Is Instagram Bad For The Environment ? Exploring How Social Media Drives Fast Fashion

Victoria Stokes looks at how Instagram is influencing fast fashion and what it's doing to the planet

Once upon a time never wearing the same outfit twice was a privilege reserved only for celebrities. Now it’s influencers who regularly step out in new threads, rarely seen posing in clothes they’ve previously worn. Where we once looked to celebrities for style inspiration, oohing and ahhing at how their shoes perfectly match their handbag and the way their dress is just bang on trend, we now also look to influencers – and you can use their affiliate link to get 10 percent off! With just a swipe up you can have a new outfit for every occasion just like they do, you can buy those totally covetable but completely impractical boots they’re wearing and you can purchase every item from their collection – which they definitely curated themselves – before it sells out. If the girl next door with thousands of Instagram followers can wear a different outfit for every Insta post then why can’t you?

That’s all well and good of course, but is social media encouraging our unsustainable consumption of disposable clothing, and having a knock-on effect on the planet in return? When it comes to climate change, fast fashion is a big, bad culprit. The fashion industry’s climate impact is bigger than that of all international air travel and shipping trips combined, and it’s predicted that, without reform, the fashion industry is on track to be responsible for a quarter of the Earth’s carbon budget by 2050. There’s no getting away from it: Our shopping habits are polluting oceans and affecting the climate the world over.


There’s also evidence to suggest that, yes, social media really has accelerated our retail habits. Have three ASOS packages delivered to your door week in week out? Just blame Instagram. While the high street may be struggling, online shopping is showing no signs of slowing down, with new research suggesting that in the past three years, the industry has grown over 21 percent. Boohoo, a retailer prolific for offering collections with Love Island contestants and other influencers, is one such example of this. Despite braving one of the worst periods for retail sales during Christmas 2018, they reported 44 percent overall growth in the last four months of the year. For them, business is clearly booming, and for the fashion-conscious consumer ever on the hunt for something new, they offer some 60,000 items to choose from, modeled nicely on the latest Insta Hun.

Influencers are shouldering some of the blame for this apparent thirst for ‘newness’, but they can’t be held wholly responsible. While shopping haul videos – where YouTubers proudly unpack and present their plentiful shopping bounty – have been accused of promoting our addiction to fashion, and the validation-seeking nature of Instagram may go some way to explaining why we need a new outfit for every occasion, we can’t ignore the brands and the part they play too. According to a 2019 EU report, fashion companies only produced two collections a year in 2000. By 2011, this had increased to five, and today, some chains are offering 24 collections per annum. Any online shopping aficionado will know that the ‘What’s New’ tab is ever-evolving.

Even Instagram itself is cashing in. In March of this year, it made the continual hunt for something new even easier, with the launch of its in-app checkout, allowing consumers to make purchases from a retailer without having to leave the app. Shopping is as simple as seeing an outfit on Instagram and checking out with stored credit card and shipping details. This all adds to a culture of Fashion FOMO. In the words of Ariana, ‘I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it’.


We may be wanting it and getting it, but we’re certainly not keeping it. According to the United Nations Economic Commission For Europe, the average consumer now buys 60 percent more items compared to the year 2000, and keeps each garment half as long, with 84 percent of our unwanted clothes ending up in landfill. We want it, we get it, we throw it away.

But new things are nice and clothes are confidence givers – and you shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to treat yourself. There’s nothing quite like ordering a new dress, trying it on and marveling at the way it skims over your hips. Nothing beats the excitement of seeing the delivery guy at your door with your ASOS package. And I’ll challenge anyone who says finding a bargain in Penneys isn’t a special joy all of its own. At a time when we’re being told to cut back on things we enjoy to save the planet, we still need the little indulgences that make life worthwhile. So what’s the solution between indulging our retail habits and being conscious of climate change?

Enter circular fashion. A, um, revolutionary concept, that involves getting more wear out of your clothes. Not everyone has the disposable income to drop 50 percent extra on a coat because it’s ‘eco-friendly’ – but increasing the lifespan of what you already own can go some way to help. Extending the life of clothes by just nine extra months of active use would reduce carbon, water and waste footprints by around 20-30 percent per garment, according to research by U.K. government agency Waste Resources Action Programme. And when that once beloved top no longer gives you that warm, fuzzy, ‘just bought it’ feeling? Pass it on to someone who will love it like it were new; donate it to your local charity shop or gift it to a pal.

As for when you get that itch that only good old fashioned retail therapy can scratch, be wary of those ‘out there’ trends that’ll be in this week and out the next – will you really get the wear out of that cut to the navel neon green bodysuit? Probably not.

It’s not up to you to stop fast fashion, but you can help to slow it down, so the next time your favourite influencer posts a link to that glitzy number that you know in your heart of hearts you’re only ever going to wear once, it might be wise to stop and ask ‘Do I really need this?’.

Sustainability without the sacrifice

How to ease your eco guilt

  • Less is more. Buy bits that work with the rest of your wardrobe. Bonus points if you can take it from day to night, or work it from one season to the next.
  • No longer love it? Bring it to a charity shop or pop it on Depop so it gets a second lease of life. Or consider repairing or redesigning it. Need something new? Consider second-hand before you buy new.
  • Check the brand’s credentials. No, shopping sustainably doesn’t mean buying the same top for double the price tag. There are loads of brands on the high street working to be more sustainable. Check out the GoodOnYou app. It rates brands on how ethical and sustainable they are.
  • Don’t act on impulse. Try these three questions before you make a purchase: 1. Do I really need it? 2. Will I wear it again and again? 3. Does it go with at least three other items in my wardrobe?
  • Choose your fabrics carefully. Where you can, avoid cotton (it takes 1,600 gallons of water to produce enough cotton to make a single pair of jeans), polyester and leather, and embrace recycled nylon, organic cotton and Piñatex.
  • Consider renting. Have a big event coming up and know you’ll probably never wear that fancy occasion-wear number again? Opt to rent instead of buy.
  • Don’t try to be perfect. Think shop smarter instead of not shopping at all.

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