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Are Instagram microtrends making or breaking sustainable fashion?

Microtrends cropping up on social media are changing the fashion industry as we know it
Microtrends cropping up on social media are changing the fashion industry as we know it   -   Copyright  Canva

Like most things, fashion is uncompromisingly tied to the changing social and economic landscape of our modern lives. To mediate these ever-changing attitudes, trend forecasting has become the trusted method that fashion retailers and consumers have relied upon for decades in deciding what to invest in, what to produce, and what to wear.

However, with the increasingly randomised nature of social media, and the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, trends are becoming more difficult to predict.

Instead, microtrends have risen, with specific items and styles gaining popularity outside the control of mass corporations and fast fashion sites. In this sense, fashion seasons which were once pillars of trend forecasting algorithms are coming to an end, to make way for the rapid independent succession of specific products and styles.

Although these changes might be upending traditional trend forecasting, they could actually encourage a new wave of more ethical and sustainable fashion consumption.

What are microtrends?

Microtrends are smaller, under-the-radar trends which seemingly come from nowhere, and it can be increasingly difficult to trace their origins. Many microtrends have popped up organically this past year, with more and more diverse social media feeds and the pandemic impacting the sporadic nature of these trends.

A recent example of microtrends evading the predicted fashion cycles is the rise in popularity of brands such as Paloma Wool, a spanish clothing brand which opts for ‘conscious manufacturing’ in all its garments. The popularity of its knitwear quickly skyrocketed within a matter of weeks, with sustainable fashion influencers becoming clad in its signature psychedelic knit tops.

Soon, Paloma Wool was forced to resort to waitlists to keep up with the social media frenzy around its knitwear.

House of Sunny, a self-proclaimed sustainably-focused fashion company based in London, is another brand to have gained immense success from highly specific micro-trending, with its infamous Hockney dress becoming a cult classic amongst celebrities and influencers alike.

The brand’s success then continued beyond the Hockney dress, with its quirky designs and kitsch aesthetics remaining continually popular amongst consumers.

What does this tell us about changes in the trend cycle?

In a sense, micro trends are no longer rewarding the half-baked attempts of fast-fashion brands such as Shein, but are actively rewarding the efforts of sustainable companies.

Instead of relying on vast, generalised predictions, preferences are changing to become more specific, and therefore more varied, with consumers gaining newfound awareness of the ethics attached to buying clothes.

It also demonstrates a move away from the faux-sustainability efforts of companies such as H&M, demonstrating that consumers are becoming more readily aware of the issue of greenwashing.

Instead of relying on vast, generalised predictions, preferences are changing to become more specific, and therefore more varied.

For example, Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute, a fashion think tank that analyses claims of sustainability, warns that the companies are commodifying the sustainability movement, seeing it as a trend rather than a necessary systematic change.

“I’ve seen decks get passed to me where the trend teams of brands are saying, ‘These are the new trends to sell to.’ It’s leopard print, military, and sustainable.”

In spite of greenwashing, Francesca Munston, vice president of fashion at WGSN, a global leader in trend forecasting, suggests that changes in the nature of trend cycles are here to stay.

Change is being fuelled by new, more ethically-minded generations of consumers, she says.

“Even before the pandemic, younger generations, particularly Gen Z, were scrutinising brands based on their behaviours and ethics.”

Rather than specific patterns, prints and silhouettes informing sales, the ethics and conscious practices of companies are becoming central.

Rather than specific patterns, prints and silhouettes informing sales, the ethics and conscious practices of companies are becoming central to how, and why people buy items of clothing. “People have choices in where they can shop and are very vocal if brands don't align with their expectations....Equally, they're prepared to support brands who are doing a good job”.

How are microtrends helping to encourage sustainability?

Microtrends are prompting consumers to think of ‘fashion’ as ‘clothes’ first and foremost, detaching items from trends, thereby encouraging sustainability. Microtrends offer a way for style to continue to evolve organically, and on a more personal, considered basis, with the consumer having the autonomy over their own ethical choices.

A recent sustained micro-trend that has given consumers this autonomy can been seen in the re-emergence of the ‘Y2K aesthetics’ of the early 2000s. Instead of buying new, consumers have turned to second-hand sellers on websites such as Depop to buy vintage items.

With people turning to second-hand sites to buy items based on personal style, rather than trends dictated by the mass-production of fast fashion brands, this encourages a slower, and more methodical approach to buying clothing and participating in trends, outside the view of mass corporations.

However, in spite of this win for sustainable companies and practices, questions remain as to the efficacy of reproducing trend pieces to meet demand. Although consumers are actively choosing to buy from sustainable companies, the process of rushing to buy trend pieces is still wholly unsustainable and ethically flawed.

Many of the pieces bought from Paloma Wool or House of Sunny will lose their immediate popularity, and in turn may not be re-worn or reused past this current trend period. Even second-hand sites including Depop have come under-fire due to unsustainable elements of the app, such as drop-shipping.

Ultimately, buying sustainably and making ethical choices over the clothes you wear is a complex issue. However, microtrends prove that consumers are willing to do the work to ensure that they have autonomy in the choices they make and the trends they follow.