Generation Z and Millennials
Sociologist Diana Crane theorized that before the concept of fast fashion, the clothes a person wore represented their social class and having an entire wardrobe of clothes was not common at all.1 However, over the course of the 20th century, the mobility between social classes grew greater, and the social chasm between the classes lessened1; therefore, according to Crane’s theory, it can be implicated that depending on how salient social, class, gender, and lifestyle are in a society, clothing may play a major role in the social concept and construction of identity1. In other words, although fashion is no longer directly representative of a person’s socioeconomic characteristics, it is an underlying factor in consumption and perception of self in society globally. Thus, the idea of conspicuous consumption was born, and “style and fashion replaced utility as motives for purchasing.2
This transition roots itself in the 1990s, when the idea of “the power of image” on a constant cycle presented itself in a way we still see today. 3 With the proliferation of mass consumption and fast fashion in modern society, human need for clothing has been commodified in a way that the focus is production for profit.4 This is exemplified in both the way people consume and the debt people are willing to go into to consume at a constant rate. This is often linked to Schor’s idea of ‘the materiality paradox’ where “your need for non-material meaning is greatest at times when you are most likely to maximize your consumption of material resources”4 or the idea of the ‘autumn cloth’, where the need for replacing is never reached “because the fashion cycle was created to replace clothes long before it is necessary”.4 These psychological drives can be exacerbated by societal changes and pressures, but industry insiders are still largely responsible for the push to mass consumption, as fashion sales are majorly retailer driven.3 Thus the link between consumer and identity which may be causing consumers to buy unsustainably.5 Furthermore, with society’s rapid and constant technological advancements, advertisers can reach consumers across multiple channels, or by ‘stacking’2, in hopes of one channel persuading a consumer to complete the purchase. This was also referred to as ‘fully integrated marketing’ by Marshall Soules, author of ‘Media Persuasion and Propaganda’2.
Dr. Dion Terrelonge, a fashion psychologist, touches on the complexities of the hypocritical behavior within consumerism (i.e. wanting to buy sustainably but not following through), by stating “it has a lot to do with our sense of self” 2, alluding to the idea of desire and keeping up with the fast-moving trends.
The aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shifted consumer behavior to embrace e-commerce platforms, illustrate this when Shein doubled it’s worth over the course of the pandemic to £21 billion despite fashion sales falling 25% in 2020.6 Cialdini’s theory of social proof, or the idea of understanding acceptable behavior from those around us, may also be partially to blame here, as “the need for social proof increases in a climate of uncertainty” 2.
A study conducted by me at the University of Edinburgh, that focused on Generation Z and Millennial consumers in the United States and United Kingdom, supports these postulations, as the common conception across most participants is that different social classes consume fast fashion at a different rate for a confined set of reasons.
Alluding to Alex Leach and Shakaila Forbes-Bell’s ideas around fashion identity, which is reinforced by the observation of a “bidirectional relationship between what each social class is wearing with the power unequally weighted with those with more money” (Participant 5), it is possible that the speed of consumption in combination with the rapidness of current trend cycles7 have created a society based on constant consumption where each social class is constantly searching for garments they don’t own. The only difference may be the volume of consumption that is displayed by higher social classes, which is exemplified by “the richest 20 per cent of fashion consumers [causing] 20-times more emissions than those of the poorest 20 per cent”.8
Regarding Forbes-Bell’s theory specifically, which references the idea of continuing identity, transitional identity, and discontinued identity9, it is possible constant social media leaves consumers in a constant state of transitional identity. Due to exposure to social pressure via many channels, consumers may constantly question the validity of their current identity. For example, the avoidance of outfit repeating was mentioned by participants 20 and 21 as a pressure that is heavily pushed onto higher social classes, with the connotation that it is embarrassing and could lead to ridicule within their social circles. Therefore, further consumption to avoid this is encouraged.
Supported by Hot or Cool’s concept of consumers purchasing in hopes of living ‘an ideal lifestyle’, Participants 8 and 14 describe Millennials and Generation Z as loving peer validation and “trusting [the wealthy] to show us what to do” because “we want to emulate their lifestyle”. Cialdini’s theory of social proof and a fully integrated marketing scheme by large corporations2, in combination with the Crane’s theory linking fashion and social identity1, an insurmountable pressure is put on the consumer to choose between moral standing or this theoretical social standing. Participant 18 argues that “it’s human nature to want more and more”, but this is not necessarily the reality of the condition of the modern-day consumer. It is more likely that this opinion validates the of corporations’ exploitation of consumers’ high transactional and acquisition utilities post-purchase that was suggested by Thaler in 1985.10
Thaler distinguished transactional utility as the perceived value of a deal that customers obtain upon making a purchase, and acquisition utility refers to the satisfaction of obtaining the good itself10 to understand aspects of consumer behavior. Although it is debated on which utility sways consumer purchase decisions more heavily, with the constant availability of discount codes obtained by influencers through affiliated links, not only are consumers used to getting a good deal, but acquired acquisition utility is given at a faster rate with the advancement in shipping times for retailers. Hence, corporations are constantly having to look to the future to determine how the wants and needs of consumers across all socioeconomic classes will evolve with technology. It will be interesting to observe how this continues to transpire.