Why TikTok's favorite #haul trend isn’t great for the environment

Fast fashion brands are often a go-to for aspiring and bonafide influencers alike.

Young woman unboxing purchased clothes from online shopping event.
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“I have another Target haul for you,” says TikTok user @maddogshauls as she begins one of her videos.

She pulls out various products from off screen: concealer; pink, plush sandals that would’ve paired nicely with a summer version of Sebastian Stan’s Met Gala look; and heart-shaped red sunglasses. She dangles each piece in front of the camera as she describes them, making various audible gasps to indicate how cute the items are while letting her viewers know why she was compelled to buy them and at what cost.

The #haul trend has become a social media marketing tool for fashion brands to garner more customers. Many of these haul videos are focused on clothes from Shein, Revolve, H&M, Urban Outfitters, and Zara — brands that rely on synthetic materials, such as nylon and polyester. While these materials keep costs low for both the company and consumer, the clothes last about as long as the trends that inspire them.

Such quick turnaround encourages customers and creators who are seeking inexpensive, ever-changing, and fashionable wardrobes to keep coming back for more, creating a viciously quick cycle of creation, purchase, and waste. Thus, the popular and ever-growing internet trend encourages mass consumption, fast fashion, and waste, worsening the environmental crisis.

This trouble with a haul like @maddogshauls’ is that it’s not a one-off affair. While her videos are made unique by her own style and cadence, they mimic many others. (The TikToker did not respond to Input’s request for comment.) A quick search of #haul on TikTok pulls up 18.8 billion views, making it one of the top trends on the platform. Each video features creators showing off recent gifts and purchases, making for an adult version of the unpacking and unwrapping videos kids are obsessed with.

Another popular account run by Kate Bartlett, @katebartlett, features a video she made called a “PR haul,” exhibiting how many packages she receives from brands on any given day. She pulls out several boxes from Instagram, Amazon, Set Active (a brand that often partners with SHEIN and Revolve), and several others for her 1.3 million followers. One box is from Conair and has thousands of purple plastic streamers, making for a makeshift bassinet for the blow-dryer inside. Kate mentions she’ll be finding these little “purple things” all over her house. She finishes the video by saying, “It never stops feeling like Christmas morning.” A comment from one user pops up reading, “The amount of waste makes my heart hurt.”

The creator @alexa.haulss begins a video by holding up a giant plastic bag with the name SHEIN written across the side in bold, black letters. Ripping open the bag, she dumps several other smaller plastic bags that look like palm-sized candy onto the floor. “All of my hauls are from SHEIN because I’m broke and can’t afford to buy expensive clothes,” she says before trying on each item. She’s not alone. In my haul doomscroll, I stumble upon several other accounts that have #SHEINhaul or #RevolveHaul in their bio, all doing 180- and 360-degree spins in various sets and pieces from the two brands.

The advent of Instagram and TikTok [made] anyone from a viewer to a content creator feel as though they could be the next Joan Rivers.

People in the comments ask for discount codes for each item, and many creators provide one, indicating they have a partnership with whichever brand they’re doing a haul for. Others ask for clarification on where the clothes are from, compliment the creator on their fashion choices, or say they can’t wait to buy a certain item. The clothes are cute carbon copies of the latest fashion trends shown on mostly thin bodies, all placing an emphasis on retail therapy, feeling good about yourself, and dressing to impress.

Around 10 percent of global carbon emissions each year comes from the fashion and textile industry, marking a 5 percent increase since 2000. Although it could be argued that the global population increase of 6.2 billion to 7.9 billion from 2000 to now accounts for the need to pump out more clothing, consumers are actually keeping their clothes for half as long as they once did.

The sheer amount of clothing waste, approximately a garbage truck load per second, is made possible by the importance placed on “what’s hot right now.” To encourage constant consumption, fast-fashion brands pump out dozens of collections a year, making an item of clothing that was popular in January out of fashion by March. The increased rate in clothing production influences consumers to buy more of what they don’t need in an attempt to stay up to date. Such consumption has only been made worse since the advent of Instagram and now TikTok, making anyone from a viewer to a content creator feel as though they could be the next Joan Rivers.

Becoming a successful influencer or digital content creator can be life-changing, and it’s a desirable vocation amongst social media users who want the flexibility, freedom, and security that the creator economy can sometimes boast. But these creators are often building a platform from the ground up, the same way someone builds a business. In order to grow an audience, a creator must often invest time, energy, and capital upfront before any brands will actively seek a partnership. In the early stages of this work, turning to fast fashion brands can be quite tempting. Bulk purchases can be made to create content without breaking the bank. Once that following is established, however, it might be difficult to break away and start presenting a more sustainable message.

“I have tried to be more mindful, but sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Secora Hawks, a “ThriftTok-er” with the handle @secora, tells Input: “A majority of the brands that reach out [for collaborations] aren’t sustainable. Sustainable clothing brands are unfortunately not as accessible to lower-income people. Since a majority of my content is thrifting related, sharing these types of finds are a lot more realistic for a majority of my followers who are in younger age ranges.”

Fast fashion brands do make trendy clothing more accessible to those of lower means. But where does the social and environmental responsibility of an influencer compare to that of a consumer?

“I have worked with a fast fashion brand before and honestly felt really guilty about it,” Hawks says. About a year ago, a fast fashion brand approached Hawks for a collaboration that gave her free bathing suits. Hawks, finding herself in need of new summer swimwear, jumped at the chance for free merchandise. “I have tried to be more mindful and picky in the collaborations I’ve done [since], but sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” she says.

Watching the waste accumulate on the screen during countless haul videos, I can’t help but wish some of these creators were creating something else. Yet it’s difficult to imagine given the current state of the fashion industry and the pervasive nature of social media. To become successful on social media, especially TikTok and Instagram, creators are encouraged to post once a day, making it nearly impossible in Fashion-Tok to gain a steady momentum without constant purchases. It is the digital form of “keeping up with the Joneses,” except the Joneses are content creators with thousands more followers than you.

“There’s only so many choices,” says Tessa Callaghan, CEO and co-Founder of AlgiKnit, an eco-conscious company that makes workable yarn and fiber out of kelp. “The shift really needs to exist in the industry itself. It’s true that fashion is one of the largest contributors to the climate crisis, but the reality is, that won’t change until there’s a global transition.” Companies continue to over-produce synthetic clothing, leaving consumers with few cost-effective options for sustainable fashion. Without a reimagined industry, the cycle is set to continue.

This continuum makes it difficult for both influencers and consumers alike to make ethical, sustainable decisions. Yet the term “influencer” is derived from the role’s ability to shift and encourage certain practices, or to otherwise influence behavior. The creator economy begs a particular all-encompassing presence, one that costs time and money to adhere to, making the fast fashion option cheaper and more viable for those trying to make their accounts and videos go viral. So what can influencers do in the interim, as we wait for the industry to change?

A spool of AlgiKnit’s kelp-derived fiber. AlgiKnit

“The most sustainable thing is transparency,” says Malvika Sheth, a digital content creator and founder of @stylebymalvika. “If influencers started shifting the focus to why they purchase what they do rather than solely about what they purchase, then the needle might start shifting to consumers making more knowledgeable, sustainable choices.”

This explanation might also give pause in creators’ buying or collaborating habits, encouraging a “stop-and-think” method designed to emphasize quality over quantity. The virality of these #haul videos, ones geared at encouraging others to buy fast fashion items en masse, perpetuates the ever-growing climate crisis, a problem intertwined with the continued growth of both the fashion and tech industries.

It is a perplexing scenario to find oneself in: navigating how to engage in ethical creation in an era that both begs for it and negates it. Yet it is the pervasive and unrelenting loyalty to the easy path that solidifies the severity of our environmental circumstances.