Micro-trends and Overconsumption: Fashion Consumerism in the 21st Century.

August 24, 2021
Editor(s): Melanie Suriarachchi

With the growing demand for climate action and for those in government to take initiative on climate change, one industry is seemingly put on the back-burner when talking about wastage and carbon emissions: the fashion and textile industry. The emergence of social media and influencer culture has resulted in fashion trends and cycles becoming shorter contributing to overconsumption. 

Stella McCartney’s 2017 Autumn/Winter Campaign Centred Around Sustainability.
Source: Medium.

The History of ‘Trend-Making’.

Trends within the fashion industry have been around since the 14th century, where “echelons” of society would utilise their clothing choices to display their level of status and affluence amongst their peers1. In the twentieth century, before the social-media era was born, fashion trends would, on average, last between five to ten years2. These trends would be carefully curated, often employing the use of magazine editorials, fashion shows and red carpet events where a small group of societal elites, models and celebrities would don new styles. It was expected that after these looks were styled by notable figures such as the likes of musical icons, Cher and Madonna, as well as high-society elites like Diana, The Princess of Wales and Former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, the general public would then engage with these styles until the next ‘trend’ was created. This is why babydoll dresses and pillbox hats were a big hit in the 1960s and why bell-bottom jeans were so popular in the 1970s3.

The popular streetwear trends evident in society today originate from the hip-hop scene in New York City during the 1970s and 1980s and were popularised by musical artists, all bringing different elements to streetwear4. These elements include militaristic looks using colours inspired by black-nationalist movements worn by Queen Latifah, “ghetto fabulous” looks consisting of double-breasted suits, designer sunglasses and fedoras styled by the likes of 2Pac, P.Diddy and the Notorious B.I.G., as well as the more relaxed style of streetwear comprised of baggy jeans, and sneakers such as the famed Nike ‘Jordan 1’ donned by rappers in the 90s like Snoop Dog and the Wu-Tang Clan4. Up until the twenty-first century, fashion trends had been carefully planted seeds by those within the industry. The trends of bustle dresses in the early 1900s to cloche hats and flapper dresses in the 1920s all pushed by notable fashion figures3; however, with the emergence of social media culture, fashion trends have evolved into micro-trends and macro-trends, leaving the future of the entire industry to a select few individuals, most of whom we recognise as ‘influencers’.

The ‘Influencer’.

Merriam-Webster defines the term ‘influencer’ as a person who can generate interest in something, often consumer products, by posting about it on social media platforms. Whilst there are influencers in a range of industries, (i.e. one may consider celebrity cook, Nigella Lawson an influencer within the food industry), the role of the influencer has had a profound impact within the fashion industry. Influencers no longer have to be actresses, singers, rappers, artists or even children of the elite; influencers can now be born out of social media, see the likes of Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae, both of whom reached mainstream success posting videos on TikTok of dances and futile trends popular on the platform. Items worn by fashion influencers sell out in days, if not seconds. With the advantage of social media, followers of these influencers can emulate trends they see on their favourite model, actress, artist, or social media personality in a matter of hours.

Last year, Kendall Jenner posed in the ‘Hockney Dress’ from House of Sunny, a self-proclaimed ‘slow-fashion’ label based in Britain5. The Hockney Dress has since become a cult favourite, selling out numerous times and at one point one would have to be put on the waiting list to get their hands on the dress. With the rise of a wide variety of influencers for every aesthetic, followers have an unlimited amount of inspiration to choose from when picking the clothing they would like to wear.

The House of Sunny ‘Hockney Dress’ photographed on Model Pooja Mor.
Source: Instagram @poojamor.

The Role of Social Media on Fashion Trends and Consumption.

With the emergence of short-form platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, our attention spans as well as the fashion cycle within the industry has been getting worse. The fact that we are presented with endless inspiration, paired with the ability to order clothing online, only for it to be delivered the next day, has contributed to the overconsumption of clothes and accessories. Previously, the pillars of the fashion industry and trend-making fell to the season in which we were in, (i.e. Spring/Summer Season and the Autumn/Winter Season), however, with the nature of social media and the precariousness of the pandemic, micro-trends have been a ‘trend’ of their own6.

Micro-trends can be described as trends that rise in popularity rapidly, however, their fall is equally as swift2. Many may put the micro-trend cycle at three to five years, however, with the popularity of fast fashion brands such as Shein and TikTok trends such as ‘Shein Hauls’, the micro-trend can now be put at a ridiculously quick three to five months, on average. With micro-trends becoming more abrupt, overconsumption within the fashion industry is at an all-time high. In 2019, the waste from single-use outfits created approximately ninety-five million kilograms of waste2. The taboo of outfit repeating on social media is contributing to a never-ending cycle of waste being created; all because we are too scared to wear the same thing twice. In addition, the production of textiles has doubled and our buying habits have increased, with the average person purchasing sixty per cent more clothing garments; more alarmingly, the consumption rate for clothing and textiles is set to increase by another forty per cent within the next decade7.

Source: Financial Times.

The algorithms on popular social media platforms favour those who post daily, as a result, in order to capture the attention of the algorithm as well as the audience, the average fashion influencer would have to have countless outfits at arms reach to appease the algorithm. Factoring in our worsening attention spans these outfits would have to be new and improved every day8. Moreover, as a short-form video content platform, the popularity of ‘lookbook’ and ‘try-on’ videos have been well-liked on TikTok, meaning even more outfits and even more clothing garments. The need for more clothes has meant that people are looking to fast fashion sites and retailers such as Shein, ASOS, Cotton On, Zara and H&M, which offer competitive and low prices, inevitably making overconsumption more affordable and accessible.

Exploitation in the Fashion Industry.

Many fast fashion brands in the current climate follow trends from notable fashion houses, independent designers and sustainable clothing brands who are often popularised by fashion influencers, however, there is an undeniable difference between inspiration and imitating. Chinese fashion site, Shein, has recently come under fire for copying styles directly from smaller, independent designers and offering these products for a fraction of the price. Ultimately, the low price of such garments make it much more favourable for the average consumer. By normalising low prices for clothing garments, sites like Shein work to depreciate the value of textile labour, undermining the work of independent and sustainable designers. 

It hasn’t been much of a secret that clothing garments found at retailers such as H&M and Zara have been manufactured using slave labour, exploiting workers in developing nations who are forced to work in inadequate conditions earning very little relative to the labour they provide. There have been reports of Zara workers attaching tags on products notifying the consumer that they have not been paid for producing these garments. There have also been buildings that have collapsed that have housed these manufacturing facilities, most notable the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse. It seems that the majority of the fashion industry is underpinned by workers who are continually being exploited by big corporations who thrive under capitalism and exploitation.

The Alternatives.

What can we do to combat the shortening fashion cycles and exploitation of workers at the hand of large retailers? Partaking in ‘conscious consumerism’ where you purchase items you see yourself wearing long term, shopping at sustainable brands and shopping second-hand have been named ways in which we can reduce our waste. 

To reduce waste within the fashion industry, society as a collective need to disengage with micro-trends that promote overconsumption using fast-fashion retailers and sites and instead partake in ‘conscious consumerism’, utilise resources such as second-hand/thrift stores second-hand platforms such as Depop, eBay and Poshmark as well as clothing rental platforms9. Sustainable brands and independent designers should be celebrated without the fear of being copied by larger corporations who can offer their products at a fraction of the price. 

Climate action doesn’t just apply to fossil fuels and sustainable energy, but to consumer products such as textiles and clothing garments as well, and it is important to address the problems concerning the industry before it is too late.



Alexander, A. (2017). What makes a fashion trend: The secret to capturing the zeitgeist.<https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/fashion/fashion-news/news/a40346/what-makes-a-fashion-trend-the-secret-to-capturing-the-zeitgeist/>.

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Guzman, J. (2019). The History of Hip Hop Fashion: How Street Culture Became Fashion’s Biggest Influence. <https://www.afterglowatx.com/blog/2019/3/26/the-history-of-hip-hop-fashion-how-street-culture-became-fashions-biggest-influence>.

Cary, A. (2020). Kendall Jenner Owns The Cult Dress Of Summer 2020. <https://www.vogue.co.uk/fashion/article/dress-of-the-summer>.

Talbot, H. (2021). Are Instagram microtrends making or breaking sustainable fashion? <https://www.euronews.com/green/2021/06/05/are-instagram-microtrends-making-or-breaking-sustainable-fashion&sa=D&source=editors&ust=1629612535704000&usg=AOvVaw1DKvbzwhNNqIJTxLO0oskM>.

Azubuike, M. (2021). The Price Of Fast Fashion: How Consumerism Fuels The Climate Crisis And Threatens Human Rights. <https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/the-price-of-fast-fashion-how-consumerism-fuels-the-climate-crisis-and-threatens-human-rights>.

Shift London. (2021). The problem with Tiktok, hauls and consumerism. <https://www.shiftlondon.org/features/the-problem-with-fashion-tiktok-hauls-and-consumerist-culture/>.

Grinta, E. (2020). ​​Fast Fashion VS. Conscious Consumerism. <https://www.beintelligent.eu/fast-fashion-vs-conscious-consumerism/>.

The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.