A decade after Rana Plaza, fast fashion still reigns: has anything changed for Gen Z?

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Gen Z are often hailed as pioneers of sustainable fashion, but a decade after the Rana Plaza disaster I wonder if that’s true.

Monday marked 10 years since 1,134 people were killed and at least 2,000 others injured when an eight-story building housing five garment factories collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

During the recovery operation it was discovered that many brands including Primark, Mango and Benetton were using the factories to produce clothes. The disaster, considered the deadliest in the history of the garment industry, drew attention to the human cost of cheap clothes and started the Who Made My Clothes movement.

A month after the Rana Plaza disaster, 200 brands and retailers, including Primark and the H&M group, signed a legally binding agreement on fire, electrical and building safety, applicable to any Bangladeshi factory or workshop that supplies them with garments. Last year a Pakistani version of the deal was announced and signed by 35 companies, including Zara’s parent company Inditex.

Some say conditions for workers have improved slightly since the deals, but many activists say abuses are still rife, with brands doing little to improve low wages and workers’ rights.

Those at the older end of the Gen Z age group (born between 1997 and 2006) would have been teenagers when the disaster struck. Instagram was the leading social media app at the time, and images of injured and deceased garment workers being pulled from rubble were widely shared.

The collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, 2013.

The collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, 2013. Photography: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Fast forward to 2023 and there’s a plethora of research claiming Gen Z is the driving force behind sustainable fashion, with many citing workers’ rights as a key factor in their decision to go secondhand.

According to eBay, 80% of Gen Z bought second-hand goods in 2022, while nearly one in three started selling them. Currently, the value of the global second-hand and resale clothing market is estimated at $96 billion. By 2026 it is estimated that it will reach 218 billion dollars.

On TikTok, there are endless videos of Gen Z donning secondhand clothes and telling viewers about their favorite vintage purchases or charity shop finds. However, they, like everyone else, are a complicated generation. They sure gave us resale sites and Greta Thunberg, but they also grew up with Pretty Little Thing and “girlbosses” like Molly-Mae Hague.

In fact, fast fashion has never been so in demand. In 2021, Chinese retailer Shein, founded in 2008, surpassed Amazon to become the most downloaded shopping app in the US. Last month, her website – which lists crop tops at £1.99 – was ranked the most visited fashion website in the world. On average, it adds between 700 and 1,000 new articles per day.

In fact, much of Gen Z has never known a life without fast fashion. It’s a generation that grew up on sites that offer low prices, free returns, and the excitement of daily and even hourly news. For an added thrill, many of these sites offer same-day delivery.

Combine this with the boom of the “outfit of the day” hashtag on social media and you have the perfect recipe for mass consumption. Oxfam estimates that more than two tonnes of clothing are bought every minute in the UK, more than in any other European country.

As for those shoppers who might express concern to tell the origins of Missguided’s £1 bikini? Fast fashion brands have been quick to greenwash. The term “sustainable” is being slapped on products that contain recycled polyester, while the brands themselves continue to lack transparency about their supply chains.

While marketplaces like Depop and Vinted offer a way to get fast fashion into the circular economy rather than landfills, they aren’t doing much to reduce the initial demand for fast fashion. Many items on resale sites are even described as “never worn” or “worn once”.

A 2018 study by sustainability consultants Quantis found that for the circular economy to be effective, it “must not create more consumption, which could happen if there is a rebound effect of the continued increase or consumption of fast fashion “.

The number of people buying secondhand items could soar. But as long as shopping is seen as a genuine novelty-focused hobby, fashion will, for the most part, remain complicated and will need to be held accountable.

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