TikTok: The Ticking Clock on Fast Fashion

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On: October 2, 2021
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Introduction

TikTok, the video-sharing social media app and platform has reigned over the world with its 15-second videos. Although TikTok has branched out into long-form content — allowing users to upload videos up to three minutes in length, there is still an emphasis on short-form content on the platform (Chalk 2021). 

The short-form nature of the platform allows for “rapid and indiscriminate consumption” (Rudalevige 2021), its temporal existence and momentary entertainment create a drive for users to stay on the app (Schellewald 2021). TikTok’s own ‘For You’ page, is an endless scroll of content, ready at the user’s disposal without interruption (Schellewald 2021). TikTok’s visual communication enables users to partake and present their stance to the rest; the accessibility and circulation of visual media are crucial for its affordances (Rogers 2021). However, because of its comparatively simple communicative form, it is often considered to be “childish” and “silly” (Schellewald 2021).

Despite such criticisms, TikTok was able to attract the buying powers of Millennials and Generation Z. The majority of users on the fastest-growing platform are under the age of 30 (Patterson 2021). In the United States alone, the two generations have up to $350 billion in buying power (Patterson 2021). Their buying power is noticed by those in the fast fashion industry, creating frenzies over #SheinHaul — where users show off their insubstantial investments in ultra-fast fashion, allowing the company to overtake Amazon as the most downloaded shopping app in the United States (Williams 2021; Hanbury 2021).

Making its entanglement to fast fashion — or even ultra-fast fashion all the more relevant. Over the past year, the discourse over fast fashion and micro-trends on TikTok has garnered significant attention in the media sphere. TikTok is able to fast track the traditional trend cycle, which typically lasts 20 years, even micro-trend cycles that used to last three to five years, have now been diminished to weeks at times (Rudalevige 2021). Which raises the question: How is TikTok contributing to the acceleration of fast fashion?

TikTok Haves and Have Nots: Affordances

TikTok’s affordances enable the acceleration of fast fashion through its algorithm. The algorithm is visualized and presented to users on their ‘For You’ page and under specific hashtags. The algorithm identifies videos aligned with users’ interests — based on their activity and viewing habits (Schellewald 2021). Users can also choose to access videos through associated hashtags, allowing them to interact with existing or emerging trends or memes (Schellewald 2021). By posting video content with hashtags, users are able to maximize their searchability (Abidin 2021).

The platform is driven by visual media — namely video content. Visual media requires qualitative analysis rather than quantitative, as there is an emphasis on individuality (Rogers 2021). From qualitative analysis, trends and vernaculars can be observed (Rogers 2021). Apart from research, users on the platform can also identify these trends and vernaculars in order to participate in and further their popularity.

#SheinHaul: Attention Economies and Micro-Trends

In a time where attention is monetized, the concept of attention economies highlights the scarcity of attention in the time of information overload and fatigue (Abidin 2021). It is thought by physicist Michael Goldhaber that attention economies are reliant on the perpetual stream of attention, which requires users to “attract and sustain the attention of others” (Abidin 2021).

When users choose to play in the algorithm, partaking in micro-trends, they are tapping into the post-based virality nature of TikTok (Abidin 2021). Users are creating and curating content according to the latest trends and vernaculars, not striving for an established persona or style that differentiates them from the rest (Abidin 2021).

A prime example of this is #SheinHaul, #SheinHaul is a hashtag on TikTok where users show off their orders from the fast-fashion giant — users typically make videos showcasing how many clothing items one could purchase for $100; cultivating a subculture of its own, resulting in free marketing for the brand (Abidin 2021; Hanbury 2021; Williams 2021). Shein’s business model is reliant on its infamous reputation: the more users make videos about Shein, the more popular Shein gets.

As discussed previously, mico-trends are endangering not only the traditional trends cycles but also the environment. While sustainability finds a place on TikTok, it is “less about the environment and more about economics” (Williams 2021). Consumers and users alike are drawn and driven by what is new, and with the strapped budget of Millenial and Generation Z, they turn to fast fashion conglomerates (Williams 2021). It does not necessarily mean they do not care for sustainability, they just cannot afford to put their money where their mouth is.

TikTok’s Need for Speed

In a contemporary landscape — TikTok had joined the conversation alongside its predecessors and other social media platforms. While each platform comes with its own set of problems: Instagram for setting up unrealistic body standards; Facebook for allowing fake news to roam freely; TikTok now faces the consequences they are committing to climate change (Williams 2021). Described by journalist Eliza Rudalevige (2021), TikTok is the “perfect vehicle for trend cycle acceleration”. Subcultures contribute to the larger unsustainable practice at hand: while fast fashion offers accessibility for those in need, the promotion of overconsumption creates a bigger problem than it can solve (Rudalevige 2021).

There is little academic research focused on the link between TikTok and fast fashion, however, this has been noticed and reported by many news publications. There is a conscious balance of news articles and academic journals in my commentary, as it allows me to better illustrate the new nuance of the subject matter.

Conclusion

TikTok is contributing to the acceleration of fast fashion through its affordances. There is a perpetual need for content to maintain the constant stream of attention from its users. This results in a focus on post-based virality in lieu of the traditional persona-based fame, anyone has a chance at celebrity status if they know the right hashtag (Abidin 2021). Fast fashion finds its pace in TikTok’s short-form nature, its footing in TikTok’s ‘For You’ page, and its notoriety under #SheinHaul  — all embedded in TikTok’s visual presentation.

Bibliography

Abidin, Crystal. 2021. “Mapping Internet Celebrity on Tiktok: Exploring Attention Economies and Visibility Labours.” Cultural Science Journal 12 (1): 77–103. doi:10.5334/csci.140. 

Chalk, Will. 2021. “TikTok Increasing Video Length from One to Three Minutes.” BBC News. BBC. July 2. https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-57692353. 

Hanbury, Mary. 2021. “How China’s Most Mysterious Billion-Dollar Company Won Over US Teens And Became TikTok’s Most-Hyped Fashion Brand.” Business Insider. Insider. August 29. https://www.businessinsider.com/shein-china-billion-dollar-company-fast-fashion-brand-2021-8.

Rogers, Richard. 2021. “Visual Media Analysis for Instagram and Other Online Platforms.” Big Data & Society 8 (1): 205395172110223. doi:10.1177/20539517211022370. 

Rudalevige, Eliza. 2021. “How TikTok Makes Fast Fashion Faster.” Lithium Magazine. Lithium Magazine. June 14. https://lithiumagazine.com/2021/06/15/how-tiktok-makes-fast-fashion-faster/. 

Schellewald, Andreas. 2021. “Communicative Forms on TikTok: Perspectives From Digital Ethnography.” International Journal Of Communication 15 (21). 

Williams, Lara. 2021. “Gen Z’s Used Clothing Hacks Won’t Save the Earth.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg. May 22. https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-05-22/gen-z-balances-sustainable-thrifthaul-and-fast-fashion-sheinhaul-on-tiktok. 

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