Micro-trends: The acceleration of fashion cycles and rise in waste

| May 17, 2021 | BY Mariel Nelson

I have always been eager to indulge in a trend—your leather blazers, pleated midi-skirts, I even purchased a peplum dress in my youth. Now that I’m edging further into my twenties, I think it’s about time that I identify, develop, and invest in my personal style as much as possible. My decision isn’t founded entirely in what I hope is maturity rather than prevention, but also in a new-found consciousness of how much waste is produced by the fashion industry and its consumers, myself included. For instance, did you know that in 2019, 208 million pounds of waste were created by single-use outfits? Or that the textile industry is the second largest polluter in the world after oil? 

The industry’s waste issue is alarming, and despite various brands’ and manufacturers’ efforts to operate more sustainably, this problem persists. It is perpetuated by micro-trends and the shortening of fashion cycles, which I believe can be tied to the rise of short video sharing platforms and influencer culture. 

So, what is a micro-trend when it comes to the fashion industry?  

A “trend” is defined as a general direction in which something is developing or changing, and when we apply that to the fashion industry, this describes the popularity of a specific type of style or piece of clothing. So, a micro-trend is one that quickly rises in popularity and falls even faster. The fashion cycle of a micro-trend is usually 3-5 years, while macro-trends typically last 5-10 years. Macro-trends are the styles we tend to associate with the different decades, for instance, shoulder pads of the eighties, drop-waist dresses in the twenties, and bell-bottom jeans in the seventies. 

The faster the fashion cycle, the greater amount of waste is produced. Consumers will likely buy more pieces to keep up with the higher volume of overlapping trends and wear them for shorter amounts of time as the pieces go quickly in and out of style. Unfortunately, this movement is increasing. The volume of clothing Americans throw away each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons in under 20 years. In under 15 years, clothing production doubled as well, with the average consumer buying 60 percent more clothing pieces. Each piece is now kept half as long.

So how, exactly, did micro-trends become mainstream?

Before the rise of Tik Tok and Instagram influencer culture, we looked to models, movies, celebrities, and fashion magazines to set the trends that many people carefully and diligently followed. This group of people was small, and our access to them was neatly curated, which ultimately limited the public’s exposure to potential new trends and kept fashion cycles slower. In the past 15 years or so, however, the rise of YouTube bloggers, and more recently, Instagram and Tik Tok creators, have given almost anyone the ability to influence the masses. Now, there are hundreds of thousands of potential trendsetters who can quickly and easily reach millions of people. 

To draw in viewers and followers, these creators cleverly oversaturate people’s feeds with new and up-and-coming trends from fast-fashion brands that can mass produce quickly and cheaply. Since these influencers are in competition with others in the same space, each person is racing to popularize the next big trend. This ultimately leads to many, varying posts and videos essentially saying, “Hey, you! This is the next big thing, so go out and buy it or your closet will be outdated.” Now, we have consumers buying more clothes at accelerated rates. This is what expedites fashion cycles and creates an overabundance of micro-trends, which causes colossal amounts of waste when consumers throw away their unwanted apparel to make room in their closets for the newest fashions of the week.     

So, what can be done?

Consumer waste is only a fraction of the fashion industry’s larger issues, but at least this is easier to solve on an individual level. These are a few of the methods I practice to shop and cycle more ethically and mindfully:

– When possible, I shop in consignment stores and apps, such as Thredup, The RealReal, Poshmark, and Depop. It is my humble opinion that giving lightly worn pieces a second life is an honor and a privilege. 

– I never throw away my clothes, though this may be the easy way out. Instead of throwing away old clothing, I opt to donate or sell them. The shops and apps listed in my previous point are wonderful ways to sell your goods, but clothing donation centers are even better!

– Finally, I want to put more effort into my closet and personal style by asking myself while I shop for clothes: will I still be wearing this in 5-10 years? Will it be conducive to the person I am then? I love fashion because it can reflect the person you are or want to be, and I genuinely hope that the person I am now is still shining through my clothes in 10 years. 

While I may not be perfect in the ways that I consume fashion or media, I am always trying to improve, which is what I urge others to do as well. 


Mariel Nelson