Retail

Social Media Fueled Fast Fashion. Now It Has to Kill It.

Social media influencers helped fuel the rise of disposable fashion. Now they're making a turn toward sustainability, but is it too late to crush the monster they created?

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If you search “haul” on YouTube, you’ll find an endless library of shoppers displaying enormous armfuls of brand-new clothing.

Social media personalities started developing distinct “personal brands” to differentiate themselves from other content creators in the late 00s, making haul-style videos to showcase their individual styles. While the format remains the same as it was a decade ago—bundles of clothing are held up to camera, tried on, and split into keep and return piles—the motivation to post has shifted.

The Rise of #Ad

While haul videos were originally used to show off cute outfits and share great deals, they have evolved to become an advanced digital marketing channel. Now, brands are fully behind it: they compensate creators (not to mention gift them with product) if they’ll feature glowing reviews of the brand’s items, advertise discount codes, and share affiliate links so customers can shop them without getting up from the sofa.

In the early days of paid promotions, it was difficult to discern this type of advertising from unpaid, editorial content. But the scale of social media marketing, and the power of influencers, was revealed in 2017 when the FTC condemned undisclosed endorsements and mandated that paid promotions be called out as such (leading to “#ad” and “#spon” hashtags suddenly dominating timelines).

Despite the regulations, influencers kept going even faster than before. The constant churn of new items became the norm, and followers sought to emulate their favorite influencers by buying outfits to fuel new content. Some even bought clothes, photographed them to post online, and promptly sent them back.

Social media companies only promoted the promoters. With 87% of people saying influencers have inspired them to make a purchase, Instagram capitalized on their cachet by integrating shopping features with their platform, such as external links, product tags, product launch countdowns, and live shopping.

The TikTok Generation

TikTok, the latest influencer-approved social site, is also testing social commerce strategies after being inspired by the success of its Chinese sister brand Douyin. The implementation of shoppable ads and livestreams suggests a further shift toward commercialized social media that will break down the barriers between liking a product and making a purchase.

All of the above is no small contributor to a massive sustainability problem: namely, the 92 million tons of textile waste created globally every year. Especially when it comes to fast fashion, which is particularly destructive to the planet.

But the tides have begun to turn. As TikTok continues to invest in social commerce features and influencers migrate to the new app, it has also become a hotspot for creativity, upcycling, and reuse.

The prime example of this is the now-infamous SS20 menswear JW Anderson cardigan. Harry Styles wore the brand’s signature patchwork knit on The Today Show in February 2020 and inspired a slew of handmade recreations made for a fraction of the $1890 price tag. User @lilbittylivvie’s making-of video garnered over one million likes, while the “Harry Styles cardigan” tag has over 70 million views on the app.

While TikTok has become a home for do-it-yourself tutorials, Y2K upcycling montages, and craft how-tos, the kickback against fast fashion and overconsumption shows up differently across platforms.

The Hot New Thing: Old Outfits

On Instagram, where the influencer as we know it came to be, a new breed of sustainability is blooming. Creators post their “#oootd” (old outfit of the day—a riff on the now-ubiquitous #ootd: outfit of the day), take pride in being an “outfit repeater,” and style what they already have in multiple ways to show their followers that everything they need is already in their closet.

Instagram has also been pivotal in exposing greenwashing. Sustainability influencers question brands’ lofty claims and unearth misinformation causing fewer businesses to make vague, sweeping claims in fear of being canceled. Instead, they’re compelled to take concrete, verifiable action or even admit that they’re not truly sustainable and focus on tangible goals over PR-friendly headlines.

Sustainability influencers and activists also offer shareable quotes and digestible infographics that introduce alternative approaches to fashion. Shocking statistics, reuse inspiration, and “haulternatives” quickly find an audience of millions, sparking action and shifting perspectives.

Battle of the Social Media Platforms

Cross-posting on Instagram and TikTok is popular among young generations, but Facebook’s older crowd champions conscious consumerism in private community groups. Members of sustainable fashion communities share upcycling tips, suggest places to buy quality second-hand clothing, and facilitate garment swapping. Creative communities flourish, sharing upcycling tutorials, beginners' guides, and virtual styling workshops. Facebook is less personality-based than Instagram or TikTok and has become a platform for the generous exchange of information, resources, and in some cases, outfits.

Each major social media platform has its own discourse and strategy, but all are critical—if not always consistent—partners in the fight against the unsustainable shopping habits they helped establish. It’s an uphill battle, however; there are 2.3 million haul posts on Instagram, and videos tagged “#ad” have racked up over 44 billion views on TikTok.

So, as outfit repeaters challenge serial shoppers, and mend-and-thrift hauls threaten to dethrone the original haul video, social media has become a key tool in the fight against fast fashion. There's still hope that the quick growth and easy access that helped fast fashion grow is now aiding its downfall.

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