Why TikTok is a threat to sustainable fashion

Updated: Nov 23

By: Icíar Cuenca Iglesias


TikTok’s popularity has skyrocketed over the last year. The Chinese social media platform, based around creating short videos aimed at anyone and no one in particular, has grown exponentially. It recently reached 1 billion users (TikTok reached 1 billion monthly active users | TechCrunch), partly thanks to the 2020 pandemic, which forced us to stay at home, and was the moment in which many decided to become ”tiktokers”, that is, TikTok creators whose job consists of creating and uploading videos to a growing audience.


Like any other social media platforms, TikTok has become a source of income for a few celebrities and influencers. However, its particularity is that in order for a video to become viral and accumulate thousands if not millions of likes, it doesn’t have to be posted by a famous person. That is, a random video about no matter what content posted by a completely unknown person can become viral in the span of a few hours if TikTok’s algorithm favors it. Such algorithm displays videos fitted to the users’ preferences in the “for you page”, which is the first page that pops up when opening the app. Abbreviated as FYP for simplicity by TikTok users, it’s customizable and tailored to your own interests and interactions with other videos and creators. ( If I love dogs and I keep liking videos of dogs, chances are my fyp will show me dog videos. )


This modus operandi sounds great, as it differs from other platforms where the user must follow certain people in order to access their content. However, there is always two sides to the story, and TikTok’s algorithm makes it even easier for the user to be influenced. In certain sides of TikTok such as #fashiontok, where the fyp does more harm than good.


In regards to fashion, there is a specific segment on the app called #fashionTok, where creators upload a wide range of videos which vary from fashion history discussions to clothing try-ons and “hauls”, that is, videos where the users show the garments they’ve bought. As innocuous as this content may seem, #fashiontok has rapidly developed into a safe space for fast fashion praise and consumerism. Over the last year, more and more creators have uploaded thousands of videos in which they show the clothes they’ve recently purchased, which most of the time come from fast fashion brands such as H&M, Zara or SHEIN. (https://vm.tiktok.com/ZM8q5XCYV/) Advocates for fast fashion point out that these types of stores are the only available option for those with a restricted budget or low disposable income, given that generally speaking, sustainable brands are more expensive. However, the issue is that most creators show hauls worth hundreds of dollars. As most commentators point out in the comment section of such videos, if the creator is able to freely spend $600 on fast fashion brands, they are presumed to be able to access sustainable and eco-friendly brands.


As aforementioned, TikTok’s nature enables videos to become viral much quicker than in any other social platform, so the birth of trends is as quick as their lifespan. Even if some of these trendy garments have originally come from sustainable brands, a rise in popularity will speed up the process to develop “dupes” in fast fashion stores, with the subsequent quality loss balanced by the attractive low price. Practical examples include the House of sunny dress, allegedly ethically produced and at an original price of $128 which went viral on Tiktok in spring of 2021 after many girls posted videos showing it. Not too long afterwards, social media was flooded with “dupes” recommendations for this particular dress, with an average price of $30 on websites such as SHEIN or Amazon. Nowadays, in so-called “out of fashion” videos, this dress is usually displayed as démodé after a modest two months of being extremely trendy.


Similarly, TikTok try-on videos, likely to have popped up in thousands of FYP across the globe, influence many to run to their closest fast fashion shop (or to its website) in order to purchase an item that they’ve seen countless times thanks to the algorithm. I, too, unfortunately, have fallen victim to this strategy. During the summer, in Spain, a green Zara dress became viral after multiple girls posted try-ons in which they praised the dress for its material, shape and design. As thousands of other girls did, after watching those videos I wanted to see what the dress would look like on me, so I bought it. I was genuinely excited at first, partly because my FOMO made me want to have the dress and partly because I thought it was pretty. Although I didn’t love it, I kept it in hopes of using it during the summer. To my surprise, when I put it on to wear it for the first time, I did not like how the dress looked on me and it was unfortunately too late when I came to this realization. I had bought something just because many other people had it as well and hadn’t asked myself two basic questions: “Do I genuinely like it? Or did I buy it because everyone else did and I didn’t want to miss out?”



Although TikTok is a useful platform to spread information and awareness on certain topics, it certainly poses a threat to sustainability in the fashion world, given the enormous amounts of videos which can be found under the hashtags #sheinhaul or #fastfashion. Although not every single person who watches videos of fast fashion glorification is influenced, a vast majority is intrigued by the clothing and thus driven to shopping in these stores, at the expense of sustainable fashion.


Currently, more and more creators are beginning to post thrift hauls instead, where they show unique pieces that they’ve found in thrift stores or vintage stores, in an effort to clarify that sustainable fashion doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive or difficult to access. In spite of this, some thrift goers have actually been shocked to find fast fashion garments which supposedly were trendy a few months ago in the thrift bins. If we asked ourselves the real reason why we buy certain clothes, maybe trend cycles wouldn't be as short as they are now.