Gen Alpha is next in line to step into spending power, and their influence on the fashion market may well be exactly what the industry needs in the midst of a climate crisis.
The new generation facing up to a scary climate reality
Generation Alpha, born between 2010 and 2024, are coming into a world defined by one particular, unavoidable truth: the climate crisis is here, and it’s getting worse.
But how might this indisputable fact impact the way the younger siblings of generation Z behave, think, and consume? Could coming of age against a backdrop of catastrophic extreme weather see them transform one of the most pervasive and environmentally destructive industries of our time? We are, of course, talking about fast fashion.
But before we get into how the world’s youngest generation might impact the clothing industry, first we need to define exactly why talking about a generational divide is relevant in this instance. So let’s start there.
Who are generation Alpha? And why are we talking about generations, anyway?
“They are the start of something new, not a return to the old,” said Australian social researcher Mark McCrindle, who was the first to decide that the generation born from 2010 onwards would be known formally as “generation Alpha.”
“It conforms to the scientific nomenclature of using the Greek alphabet instead of the Latin alphabet,” he explained on his social research platform McCrindle. “And there was no point in going back to A. After all, they are the first generation born fully into the 21st century.”
For some, this concept of dividing people up into generations seems a little nonsensical. Do people born in the same time period really possess a set of characteristics so different from previous generations that it’s worth defining them by one arbitrary term for their entire existence? It’s up for debate—much like most of the strange behaviours of late stage capitalism.
But for researchers trying to predict and assess how certain social, cultural, and economic events happening now might impact the future, splitting people up into age groups can be helpful, explains Dr. Gordon Fletcher of Salford Business School, whose areas of research include digital business, digital transformation, innovation, and change.
“Generations can be very useful for identifying groups of people who will have shared history, common cultural references, have completed their education at a similar time, and will usually have parental influences from the previous generation to rebel against,” he notes.
He adds: “Although two individuals born in the same year may have very different stories, the important point is that their stories share the same background of world events, popular songs, new technologies, and celebrities.”
For generation Alpha, the climate crisis and how we handle it now defines their future.
For generation Alpha, the climate crisis and how we handle it now defines their future. After all, many will live to see the world move into the 2100s. A century that may or may not be defined by complete climate catastrophe, depending how much we continue to procrastinate here in the 2020s. So, it’s safe to say, the stakes are pretty high.
But this generation is also the first generation to be born into a world completely dominated by technology. They were the first to be handed a pacifying iPad as a baby, or to fall asleep to the sound of white noise generated on an iPhone 14 Pro.
“This is a generation already really familiar with the metaverse—it is called Roblox and Minecraft,” says Fletcher. “The indicator, so far, is that [generation Alpha’s] collective assumption is that the businesses are by default online and that physical products from these businesses will get delivered within 24 hours.”
This presents a predicament for those hoping to see an end to fast fashion in the near future. The clue is in the name, but this is a business model that thrives on delivering to your door a zeptosecond after you’ve clicked purchase. For young consumers, this signals a big conflict of interest—one that Alpha’s older sibling gen Z has already fallen foul to.
Fast fashion dug its heels in with gen Z, will the same happen for the Alphas?
For years, gen Zers have been called the most caring, compassionate, environmentally conscious generation yet, largely because, like the Alphas, they were born into a world hyper aware of the climate emergency.
But despite this, they are still the biggest consumer group of fast fashion—even though research suggests this industry is destroying the planet by filling up landfills with plastic waste, pumping out up to 10% of carbon emissions, and also, lest we forget, exploiting not thousands, but tens of millions of garment workers around the globe.
This may be all to do with something called the intention-behaviour gap, which, in a nutshell, is a cognitive theory that refers to the space between wanting to do something, and actually doing it. The intention-behaviour gap is strong with gen Z and fast fashion.
According to a study last year by Unidays, a popular discount website for students worldwide, two-thirds of gen Z want their clothes to be manufactured to the highest ethical standards, and almost 80% say that sustainable fashion is important to them. But their relationship with fast fashion still persists.
SHEIN remains one of the most popular brands to post about on TikTok, gen Z’s social media platform of choice. And, at the time of writing, #sheinhaul has nearly 10bn views.
This is likely because the ultra fast fashion giant has nailed the mean feat of delivering trend-led garments at very cheap prices (at the time of writing, one of the cheapest items of clothing on SHEIN’s UK website is a crop top for less than £2.50.) To put it simply, this is a very appealing business model to a group of trend-led consumers who, in general, haven’t reached an age where they are generating much disposable income yet.
The slippery, changing image of fast fashion
But to say gen Z hasn’t influenced any change at all would be unfair to Greta Thunberg’s peers. Alongside fast fashion, they are also the main target consumer group for apps like Depop and Vinted, each of which specialise in the resale of pre-loved clothing, helping to keep more garments from ending up in the landfill.
That same Unidays study found that nearly 40% of gen Z would buy pre-loved clothing, because it’s more sustainable than fast fashion. And according to Statista, it’s gen Z that will help drive the resale market to a value of $218bn in 2026, up from $96bn in 2021.
But fast fashion is clever. It evolves and adapts to fit the tastes of its primary consumers, hence why it has strived to achieve such a high level of TikTok domination. The industry as a whole now also understands this pull of resale, and has managed to tie that business model to its own, with many companies—including SHEIN, Zara, and Pretty Little Thing—launching their own pre-loved platforms.
This gives gen Z the illusion that the intention-behaviour gap is now closing. That they can have their cake, and eat it too. Or in this case, have their Zara miniskirt, and buy it too. And then another, and then another, and then another. But for every pre-loved garment they buy, there’s a new shiny option they can choose next.
The same brands that are launching resale platforms aren’t scaling down the amount of new clothing they offer. If anything, they’re scaling up production.
And that’s because the same brands that are launching resale platforms aren’t scaling down the amount of new clothing they offer. If anything, they’re scaling up production. And many of the garments they’re making and selling are not actually suitable for multiple rewear anyway, so they’ll still end up in the landfill sooner rather than later (just take a look at SHEIN’s quality reviews for further proof of that assessment).
But despite gen Z’s appetite for fast fashion, this generation has, arguably, planted seeds of change when it comes to clothing consumption. Time will tell if generation Alpha can nourish those seeds to produce the fruit of a more sustainable fashion industry, but right now, it’s looking hopeful.
Look out fast fashion, Alphas are set to establish a new status quo
“The signals are that Alphas are taking the expectations and behaviours of previous generations even further,” says Fletcher. “They are the generation to ‘do’ something rather than just ‘talk’ about it.”
And we’re already seeing this in the way they engage and interact with their parents, who are, for the most part, millennials.
Millennials are a unique generation: they know their way around a walkman, an MP3 player, and an iPhone, and as a result of the latter, were among the first to be obsessed with social media. This also made them the first fodder for fast fashion, which linked up with social media pretty fast, helping to birth influencer culture. But Alphas are rebelling against all of this, observes Fletcher.
“Alphas are showing signs of being critical, ethical, and conscious consumers, even pushing back on their own parents’ online behaviours,” he notes. “Unlike millennials, they are more likely to put down their device and do activities that are thoroughly analogue.” He added: “They are already showing themselves to be more than just ‘mini-millennials.’”
But while they rebel against the immediate generations before them, Alphas are also developing signs of romanticising their grandparent’s generation. “Alphas, and [gen Z] beforehand, show nostalgia for earlier generations, including the baby boomers,” he adds. And this romanticization could serve them well. Boomers may have a reputation for creating the climate mess we’re in now, but it’s important to remember that those born between 1946 and 1964 also initiated some of the most influential environmental movements of our time.
Think of Earth Day, for example, which is now in its 53rd year. It started in 1970, when many boomers were in their teens and 20s, after a massive Santa Barbara oil spill shocked California. Subsequent activism created real, tangible change in the form of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Gen Alpha may go searching for the life that existed before we were all glued to a screen, and as a result, develop more sustainable shopping habits.
But boomer nostalgia could trickle into fashion choices, too. And not just in terms of style, as we’ve seen on many occasions, but in terms of behaviour. Fletcher says research suggests that Alphas may start to use the technology that defines their generation in a new way: as a tool for finding simplicity. They may go searching for the life that existed before we were all glued to a screen, and as a result, develop more sustainable shopping habits.
“Their goal not to be defined by the technology they use may come out in terms of fashion choices,” explains Fletcher. “Not just imitating the fashion of the 1960s, but actively seeking out the vintage clothing from this and other decades, when clothes were made to last. Seeking authenticity away from the screen—but discovered through the screen—could become defining for Alphas as they enter the workforce and become independent.”
Right now, it’s important to note, this is all largely informed guesswork. The oldest members of gen Alpha are only 13 years of age, which means they don’t have any real spending power or influence over the fashion market—yet. In just three or four short years, this generation of consumers is going to emerge strong. And if the trends and patterns observed so far are anything to go by, they’re going to be making some serious changes around here. Fast fashion, beware.