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I crawl out of bed in early January and immediately open Instagram.
My stories are full of a shared post; Shein, an online fast fashion retailer from China, was named the most popular fashion brand of 2022. Shein beat other fast fashion brands, such as Zara, as the most Googled brand in 113 countries.
Though fast fashion is known for being harmful to the environment, Shein stands out for being “the worst of the worst.” Some of their clothing contains toxic and hazardous materials such as lead, perfluoroalkyl, and phthalate, which cause damaging health effects to the brain, heart, kidneys, and reproductive systems.
After I’ve caught up on my stories section, I move on to my feed. It’s filled with New Year’s Eve posts from a few days ago. As I scroll down, I see people holding the Re-Nylon Prada Re-Edition 2000 mini-bag.
I need it.
I search for the Prada bag. It’s more than $1000. I’m disappointed but not surprised. Then, like magic, I see an almost identical bag for $9 from Shein.
I browse Shein’s website, and the guilt seeps in. I know I shouldn’t be on here, let alone thinking about purchasing items, but it’s cheap and accessible.
Without a budget to afford things like a Prada bag, I’m in a constant battle with myself. Will I be a “sustainable queen” and not purchase from Shein? Or will I be a “trendy queen” and purchase items I know are harmful to the environment and my health but show off my great taste? Both options are painful.
I often go through this cycle as soon as I start my day. I see something trending on social media, look it up, realize it’s too expensive, and find myself on a fast fashion website.
As a 22-year-old gen-Zer who grew up in the digital age, I don’t remember a time without social media. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel pressure to look like all my friends and classmates on social media. And I don’t remember a time when the state of the environment didn’t weigh on my shoulders.
Many Gen Z claim to be environmentally conscious and “woke,” yet the pressures of social media make us contradict ourselves. Environmental concerns clash with the pressure to be trendy and fit in with our peers. Can our generation save the world? Probably not while wearing fast fashion.
Social Media and Growing Up in the Digital Age
Personal technology and social media started becoming a normal part of life when gen-Zers were born (between 1997 and 2012). Participation is not optional if you want to be part of the social fabric.
But before the digital age, when social media didn’t exist, people relied on physical media where technology was alongside us rather than intertwined with our daily lives.
For Gen Z, who spend more time online than any other generation — nearly 11 hours a day reading, liking, and sharing material across devices — digital life is daily life.
Katie Pulver, a 22-year-old gen-Zer and student at the University of Winnipeg, says she can’t remember when social media wasn’t a significant part of her life.
She remembers downloading her first social media app, Facebook, on her Apple iPod Touch when she was only nine-years-old. She downloaded Instagram a year later.
“I remember using [social media] every day, loving it, messaging everyone I knew, even if I didn’t really know them,” Pulver said. “I used it like crazy.”
“I remember getting all my friends to get it,” Pulver said. “I just posted literally everything, no matter what I was doing.”
Social media began as a leisure activity for Pulver as a child, then she started high school and her mindset changed. It soon became a place where followers, likes, and comments trumped Pulver’s in-person interactions with her classmates — comparison started to loom over her.
“It was all about ‘how many likes does this person get?’ ‘What does my feed look like?’ … ‘Is it aesthetic?’” she said.
Pulver remembers comparing herself to others on the internet for the first time in grade ten.
“All of a sudden, at 15, I was looking at all these girls’ Instagram’s and really caring about what I looked like, and I feel like I hadn’t done that before,” Pulver said. “And I probably wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for Instagram.”
Pulver said she compared herself to what people were wearing, what they were doing, and who they were hanging out with.
Though comparison has always existed, gen-Zers feel added pressure from social media because we build our identities through image-centric platforms like Instagram.
After graduating high school, Pulver’s mindset toward social media changed. “I think I just stopped caring,” she said.
Pulver began posting photos based on whether she liked them rather than how they measured up online. But social media didn’t became less significant in Pulver’s life.
Now, Pulver says social media is about analyzing professionalism. Since she began working full-time at Chop Steakhouse & Bar in 2020, she’s prioritized how employers might perceive her on social media.
According to a 2018 survey by CareerBuilder, 70 per cent of employers use social media to screen candidates during the hiring process, and about 43 per cent use social media to check on current employees.
“I still do think you should have freedom, it’s your [social media] account, but I think people do look at [your social media], and they judge you based on what you’re posting,” Pulver said. “I don’t need someone looking at my [social media] and think, ‘oh, she’s immature.’”
Growing up in the digital age, we’ve built our entire lives online, from elementary school to early adulthood. And though social media is a tool keeping us updated on what’s happening in the world, it isn’t always positive. It can be damaging to our mental health and overall identity development.
Social Media Extremes in Environmental Activism
I often read articles saying I need to change the world.
Move Over Millennials—Generation Z is Here to Save the World, Here’s Why We Think That Gen Z Is The Generation That Will Change The World For Good, and Getting Gen Z Primed to Save the World are just a few of the headlines circling the internet.
As gen-Zers are figuring out how to balance their lives between evolving technologies and starting careers, pressures to care about environmental activism, or better yet, be environmental activists, is another thing to add to our lifelong to-do list.
• • •
According to an article by World Economic Forum, Gen Z shows the most concern for the planet’s well-being of all generations. Another survey by Verywell Health from 2021 found that environmental concerns cause eco-anxiety, making gen-Zers anxious about their futures; however, this has also led gen-Zers to take action.
Greta Thunberg, a 20-year-old Swedish environmental activist who works to address climate change, set the example.
Since the young age of 15, Thunberg has inspired youth-led climate strike movements in Sweden and around the world, launched the global Fridays for Future movement, and changed youth’s impact in politics, activism, and environmentalism forever.
It’s a hard act to follow.
• • •
While not every environmental activist from Gen Z gets named Time’s Person of the Year, many still strive to create change.
Victor Selby, a Red River College Polytechnic student and gen-Zer, became interested in environmental activism in grade school. He attended West Kildonan Collegiate, where he was introduced to the Sustainable Living Academy of Manitoba (SLAM) and began his environmental journey.
“[My teacher] encouraged me to sign up [for SLAM]; it seemed right up my alley,” Selby said. “I was very much somebody who enjoyed more hands-on and real-world stuff in school compared to typical academic stuff.”
SLAM was a half-day program run by Heather Eckton, a West Kildonan Collegiate teacher who taught students to take leadership in sustainability.
As Selby learned about environmentalism, sustainability, and activism through SLAM, his passion for the environment grew. He took an idea from Eckton about banning plastic bags within the province of Manitoba and turned it into #BanTheBagWPG.
#BanTheBagWPG was a petition Selby created on Change.org advocating for Manitoba to follow in the footsteps of Norway House Cree Nation, The Pas, and Montreal in banning single-use plastic bags and replacing them with more sustainable options like reusable bags, boxes, or paper bags.
The petition reached nearly 10,000 signatures, gaining Manitoba-wide attention from Selby’s peers and local news outlets like Winnipeg Free Press.
“It’s the craziest thing when you wake up, and you have texts and emails from newspapers,” Selby said. “And eventually, the signatures just kept piling up.”
Selby said #BanTheBagWPG didn’t help reach his goal of being noticed by the Winnipeg City Council, but he stayed connected to Manitoba’s environmental activism scene anyway.
“I wanted to be what Greta Thunberg is now,” Selby said.
Manitoba’s environmental activism scene consists of coalitions like Manitoba’s Climate Action Team, Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition, and Green Action Centre, which work to promote climate resilience in Manitoba.
“I met all these people, and before I knew it, I knew pretty much everybody in the environmental scene,” Selby said.
There are positives engaging in environmental activism, like the likeliness to live a happier and more fulfilling life, but it can also lead to burnout due to the mental and emotional stress that comes with activism work.
• • •
Participating in environmentalism brought many positives for Selby, but negatives were evident too.
Selby said he held some opinions similar to his peers, such as wanting to ban oil, but he found some ideas from his peers were too extreme and often unrealistic.
“If it were up to me, we would do the most drastic things possible because, for me, climate change is the most important thing in the world … but it’s not that simple,” Selby said.
After graduating high school in 2018, Selby often silently sat on Skype calls while his activist peers argued. He said if someone expressed different opinions, like disagreeing with their next campaign or social post, they’d be “cancelled” or removed from the group.
“If you weren’t as extreme … you were out,” Selby said.
Selby sees disagreeing as a valuable part of discourse but says these arguments would sometimes cause the discourse to fall apart. Eventually, his activist group started expressing opinions over social media, such as taxing businesses 90 per cent, which he felt were too extreme.
Social media plays a significant role in campaigns to make citizens aware of climate change, but Selby said his activist group did not use social media strategically to create change. He said there was no compromise, so the messages were not getting attention from decision-makers like the Winnipeg City Council.
“[Priorities] started being about, ‘fuck the system’ and ‘burn it all down,’ and it’s like, ok, I would love if it was burned down, but we can’t act like that, and we can’t present that as our message or no one’s going to listen to us,” Selby said. “It just became more about what gets clicks and what gets shared.”
With people being “cancelled” or removed from the group for holding different opinions, especially if you posted about them on social media, Selby said he no longer wanted to be part of the group.
“It’s like you don’t care, or you’re on the other side,” Selby said.
• • •
Selby said he left the activist group because his life started becoming consumed by activism extremes emerging within the community.
“At first, it was really exciting, then the cracks kind of started to show,” he said.
Selby continues to spread awareness about environmental activism and said people within the community left him with positive memories.
He said they all had the same goal: to save the planet.
“I’m on [the activists] side for 95 per cent of things; I just think that we need to be looking at things from another way,” Selby said.
• • •
Though many gen-Zers, like Selby, want to create change in environmentalism, and though together we might have the resources to do so, it’s not that simple. There are competing pressures between a fundamental human need to belong and the expectations as a generation to save the world.
I’ve wanted to join the environmentalism scene because I have deep anxiety about our planet’s state, but I never felt I fit the “ideal.” I don’t attend every rally or share every environmentalism-related post on social media, and my fear of being ostracized on the internet was enough to deter me.
My love for fashion also didn’t help.
Fast Fashion and Fitting In
Growing up, I loved fashion and trends, and I still do. From in-person shopping to my fashion-focused social media feeds, I think about fashion a lot.
It feels like I can’t escape it, and I don’t think I want to.
In recent years, I’ve learnt about the fashion industry, helping me understand why I love it so much but also why the draw is so strong.
My love for fashion isn’t driven by expression; it’s driven by acceptance.
It’s driven by the desire to fit in.
It’s driven by the desire to be trendy.
• • •
This desire to be trendy speaks to keeping up with the newest fashion trends online and fitting in with our peers – which go hand in hand.
According to an article by Heuritech, before social media, magazines were considered the bible for fashion trends. Now, thanks to apps like Instagram sharing more than 100 million images daily, we are seeing more trends than ever before.
Heather Taylor, a gen-Zer and student at the University of Winnipeg, who goes by they/she pronouns, began working at a climbing gym in 2020 and said they often wanted to dress like their coworkers. Their coworkers wore sustainable clothing brands like Patagonia, didn’t wear makeup, and went for an “outdoorsy aesthetic,” they said.
Before Taylor started working at the climbing gym, they wore makeup and curled their hair daily, but this quickly changed.
There was no “only wear Patagonia and don’t wear makeup” policy at the climbing gym, but Taylor said they felt pressured to look this way to fit in.
“I needed to buy that clothing, I needed to stop wearing makeup, and I did all those things,” they said.
After purchasing clothes from Patagonia, which can range from $100 to $500+ for a jacket, Taylor said they realized it’s unrealistic to expect Gen Z to purchase sustainable clothing at this price point when there are cheaper options — even if these are fast fashion.
Taylor said older generations think it’s easy for Gen Z not to care about fitting in and instead prioritize sustainability, but it’s not that easy.
In fact, excluded individuals are more interested in making friends and will spend money on products that conform to others’ opinions.
“There is this immense pressure to assimilate to what everyone is doing,” Taylor said.
According to an article by Ava Furfaro at The Walrus, the constant documentation of our lives over social media makes us think about how others will perceive us online.
• • •
The role social media plays in online trends is huge. According to a Forbes article, 97 pre cent of Gen Z uses social media as their primary source for fashion inspiration — especially platforms like Instagram.
Photos and Reels make Instagram the perfect place to stumble across trends while also being set up as the perfect place to impulse buy.
When Gen Z uses Instagram, we often don’t realize when we’ve come across trends. The app is part of our daily lives, so it doesn’t feel like shopping; it feels like we’re scrolling through our feeds.
Instagram lets us find and buy products fast, contributing to the 41 per cent of Gen Z who impulse buy.
• • •
Fast fashion companies, like Shein, also impact online trends.
Shein tempts even the most environmentally conscious gen-Zer because of their low prices. Clothes often sell for $8 or even $3 if on sale. Their clothing may be poor quality, but with these low prices, Gen Z participates in trends even when we can’t really afford to.
• • •
So, here’s the dilemma: Gen-Zers are bombarded with trends on social media where they not only spend a lot of time but also need to compete for attention, build their identity, and fit in with their peers. They’ve also been tasked with saving the planet after previous generations made a series of decisions that hurt the environment and fed the capitalist system, making it hard for Gen Z to resist fast fashion.
So, what’s the most environmentally conscious generation to do?
There seem to be two choices:
1: We can purchase fast fashion, be trendy, and fit in with our peers.
2: We can protect our dying planet.
What do we choose?
• • •
I’ve always wanted to change the world. I’ve always wanted to prove every single headline about Gen Z right. And I’ve always wanted to say I’m part of a generation who saved our dying planet. But I never knew growing up in the digital age, needing to fit in with my peers, and needing to be trendy, would make this so hard.
I think of Katie Pulver, who started using social media at nine years old and, still at 22 years old, can’t escape the pressures of it.
I think of Victor Selby, who cares deeply for the environment but had to leave the environmental activism scene because his life became consumed by activism extremes.
I think of Heather Taylor, who couldn’t escape the need to be trendy and fit in with their coworkers’ aesthetics.
Changing the world can’t happen in a day and certainly can’t happen in one generation. But we need to look at our competing pressures head-on, set attainable goals to be sustainable, and be mindful of the resources we have access to, such as policies, like the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which attempt to prevent pollution and protect the environment by enforcing corporate responsibility.
Saving the planet is an unrealistic and unsustainable expectation of Gen Z alone. We need other generations to join the effort.
We only have one planet, and it’s not just Gen Z living on it.