People Are Buying Clothes to Wear for a Single Instagram Pic

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POC man takes selfie of himself for instagram in front of colorful wall mural

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If you're ever wondering what the rest of the world is wearing on a given day, try searching #ootd on Instagram. You'll come up with more than 235 million posts of people showing off their 'outfit of the day'. Type in the entire phrase #outfitoftheday and you'll find an additional 40 million pictures of people posing in their fashion-forward attire. It's more than enough to make me feel exceedingly frumpy in my home-office duds.

The act of posting one's outfit online may seem innocent and fun. The wearer gets the instant gratification of an approving audience, brands get attention, and viewers get #fashioninspo (we might as well continue with the lingo here) for putting together their own fabulous outfits. (Never mind the fact that the replicas never look quite so put-together as the original fabulous outfits, but hey, at least we're trying.)

There is, however, a dark side to all this posting. One of the most insidious influences in the Instagram fashion world is the reluctance to repeat outfits; it's considered embarrassing to be caught in the same outfit twice. This means that people are buying clothes just to post their picture and then returning them to retailers.

Buying to Return

A survey of over 2,000 shoppers, conducted by British credit card company Barclaycard last August, found that 10 percent of shoppers admit to buying clothes for the purpose of posting to social media and then returning them. In the 35-44 age group, this number rises to one in five. (Oddly, the study excluded teens, who are huge Instagram users and would likely drive up that number considerably.) Interestingly, men are more likely to do this than women, with 12 percent posting a picture on social media then returning it to the store, compared to only 7 percent of women.

"It’s not just virtual vanity, one in 10 men also say they would feel embarrassed for a friend to see them in the same outfit twice compared to seven per cent of women. More men (15 percent) also admit to wearing clothes with the tags on in case they want to return them, compared to 11 per cent of women."

When a person's entire life is documented on social media – not just their daily fashion posts – the risk of being caught in the same outfit becomes greater than ever. Few can afford to actually buy all of these clothes outright – and who could possibly store them all? So when stores offer free returns or the increasingly popular 'try before you buy' option, it's an irresistible solution.

Returned Clothes Going to Waste

But we need to start talking about how ridiculous and wasteful this is! No longer can we bury our heads in the sand and deny that the world will be fine, despite rampant consumption. All of these clothes take resources to produce, and all of them pollute when disposed of. Just because clothes are returned to the retailer does not mean they get resold to a more deserving and appreciative buyer down the road. As I wrote last fall after listening to a talk by Jeff Denby, co-founder of the Renewal Workshop,

"When you order a cute style in multiple sizes to get the right fit and send back the rest, a shocking 30 to 50 percent of those returned items never gets restocked. Instead, they are sent to warehouses, eventually shredded, and thrown in landfill or incinerated. An estimated 30 million units meet this fate each year in the United States, at a value of $1 billion."

Even the small act of removing a tag means an item can't go right back on the shelf; it has to be sent to a factory to get replaced and often doesn't make it back.

The Countermovement

Fortunately there is some pushback against this "do it for the 'gram" mentality. The rise of the capsule and/or minimalist wardrobe, the emphasis on quality over quantity, and the growing popularity of fashion rental companies (a more ethical alternative to buying new because people know they're getting pre-worn items) indicate a slow shift – but it can't come fast enough.

Call out your favorite fashion influencers and question their shopping practices. Ask them to be proud #OutfitRepeater (a paltry 18K IG posts) and explain why this matters. It's time to break the cycle of consumption for consumption's sake. Now that is the kind of influencing a person can and should be proud of.