Rise of micro-trends: Social media’s harmful grasp on fast fashion

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Ariana Goetting

Microtrends are trends that last for just one fashion season, accelerating the trend cycle and quickly deeming particular styles as “outdated.” “[Micro-trends] kill the ideas of individuality and fashion because people are just following these trends,” fashion enthusiast Shreya Balakrishnan (12) said. “They don’t build up on their own style or what they are comfortable and confident with.”

By Ariana Goetting, Selina Xu, and Claire Zhao

Chunky jewelry. Hawaiian print dresses. Patchwork jeans. Cow print. These trends once reigned over fashion social media. Now, they gather in the aisles of Goodwill, collect dust in the depths of closets and accumulate in landfills. These are only a few of the adverse effects of micro-trends, or clothing and accessories that are forgotten just as quickly as they sell out.

One scroll through TikTok or Instagram reveals how micro-trends plague the fashion industry. Clothing unboxings, “Do it Yourself” (DIY) fashion and outfit posts flaunt the season’s new “must-have” items, sending thousands of social media users flocking to click “add to cart” before the item sells out. In turn, retailers like Shein, H&M and Zara rush to meet these demands by quickly and inexpensively mass-producing these trendy items in a process known as fast fashion. 

As platforms like TikTok and Instagram increasingly dictate Generation Z and millennials’ lifestyles, people start seeking inspiration from social media influencers, who collaborate with companies to market new clothing items. One viral fashion video can cause a clothing item to spike in popularity and instantly sell out — as seen in recent weeks with ultra mini UGGs and the famous Skims dress on TikTok. While straying away from specific trends, Joelle Weng (11) recognizes the impact of this rising influencer culture.

“Influencers are traditionally used to promote products,” Joelle said. “Their advertising is way more subtle than targeted ads, so a lot of people buy things that influencers promote, and it’s just a way to be influenced without realizing it.”

Unlike traditional fashion trends that last five to 10 years, most micro-trends last for just one season, accelerating the trend cycle and quickly deeming particular styles as “outdated.” Sophomore Shiv Deokar, who follows fashion trends through apps like TikTok, Pinterest and YouTube, notices social media platforms’ roles in shortening trends.

Social media has mangled the trend cycle where nothing’s in for a really long time. I see a new thing on TikTok every other day. All the content on there is so immediate, and nothing really stays in your head for very long.”

— Shiv Deokar (10), who follows fashion trends on social media

“Social media has mangled the trend cycle where nothing’s in for a really long time,” Shiv said. “I see a new thing on TikTok every other day. All the content on there is so immediate, and nothing really stays in your head for very long.”

Micro-trends also deprive many people’s fashion senses of originality. Despite using social media for inspiration, fashion enthusiast Shreya Balakrishnan (12) stays true to their own preferences when making fashion choices and emphasizes the importance of developing personal style.

“[Micro-trends] kill the ideas of individuality and fashion because people are just following these trends,” Shreya said. “They don’t build up on their own style or what they are comfortable and confident with.”

In addition to hindering self-expression in style, micro-trends leave detrimental effects on the environment. Polyester, a synthetic fabric made of plastic and oil, makes up more than half of clothing in the fast fashion industry due to its low production cost and versatility. While only 15% of clothing in the U.S. is recycled, the other 85% ends up in landfills, where they break down into tiny pieces of plastic called microplastics. In fact, synthetic textiles accounted for up to 90% of marine microplastics in 2021, causing harm to ecosystems and wildlife. Shreya draws a connection between plastic pollution and the shortened trend cycles. 

“If you’re changing your entire closet or your entire lifestyle based on trends, you start a process where you’re just wasting clothes from previous trends,” Shreya said. “It builds up because eventually you’ll see those in thrift stores, and those eventually end up in landfills.”

The harmful effects of fast fashion have long been recognized. Yet the industry comes with its own nuances: people have limited access to sustainable fashion, which often comes at the expense of affordable prices. 

“Obviously it’s just easier to buy something on certain sites than spend $100 on something from an expensive site,” Shreya said. “It makes sense that a lot of people do consume fast fashion, because a lot of the time, people don’t have the privilege of buy[ing] certain things for themselves.”

[Micro-trends] kill the ideas of individuality and fashion because people are just following these trends. They don’t build up on their own style or what they are comfortable and confident with.”

— Fashion enthusiast Shreya Balakrishnan (12)

Reducing consumption can be difficult for people who appreciate fashion and love exploring new styles. Fashion itself, even with its negative environmental effects, is a vital aspect of many people’s lives. As a way of navigating this dichotomy, many have started to shop secondhand, practicing ethical and sustainable fashion. For instance, Shiv frequently shops on Grailed, a secondhand high-end clothing website, and visits secondhand stores such as Goodwill or Crossroads

But sometimes, countering micro-trends is as simple as paying attention to our existing wardrobes. Rather than accumulating vast amounts of clothes that are considered trendy right now, people have started to lean toward pieces that mix and match with their current styles, in order to maximize outfit combinations and help curb the overconsumption of clothing. 

“When I’m buying clothes, I always try to keep in mind the rest of my clothes in my closet,” Shiv said. “I try to buy things that I’ll use a lot instead of throwing away, things that can be really easy to style day to day.”

As long as social media dictates our consumption patterns, fast fashion and its harmful effects will continue to accelerate along with it. But finding a middle ground between fast fashion and sustainable options can ultimately help users resist the pull of short-term trends.

“The main thing is that you need to figure out what you personally gravitate to[wards],” Joelle said. “If you find pieces that match with your personal aesthetic or style, they won’t be cycled in and out because it’s core to you. It isn’t something that changes with trends.”

This story was originally published on Harker Aquila on November 14, 2022.