever before, and it’s mostly because of social media and technology, as we can now see and buy into trends instantaneously.

Sometimes, trends do help the environment. For example, when David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II came out, warning the public about the environmental dangers of plastic pollution, the number of people signing up for milkmen to deliver their milk in glass bottles, skyrocketed for the first time in years. Similarly, bike sales increased during lockdown as people travelled by car less. However, the issue with trends is that they are always short-term, and the core of sustainability is that it is, well, sustainable; that it lasts, and is consistent over time. Trends are exactly the opposite of that, so even trends that are good for the environment don’t stick around long enough to help all that much. And as for other trends, well, they essentially encourage short term overconsumption, and because trends arrive quickly, it pressurises companies and supply chains to produce these items very quickly. This means there’s not really enough time to be thinking about sustainability if they’re going to catch the trend in time. It also means that they’re using up a lot of resources to push out the product as quickly as possible.

We’re creating products like we have infinite resources to create them with. We’re acting as if we have the resources to spare on creating the next thing for when the last month’s jeans go out of fashion. But we don’t. And in any case, it’s not just about the resources – the textile industry creates enormous amounts of waste. Think about all the loom bands sat in your house unused, the fidget spinners, weighted hula hoops, bucket hats, and all the other trending items that you’ve bought, that now go unused, sat around creating clutter, or maybe just go to landfill. Trends encourage us to buy products that we don’t really love or value, and their use is short term.

Even the more ‘eco’ trends still put a strain on the environment as they often involve encouraging people to buy something that will make them more ‘eco’ e.g. metal reusable straws, or reusable cutlery. Remember that most of these trends have an even more sustainable alternative: to just not consume in the first place. You don’t really need a straw most of the time, and reusable cutlery? You’ve got that at home in your kitchen drawers, just put a set in your bag when you leave the house.

Consumption is a bit like personal budgeting

I like to think of solving climate change similarly to managing personal finance. You probably have a budget, and may hear people talk about living above/below their means. This means whether they’re spending more than they earn, or less than they earn. If they spend less than what they earn, they will have leftover money for other things (like emergencies, or other long term goals like buying a house), however, depending on how much they earn, they may be missing out on certain things, or in extreme cases, living a poorer quality of life (e.g. going out for meals less, or in extreme cases, skipping meals altogether). Other people may be living above their means, which means they may be having fun now, enjoying the fun and privileges that come from overspending, but eventually, this will catch up with them, and they will be in debt, and having to live drastically below their means in order to pay off the debt. Not fun.

Think of our carbon emissions, and our consumption habits (as they’re closely linked) in a similar way. If we overconsume now, we may be having fun now (debatable – read The Day the World Stops Shopping, it explains how consumerism really doesn’t make us happy at all), but once the effects of climate change catch up with us, we will be living with impacts that will force us to live below our means, and push lots of people into poverty, and generally less enjoyable lives. So, if we live below or just within our means now, we can avoid the negative effects of climate change in the future. And part of living below our means, is not buying every little trend that comes our way. It means valuing what we have, and using our products for longer than just when the trend has passed. And it most importantly means, trying to fight the urge to buy things on a whim so much.

I’m not saying we should aim for perfection here, and never buy anything on a whim ever again, because that is quite simply an unachievable goal. But we can definitely all try to be a bit more mindful, and recognise in ourselves when a product is just a fad, vs. when it’s a product that genuinely will enrich our lives. Trends come and go, but the products themselves remain, left behind in the back of our cupboards and drawers, and added to the next clear-out where they eventually get added to landfill.

What do you think? Personally, I’ve been trying to cut down my consumption and break away from following trends, by challenging myself to buy no new clothes in 2022. It’s pushing me to find my true style, not just what the fashion industry tells me I should be wearing at a given moment. But how else can we try to break free of trends? Should we be aiming to shop more mindfully, and how do we do this? I’m really interested to hear your thoughts.

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