About the increasingly fast cycle of trends, why we crave newness and what that means for sustainability.
The other day, I was scrolling through my feed on TikTok. I paused on a video where trend forecaster speculated what next trend will emerge in fashion after Y2K. Then I came across a video by creator Laini Ozark where she stated:
“Nothing is trending right now because everything is trending in the fashion world.”
She talks about the increasingly fast cycle of fashion trends and how everything (or some version of a trend) was popular at some point in the last five years. Another creator, Wisdom Kaye, added:
“TikTok has accelerated how we consume trends and how we consume clothes.”
Their videos got me thinking: Did the inherently immersive social media world challenge our tolerance so much through the quick return of ballet flats and Capri pants, that we are truly prepared to wear anything as long as it’s new? And what role does TikTok play in accelerating trends?
Fashion thrives on newness
It comes as no surprise that the fashion industry thrives on newness and that consumers feel dopamine levels rising when confronted with the new and shiny. But it’s worth remembering that the entire industry of fast fashion was designed to give middle-class consumers the opportunity to partake in trends. Fast fashion retailers essentially copy and paste trends seen in luxury brands, produce them as fast as possible (as the name suggests), and sell them at low prices.
One could argue that fast fashion has democratized fashion in a way, but on the other hand the industry has paved the way for cheaply produced clothing that we perceive as “out of fashion” after only a few times of wearing. This model of overconsumption has lead to the use of low-quality materials and enormous risks to the environment due to the high level of production and disposal.
The typical phases in a trend cycle
Let’s look at the typical phases in a trend cycle to understand why trends come and go increasingly faster. Initially, there is the introduction to a trend: We typically see it in the first luxury brands or on the very first influencers. After the initial introduction, so-called innovators (and later early adopters) help a trend to rise, peak and decline due to saturation once it’s reached the broad majority.
If we see a certain fashion trend too many times, we perceive it as obsolete. In the meantime, the fashion industry has already turned to the next trend, rendering the initial one as old and creating a desire to shop the new.
It feels like we don’t really experience macro-trends in fashion anymore that last five to ten years. We mostly witness micro-trends (three to five years) or even so-called fades, the most short-lived trends that likely only lasts one month. To stay competitive, fashion retailers have to respond to changes in demand by releasing new items weekly or even daily.
The role of social media
Scrolling through TikTok, I realized the key role that social media plays in shortening the lifespan of trends and in making the position of innovator (usually only amounting to 2,5% of people) much more accessible to the masses: TikTok’s algorithm particularly favors new accounts, resulting in a plethora of influencers that present us with a variety of trends.
Bear in mind that the notion of sustainability and slowing down runs against everything social media embodies, which is quick, shiny, and new. Especially TikTok: We all know how fast a trend on TikTok rises and falls (think sounds, challenges, content formats) or how short our attention span has become.
But why exactly do we shop so much? Motives are predominantly determined by our use of media and our hedonic motivation: One study examined that women and Gen Z consumers view shopping as leisure activity. Another inducement is social pressure: Research shows that the use of social media has a significant influence on consumers’ shopping behaviour, while their own social network apparently doesn’t. The effect of media is also backed up by 97% of Gen Z consumers stating they use social media as their top source of shopping inspiration).
We can clearly see here that sustainability is still a subordinate topic on the agenda, lagging behind style and money. Young consumers still prefer being trendy over buying sustainably. But how can we become immune if we’re constantly told we need something? Wordings like “Run, don’t walk to Zara” or the popularity of the hashtag #sheinhaul are symptoms of a systemic problem that will be rigorous to fight.
Most sustainability advocates would tell consumers to wait before purchasing something in order to avoid impulse buys. But how long can we really wait if we know the trend will become obsolete in two weeks?
What does that mean for sustainability?
Sneaker heels, skinny scarves, mini skirts — these trends have all been there before. One could debate (as TikTok creator Wisdom Kaye does here) that the comeback of trends results in successful second-hand shopping and promotes the concept of circular fashion. But is it really more than a naïve thought experiment to think that we could technically only wear second-hand?
This romanticized notion not only neglects our thirst for newness but also leaves fast fashion retailers out of the equation. Another possibility of partaking in trends without consumption is fashion rental. What if there was only a limited amount of newly produced clothing exclusively available for rent?
None of these what-if-situations distract from the fact that slow fashion barely has a chance when it comes to trends. Its production is fairer and slower (hence the name) and is hardly consulted when we want to buy into trends, only when we invest in timeless high-quality pieces. The actual question is: Will we ever be able to resist trends?
Creator Hannah Tarr says in a TikTok:
“We’re loosing people’s individualism because we’re just trying to chase the hot thing. That’s why I feel like we should be talking more about being timeless [than being] trendy.”
I personally share her thoughts as well as Wisdom Kaye’s when he says:
“I hope because we don’t have to worry so much about what is trending right now in this particular time, we as people can actually consume less.”