Gen Z Is Using Fashion TikTok To Fight Climate Change. Will It Work?
With a potential ban on TikTok downloads just days away, many Gen Z users are nervous about losing their primary source of environmental news.
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TikTok is home to some of 2020’s most viral fashion trends, from knitting challenges inspired by Harry Styles to a Little Women-esque aesthetic known as cottagecore. It also gives a platform to everyone from vintage clothing store owners and mending experts to fashion sustainability experts. One scroll on the app and you’ll find tips on how to transform a bedsheet into a prairie dress, followed by a lesson on the water shortage caused by denim production.
With its bite-size videos and an algorithm that prioritizes discovery and can turn a user with zero followers into one with a million in seconds, TikTok has become the go-to app for Gen Z, in particular, for information on all kinds of things, including climate change. On the platform, upcycling — the process of taking an existing item of clothing or fabrics and reworking it into a new piece — is portrayed as a fun new craft project. And making your own clothing isn’t an inconvenience to be solved by a trip to Zara, but rather an excuse for a photoshoot, one that resembles being on set with Florence Pugh and Timothée Chalamet. But more than just providing sustainable fashion inspiration, the app has become an educational platform — one that many young people turn to and even trust more than traditional media outlets.
“TikTok feels very real to me,” says Megan McSherry, the 23-year-old founder of AcTEEvism, a blog about sustainable fashion and conscious consumerism. “There’s a personable aspect that makes the educational part of it — especially about sustainability — come across better.” Prior to TikTok, she says finding information about sustainability that she could relate to was a struggle. Instead, she saw videos of unrelatable “experts” on Instagram and YouTube living perfectly zero-waste lifestyles in their greenhouses, wearing 100% organic cotton jumpsuits and preaching about the importance of veganism.
“Young people on TikTok see through the whole aspirational aesthetic of sustainability, and have spand out the real contributors to climate change, which are governments and large corporations.”
- Megan McSherry, Founder of Acteevism
“The term ‘perfection paralysis’ is common in the sustainable community,” she tells Refinery29. According to McSherry, perfection paralysis happens when you realize that, if you can’t be “that perfect aesthetically pleasing version of a sustainable person,” you shouldn’t even try. “You just end up spending all your time asking yourself: Are you even making a difference? Are you really good enough? But right now, we need everyone to do every little thing they can — pressuring governments and corporations who can make the big changes,” she says. “We don’t need everybody to have a perfectly zero-waste kitchen.” McSherry says her introduction to TikTok was a breath of fresh air. “Young people on TikTok see through the whole aspirational aesthetic of sustainability that’s been sold to us by companies, and have figured out the real contributors to climate change, which are governments and large corporations,” she says. “It has more to do with a revolution and large-scale action than it does with the green, natural-looking pants that you choose to wear.”
McSherry, who has a Masters of Science in Global Supply Chain Management from the University of Southern California, joined TikTok a year ago, but didn’t start making her own videos until lockdown. Today, her videos — like this one about the alarmingly high temperatures in California — have views of up to 280k. She’s amassed over 55k followers, all of whom come to her for information ranging from corporate propaganda and government rollbacks of environmental regulations to ethical fashion and composting. And she’s hardly the only member of Gen Z who’s tackling climate change on the platform. The #ClimateChange page has over 356 million views. #ClimateCrisis has 10 million views. In total, there are 800 million users on TikTok worldwide, 60% of which are members of Gen Z, and many of them are creating (and learning from) content like McSherry’s.
According to her, the trick to finding educational information lies in who you follow. She chooses to follow a wide variety of people whose areas of expertise range from politics to low-waste lifestyle. “Maybe that means finding a new vegan recipe, or perhaps, learning about how a big corporation has wronged individuals in the past.” Either way, McSherry says that TikTok, with its digestible videos, makes learning about all aspects of sustainability and getting involved interesting and convenient.
The 60-second time limit for videos on TikTok plays an important role for anyone who’s attracted to a “no-bullshit” way of thinking about climate change, according to McSherry. There’s no jargon involved, nor are there added aesthetics that are commonplace on Instagram. Instead, only necessary information and facts are included, allowing viewers to get to the root of the problem. For example, in less than a minute, TikTok user @feminaziii listed off more than 10 different catastrophes happening right now around the world, including Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and the all-time high temperatures in the Arctic. Nowhere in the video did she cite her sources, but her 120k followers don’t seem to mind. They trust her, which, according to McSherry, isn’t how they feel about traditional news outlets. “How can you trust the media when it’s buying into narratives created by the same conglomerates that created the term ‘carbon footprint’ to make individuals feel bad about their consumption habits?” she asks. “Even if the news they’re telling is factually correct, it feels a lot better to hear it from a social media outlet like TikTok, where you can pick up on those biases and maybe choose not to listen to them or take things for the facts that they are.”
With more and more new users joining TikTok daily, many of whom will use the platform to educate themselves and their followers on issues — ranging from the environmental impact of fashion to politics, social justice reform, mental health, and more — it was only a matter of time before the company itself chose to support them. At the start of the pandemic, TikTok launched the Creative Learning Fund, which provided $50 million in grant money to over 800 young educators, from teachers and business professionals to public figures, who were reviewed and then asked to use the app as an educational tool. Topics included sex education, herbal medicine, and DIY fashion tutorials, among others.
Framed as a form of COVID relief, the Creative Learning Fund was designed to provide young people with educational resources that were otherwise put on hold due to lockdown, like in-person schooling and extracurriculars. In many ways, though, the fund was a way for TikTok to highlight the fact that the platform has a purpose beyond dance videos. “The joy of learning on TikTok is that the content offers instructional tips and takeaways in a creative format, teaching something useful and inspiring users to seek out more information in a way that is fun and engaging,” says Bryan Thoensen, TikTok’s Head of Content Partnerships. The team also worked closely with all recipients to ensure that they “understand community guidelines and best practices for creating learning content.”
One Creative Learning Fund grant winner is Lily Fulop, 24, the author of Wear, Repair, Repurpose: A Maker's Guide to Mending and Upcycling Clothes (and a designer at Refinery29). On her TikTok page, Mindful Mending, Fulop shows her followers how to buy less and reduce waste, while making more. She’s also taken up sewing her own clothes — “in the more traditional sense, instead of being scrappy and upcycling,” she says — after watching others do so on the app. Like McSherry, Fulop believes that fashion’s impact on the environment isn’t all on the shoulders of individual consumers, which is why she also uses her TikTok to shine a light on the corporate institutions that are responsible. Earlier this month, Fulop posted a clip highlighting the large-scale effects of denim production. (998.8 gallons of water are used to make a single pair of Levi’s, according to a study financed by the American denim brand.) She also shared one about how brands, from fast fashion to luxury, destroy their returned or unsold products, respectively.
Sewing and mending clothes play directly into the cottagecore trend. An aesthetically driven return to a more traditional, simple way of life, cottagecore involves romanticizing nature and creating items, from clothing to home decor, by hand. “If you enjoy just being free in a frilly dress in some grass and love baking and picking flowers, then I’d say this is the right place for you,” says Jade Dobson, an 18-year-old who goes by @softgrlfrnd on social media. The popular aesthetic has 4 billion views on the platform, a fan in Taylor Swift, and thousands of videos, a majority of which take place in lush, green fields — fields that, without serious changes, probably won’t be lush for much longer.
“Sustainability and do-it-yourself projects are key to [the cottagecore] aesthetic,” Dobson says, explaining that cottagecore fashion falls into three categories: secondhand clothing, clothing from small businesses, and clothing made by hand, with an emphasis on the latter. But not every cottagecore fan started out with a knack for needle and thread. Instead, many were first introduced to the trend through thrifting.
“The way that [TikTok] pushes out information is so different, and that’s what makes it so important and valuable.”
- Megan McSherry, Founder of Acteevism
Before cottagecore, the Creative Learning Fund, or upcycling blew up on TikTok, there were thrift hauls. (The hashtag #thrift has 1 billion views and counting on the app.) For Gen Z, thrifting has always been an integral part of their shopping routine. Some shared with me that it’s the individuality factor that brought them to it; others, the low prices. Most, though, named sustainability as their reason for diving into Goodwill’s pay-by-the-pound bins and scouring racks and racks at Salvation Army. “We need to produce less clothing, and make use of the clothes that are already in existence,” says Fulop. “Doing so will save water, reduce microplastics and petroleum use, cut down on pollution from pesticides, dye, and shipping.” Thrifting is among the easiest and most cost-efficient ways to do that.
Estella Struck, a sophomore in college and an environmentalist, spent the beginning of lockdown learning about the damaging impact that the fashion industry has on the environment. From what she learned, she decided to take matters into her own hands, by creating a sustainable brand called Ethica Clothing. At Ethica, Struck sources secondhand pieces that would’ve otherwise been thrown away and sells them under-$10. In addition to selling, she also shares her knowledge about the climate crisis with shoppers. “I wanted to create something that gives people an accessible, non-time consuming way to thrift,” Struck wrote on her website.
Given how quickly she was able to grow a following on TikTok, Struck uses it as her main channel, rather than Instagram or Facebook. “There are a lot of opportunities on TikTok to get your message out to a lot of people for free,” she tells Refinery29. “For example my video about what Ethica is reached one million people in five hours for free.” In addition to videos of new clothing drops, Struck uses her TikTok to urge shoppers to vote, spread information about coral reefs, glaciers, and the water shortage. It allows me to not only talk about my business and market my business to people but also introduce new people to sustainability and help educate people on why we need to really look around and take tangible steps towards a green future,” Struck says. “I feel like a lot of people when they think of sustainability and environmentalism think about a granola-type people, which maybe isn’t the lifestyle that a majority of people want to live, causing people to shy away from a sustainable lifestyle,” she explains. For her, TikTok has become a way to show young people that anyone can take steps toward a safer, cleaner future.
Now, with a potential ban on TikTok downloads just days away — Trump made a last-minute deal with the company on Monday, which pushed the ban by one week, to September 27 — many Gen Z TikTokers are nervous. “I have 55k followers who follow me to learn about environmental issues,” says McSherry. “And we don’t have environmental education in this country, at least not really; I didn’t get that until I went to college where I chose to study it.”
It isn’t simply a matter of switching to other platforms, either. “Other social media platforms just don’t have the reach or power that TikTok has in terms of really having the ability for anybody at any following size to get a message out there to millions of people,” she says. “The way that it pushes out information is so different, and that’s what makes it so important and valuable.” But if we learned anything from Trump’s lack of concern about the California wildfires, it’s this: He really doesn’t care about the climate crisis, nor does he care what TikTok means to the environmental movement or about young peoples’ educations on the topic.
That’s why Gen Zers with a platform like McSherry and Struck are focusing their attention on getting their followers to the polls on November 3. “The future of our planet hangs on the ballot on November 3rd,” Struck said in a recent TikTok video. “Show up for your planet.”