Ethics, trends and gender: What do students really think about fashion?

In a recent insight study, we asked three student journalists to distil their thoughts on fast-fashion, pre-love and gendered stereotypes to answer the question: what do students really think about fashion?

Read on to discover what Gen Z really think of ethics, trends and gender in 2022.

Rosie Compton, 19, from the University of Bath discusses navigating the conflicts of shopping sustainably as a student. Find her LinkedIn here.

What even is sustainable tho?

Navigating the conflicts of shopping sustainably as a student.

Gen Z faces several dilemmas when deciding where to shop for new clothes. The most difficult being whether to shop cheaply or ethically. The options that solve this dilemma include scouring through charity shops, or filtering through heavily gentrified second-hand marketplaces. Neither of these options are particularly quick or reliable for the next safari themed sports social, or your housemate’s birthday bottomless brunch.

The reality of shopping in charity shops for most students is assuming that the best items have already gone, and panic buying cheap clothes that we don’t need, just to feel the satisfaction or finding a bargain somewhat sustainably. When in fact, most of the time, the most sustainable option is to not buy anything at all.


After failing to find anything in a charity shop, the student will turn to Depop, Vinted or eBay, to find the same pre-loved clothing they would have hoped to have found in the charity shop, but usually at an inflated price. This is where the real dilemma comes in to play, as students are stuck between buying newly manufactured polyester, which is seemingly on trend and arriving tomorrow before 1pm – for half the price of the “1990s y2k vintage” Depop listing which is covered in some questionable stains or moth holes.

Time constraints will often back the students into a corner, to order from industry giants who can guarantee next day delivery, such as Pretty Little Thing, Asos or Boohoo. Confidence the product will arrive tomorrow, inevitably becomes more appealing than @crazydaisy214 on Vinted promising to get it to the post office after work.

Students are also challenged to buy clothes sustainably, purely by our social media. TikTok has encouraged the acceleration of microtrends within Gen Z culture, to a dangerous level.

The algorithm quickly dissects what trends and fashion the viewer would find most appealing, giving creators the ability to engage directly with their target market. Gen Z will engage with hundreds of videos per day, meaning trends flood in and out of fashion at a rate even fast fashion brands struggle to keep up with. It doesn’t stop at TikTok – Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram have made it easier than ever for small businesses to directly attack their target market using the algorithm, leaving Gen Z at a higher risk of over consumption of clothing than ever before.

Recent growth of TikTok Shop allows viewers to instantly buy products seen in videos at huge discounts. Removing all sense of sustainability by acting purely on impulse. None of these products hold any sustainable value and the majority are shipped from China over the course of a few weeks. Behaviour that consumers would not usually buy into if it was any other brand. This impulsivity removes the rationale behind purchasing products sustainably and has dangerous consequences for the environment.

The growth of TikTok shop will undercut big corporations like Urban Outfitters, which alike its competitors – greenwash products from the same factories, selling at a higher profit margin to make the product seem more valuable and better quality. Some may argue this is the lesser of two evils – to cut the demand for products from these fast fashion companies, however this remains still so far from the sustainable solution.

"Students are stuck between buying newly manufactured polyester, which is seemingly on trend and arriving tomorrow before 1pm – for half the price of the “1990s y2k vintage” Depop listing which is covered in some questionable stains or moth holes."

The reason ‘trend culture’ is inherently unsustainable and damaging to the planet is due to the attitude it has inflicted on Gen Z that clothes are disposable products. This means that once a product goes out of trend, the automatic solution is to sell the product, or dispose of it. TikTok has accelerated product/trend lifecycles, which used to last for several years, and now last for a matter of weeks. This is causing an exponential increase in waste, that the planet cannot afford to accommodate.

Even when students do choose to shop sustainably from a small business, it will most likely coincide with a higher price. This means it will usually take a few weeks to save up for. At the pace the trends are moving, the need for the product has become obsolete by the time the student has saved up. Or the design has been ripped off and sold for a fraction of the price by a fast fashion brand, like Pretty Little Thing. Causing the product to become too mainstream and falling out of fashion within a matter of weeks.

While scrolling through social media, it is hard to escape influencers promoting their new collections with fast fashion brands. It is so rare to come across influencers who are promoting sustainable fashion, let alone at an affordable price for a student. Hopefully with the recent Love Island partnership with eBay, Gen Z can hope to see some change. Instead of our feeds are currently saturated with 70% sales, fashion edits from influencers and reward programmes for consuming more products – all contributing to the mass overproduction of clothing worldwide.

The new trendy solution to Gen Z shopping sustainably is to build a wardrobe of good quality basics so that eventually there is no need to buy anything new. This is the new fashionable excuse to buy 5 different colour “conscious” long sleeve vests from H+M remains unknown.

Sam Wainer, 20, from the University of Bath explores the role of gender in the demonisation of fast-fashion. Find his LinkedIn here.

Fast fashion as a 21-year old, male, student.

Menswear and blokes’ fashion is generally shadowed by its female counterparts. Which is why when I was googling around the subject of fast fashion, I honestly really struggled to find anything that related to me, a 21-year-old male student. The headlines are dominated by brands like Shein, Missguided and PrettyLittleThing all of which are largely targeted exclusively at women. Any media generally paints the idea that girls buying new clothes is the sole driver of fast fashion, something I find quite hard to believe. Though they probably fund most of the sales, us chaps don’t escape entirely. Everyone loves a bargain no matter your gender. I just think men buy less clothes less frequently. 

The main subject not spoken about enough in terms of fast fashion is men’s sport kit. No article I read online about fast fashion mentioned the likes of Mike Ashley’s Frasers group. The Group owns brands like Sports direct, Sondico and Karrimor all of which produce low cost/ low quality sportswear. Whilst still owning Missguided, a brand commonly featured in headlines about fast fashion, as a male it is the sports and outdoor wear aspect of fast fashion that concerns me as a consumer rather than new clubbing dresses.

"Any media generally paints the idea that girls buying new clothes is the sole driver of fast fashion, something I find quite hard to believe."

The Fraser group shows other common signs of fast fashion across its subsidiaries, by this I mean a presence of illegal working conditions, disregard for employee welfare and unethical practices. In 2015, 200 staff members were given just 15 minutes notice of redundancy then again over the course of 2 years a reported 76 ambulances were called to their distribution centre in Shirebrook, Derbyshire. Famously one of these calls outs even escalated to a woman giving birth in the employee toilets. 

When researching this article, I really wanted to find a way to show men their role in combating fast fashion. Learning about the wider group attached to Sports Direct has made me realise how I have brought essentially disposable sports kit from there countless times. I know this will be true for men across the country, it’s always the case that if you’ve lost your football socks, gum shield or under shirt you hop in the car to sports direct. 

Fast fashion doesn’t have to be the purchase of new clothes every month. The amount of football mad fans that happily purchase their teams new kit every season then shove it deep into their wardrobe the following season. When I first started thinking about the scale of this, I realised there’s 92 football league teams each with a fan base ranging from thousands to millions of supporters. In 2021 Liverpool alone sold 2.45 million pounds worth of shirts (for a single season) – that’s one club out of the 92, shocking right?

For that reason alone, it’s of no surprise that these clubs decide to churn out new strips every summer for their loyal paying customers aka fans. Again, another aspect of the fast fashion cycle not really thought about. Recently though fans have started to recognise the lack of requirement for new kits. Take a look at this example between Liverpool’s 2021/22 (left) kit and their new 2022/23 (right) kit:

Same kit manufacturer, sponsors and colour with the only change being the removal of those thin diagonal chest stripes. Fortunately, I think clubs are recognising the false economy at play with the premier league club Brentford making headlines by deciding to keep last season’s design for the new season and save their fans some extra cash but also reduce their waste. There’s always talk about how brands like Shein or Zara release millions of pounds worth of clothes and designs for the ‘new season’ but look at the football clubs!

Yes this is a drop in the ocean of the $30bn market and though we aren’t buying new clubbing dresses and tops termly gents, my advice would just be to look at your wardrobe and think before we jump down the throats of the girls.

Bea Park, 22, a recent graduate from the University of Nottingham explores the role individuality plays in student fashion culture, asking: Where do students get their fashion inspo from?

Where are students getting their fashion inspo from in 2022? The value of campuses.

We all know student trends are dynamic, evolutionary and iconic, but where are they getting their inspiration? What makes us want to jump on trends with the rest of Gen-Z, or run as fast away from them as we possibly can? What role does social media play in the relationship between students and fashion? There’s certainly no scientific formula as to what makes students tick, but there’s an awful lot to be said for university peers. While yes, of course we consume Tik Toks, Instagram and influencers more hungrily than any other generation, the influence of our peers, in person, is not to be underestimated.


No place quite like it

University is one of the most unique social environments we come across in our lives, in the sense that (generally speaking…sorry mature students) you will never be surrounded by so many people, in such distinct proximity, of your own age. But what is so incredible, when you take a step back from it all, is the subtle differences between friends, then those differences between friendship groups, teams and societies, that ultimately results in the diversity, individuality and personality that drenches student fashion. The days of teenage uniformity, a drowning desire to blend in, to fit the high-street mannequin style, is replaced by an urge to add personality. But where does this inspiration come from?

"The days of teenage uniformity, a drowning desire to blend in, to fit the high-street mannequin style, is replaced by an urge to add personality."

So indie, it’s mainstream

Being at university exposes students to a hugely diverse range of backgrounds, cultures and fashion, allowing students to express themselves in a way never deemed possible in their hometowns. Being thrown into such a petri-dish of styles, not one student can say their fashion hasn’t altered, grown or developed, at least partially, since joining university. 

A sneak peak at some trainers here, a glance at a label there, even peeking over the girl infront’s online shopping order in lectures. We are wholly engulfed and reactive to student fashion for three years, in all of its wonderful shapes, sizes and shades. 

Being exposed, to so much freedom of expression, no school-like uniform and a student loan (!) sways the happy medium of our previous blending-in clothing to a fantastically diverse range. This reactive range would be slowed or stopped altogether if its consumers weren’t absorbing these trends in person, constantly. This unique exposure cannot be replicated online, and in seeking individuality, students propel trends to mutate, digress and expand.

Of course, the online realm can and does dictate styles and trends, but the intensity of the student bubble creates the unique circumstance for a hyper-reaction. This very reaction is where students get their inspiration.

Social Media and expression:

While individual expression in real life plays a huge role in student fashion, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any credit to be given to social media’s influence on this culture of individuality. However, the relationship between the online and in-person fashion realm is a complex one. Fashion and individuality can and very much are being expressed through social media presence, Depop shops and social engagements, but, there is a fine line. Do online algorithms define and shape our individual style, or are we defining and shaping it ourselves?

There is certainly scope for this individual expression online, but despite the widely held assumption of a screen obsessed generation, I genuinely believe there is more strength in fashion leaders in person on campus, that can be corroborated online, than the reverse. While online influencers or models definitely shape what styles and pieces we take notice of, it is the cat-walk of university life that truly shapes this distinct student individuality. A perfectly lit, well-manicured model can certainly encourage us to consider an item, but is no match for constant exposure to styles and trends while we study, shop and go out. These repeat interactions gently shape tastes, styles and wearability, in my opinion, distinctly more than anything seen online. 

"Do online algorithms define and shape our individual style, or are we defining and shaping it ourselves?"

Game plan

So where do we go from here? Should brands focus on one off pieces, cast off a social media strategy and focus on style leaders on campus? Not at all! Social media and the online fashion realm is not one to be ignored and can have real, meaningful impacts on styles and trends. However, to drive positive associations from Gen-Z, campaigns need to be organically based, authentic and individual. Students can see through in-genuine, one-off online ads, and instead respond to authentic relationships between the clothes they see online with the fashion they see all around them. Ultimately, fashion and style is all about being able to actually see yourself wearing something, and looking amazing in it. If they can’t relate to the people they see wearing particular clothes and trends, they’re less likely to engage with those clothes. 

There is no scientific formula, but that’s the beauty of style. Fashion will continue to evolve this semester, and students will continue to dance around the fine line of individuality and trends. The way for brands to harness the student audience will be through expressive pieces, aligning with student values and being fashion leaders where students can see it: in person.