TikTok is shaping how Gen Z sees ‘sustainable’ fashion Leave a comment

Andrew Burgess has never taken a course on fashion or sustainability. But through TikTok, he’s helping shape how his generation thinks about both.

The 20-year-old, known on TikTok as @wandythemaker, is best known on the app for his “thrift flips”. In these videos, he shows the process of upcycling secondhand materials into new clothes. One of his most popular videos shows him turning a star pattern quilt into a hoodie, while another depicts him turning a woven Nascar blanket into trousers. He’s amassed 279k followers since he started posting on the app less than a year ago.

The self-taught designer and sewer is one of a cohort of Gen Z content creators who are making fashion that has a minimal impact on the environment look cool. Just don’t expect them to talk about “sustainability” much.

“I’m not gonna say I’m the biggest environmental activist,” Burgess says. “But I think it’s cool taking textiles and giving them new life, because there are so many unused textiles out there already.”

Burgess is a perfect window into the average TikToker. Almost half of the app’s users are between 18 and 24. The hashtag #sustainablefashion has more than 760m video views, and Lead of Fashion & Beauty Content Partnerships at TikTok CeCe Vu calls out “vintage fashion, thrift flipping, a lot of DIY and upcycling projects” as the most significant categories that fall under that hashtag.

Tierra Ruggebert is a 17-year-old whose page gained rapid popularity on TikTok when she began posting thrift flips via the handle @teaairaa. Though she learned to sew mostly from YouTube, she thinks the 15-minute tutorials posted there lose many people her age by being too long and “kind of boring”. TikTok’s super-short clips don’t have that problem.

17-year-old Tierra Ruggebert began posting thrift flips via the handle @teaairaa

One of Ruggebert’s upcycled pieces

As a result, users of the app are exposed to tons of ideas for altering or reusing old clothing that are pretty easy to try at home. Twenty-three-year-old Elle Magaña Mireles is one such TikToker, who doesn’t have a large following but has been inspired by what she’s seen other creators post. “I’ve learned really cool upcycling tips,” she says. “I tried the natural avocado tie dye technique to revamp an old shirt that was yellowing with age into this super cool faded pink colour.”

The proliferation of DIY videos of the kind that inspired Mireles is markedly different from the way “sustainable” fashion is popularised on other social-media platforms. Twitter’s highly linkable, text-first approach facilitates the easy sharing of information-packed articles, while Instagrammers use multi-slide carousels to share facts about everything from microplastics to labour abuse in the cotton fields of Xinjiang. On TikTok, which features short video clips that max out at one minute and restrict character limits, only highly visual content performs — which means users are more likely to learn how to sew pants or get the most out of their charity shop visit than about the granular details of supply chain ethics.

But even if these TikTokers aren’t talking about the environmental impact of their clothing all the time, they’re still helping popularise lower-impact wardrobes. Twenty-five-year-old Emma Rogue, aka @emma.rogue, uses her account to give her 338k followers tips about how to find clothing at thrift shops and resell it. She first got on the app to promote her secondhand business on the marketplace app Depop, and her account shows people how to tell whether a pair of jeans will fit without trying them on, how best to package orders and how to repair gently worn clothes. (Her strategy is working so far: a popular video on TikTok helped quadruple her following on Depop almost overnight).

Andrew Burgess has 279k followers on TikTok © Hanna Wondmagegn

“I love fashion first and foremost. The fact that I’m also being environmentally conscious by selling these secondhand pieces and reducing emissions — that’s totally an added benefit,” she says. “And I’m way more aware of the sustainability aspect now than when I first started.”

Rogue admits that more didactic content doesn’t always perform well. After she received comments questioning the environmental impact of the mailers she uses to send packages, Rogue made a video breaking down the difference between compostable, recyclable and recycled mailers. Despite her followers expressing a clear interest in the information beforehand, the video got far less engagement than her usual posts.

“It didn’t do well at all,” she says. “Nobody wanted to hear the real facts.”

Summer Dean, a 23-year-old who posts as @climatediva to 16.4k followers, understands that predicament well. Dean pursued environmental studies in college after witnessing the horrifying impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill first-hand as a middle schooler on the coast of Florida. Having spent much of her college career researching renewable energy policy, Dean has been eager to use social media to help her peers learn more about climate change and the environment — and considering she’s also a model, she has the kind of look that makes success on a highly visual platform more likely.

But Dean has run into the same issues Rogue faces. Though Dean’s first highly successful video was about the issues with fast fashion, she’s been frustrated to see videos that lean toward the informative fall flat.

Emma Rogue, aka @emma.rogue

Burgess demonstrates the process of upcycling secondhand materials into new clothes

“The challenge is that the form of the video is so short, and you really only have one or two seconds to keep someone’s attention,” she says. “It can be hard to convey nuance.”

Though Dean first started to get online traction via TikTok, she’s also quite active on Instagram, which she claims has a larger and more developed “ethical fashion” community. Whether that’s because the platform has been around longer or because of the way that Instagram allows for lengthier informative content, it means she sees TikTok as more of a jumping-off point that can inspire people to go elsewhere to learn more.

As far as 23-year-old Megan McSherry is concerned, that doesn’t make TikTok any less crucial of a platform for education about the environmental impact of clothing. McSherry’s posts on her account @acteevism, which celebrate outfit repeating and showcase sustainable lifestyle hacks, have earned her 78k followers. She echoes Dean’s sentiments about the limits of the platform, noting that un-nuanced but attention-grabbing videos can actually create even more confusion on a given issue and lead to “non-productive conversations” in the comments section. For that reason, she’s begun to steer away from what she describes as “hard-hitting videos about topics that are super educational at their core”.

Still, she’s not giving up on TikTok. Part of what makes the platform powerful is that users spend most of their time on the For You Page, which shows them popular content even if it wasn’t made by someone they follow. As a result, it’s easier to get information in front of people who might never think to search for the #sustainablefashion hashtag. What that means is that while McSherry tends to attract already environmentally conscious followers on Instagram, TikTok allows her to reach people who are “completely new to the movement”.

Summer Dean, a 23-year-old who posts as @climatediva

Sure, they might have to leave the platform to go deep in their knowledge about how their clothing is connected to the environment. But without TikTok, they might not have become curious about that in the first place, she reasons. That, combined with all the creators who are making thrifting and upcycling aspirational, has rendered the app a vital place for shaping how Gen Z thinks about the impact of their wardrobes.

“It shouldn’t be somebody’s only source, because you just can’t fit all the information in there,” McSherry says. “But TikTok is a great starting place for people in terms of learning about sustainable fashion.”

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