Talking to kids about fast fashion and the environment

TikTok ‘haul’ videos promote cool clothes—but children likely aren’t aware that the content could be impacting the planet.

Scrolling through TikTok, your kids probably see goofy jokes, lip-synching videos … and lots and lots of clothes. That’s because fashion hauls—videos in which an influencer rips open packages stuffed with new clothes and models them in front of the camera—are all over social media.

On TikTok, “#haul” videos have racked up 13.2 billion views; on Instagram, 2.5 million posts include the hashtag. And if you’ve ever found yourself on the receiving end of a child begging for new clothes they’ve seen on social media, you know how tough it can be to argue against an influencer.

But children probably aren’t aware of the environmental impact that experts fear these videos are having. The content often features what’s known as fast fashion: mass-produced, ultra-trendy, inexpensive clothing made with cheap fabrics that are made at breakneck speeds by low-wage workers. In fact, a report from Rest of World, a journalism nonprofit organization, found that between July and December 2021, fast-fashion company Shein added between 2,000 and 10,000 new styles to its app each day.

Fashion haul videos have actually been a thing on YouTube since at least 2008. The problem? According to Aja Barber, sustainability consultant and author of Consumed, a book that explores the impact of fast fashion on the environment, this content encourages a model of consumption that’s hurting the planet. Indeed, research from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company shows that consumers are buying about 60 percent more clothing per person than in 2000, and they keep the items half as long. And quickly producing massive amounts of cheap products has an environmental impact, from growing crops for raw materials to transporting the goods to incinerating the castoffs.

“You see TikTok haul videos where someone buys thousands of dollars of merchandise from a brand, and it's a big box of stuff that they might only wear once,” Barber says. And children often mimic trends they see on social media, including fashion hauls that aren't good for the planet. Here’s how to talk to kids about their haul-filled feeds—and the environmental impact of their closets.

The environmental cost of fashion

Accurate numbers around the fashion industry are difficult to come by. But the World Economic Forum estimates that about 150 billion new clothing items are produced each year, and the United Nations has reported that the energy-intensive production, transportation, and packaging of all these garments generates nearly 10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Although all fashion production has an environmental impact, Barber says the lightning-fast speed and enormous scale of fast fashion exacerbate the problems.

Fast fashion’s cycle of waste often begins with its raw materials. A study published in the journal Nature found that polyester—an inexpensive synthetic fiber made from petroleum—accounted for 51 percent of fashion textile production in 2018 and is often the fabric of choice for fast fashion manufacturers. When washed, polyester clothing releases hundreds of thousands of tiny plastic fibers, which make their way into the environment through wastewater. Researchers from the Institute for Polymers, Composites, and Biomaterials estimated that 35 percent of ocean microplastics comes from synthetic clothing.

Moving the materials through a global supply chain that relies on cheap labor also has an emissions cost. For example, a raw material like cotton might be grown in Pakistan, shipped to China to manufacture the textile, and then shipped again to Bangladesh to sew the garment.

Finally, the clothing is transported to consumers across the globe. In the past, most clothing was shipped to retailers in container boats, but because fast fashion depends on churning out new trends as quickly as possible, air cargo shipments are becoming increasingly common. A report from the environmental consulting group Quantis estimated that switching just one percent of clothing transportation from boat to airplane could increase the industry’s carbon footprint by 35 percent.

Because fast fashion is designed to be discarded after a few uses—both because it’s made with less durable materials and quickly falls out of style—much of it ends up incinerated or in landfills. In the United States, over nine million tons of clothing and footwear ended up in landfills in 2018, up from 1.3 million tons in 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And fast fashion garments donated to charity are often sent to low- or middle-income countries, only to be landfilled or burned there, according to reporting from ABC. 

Getting kids to care about clothes and the planet

Members of Gen Z and Alpha (ages 12 to 26 and kids 11 and younger, respectively) are famously passionate about fixing environmental problems, from participating in school climate strikes to filing environmental lawsuits. So why can’t they quit fast fashion culture?

Barber suspects that children and teens simply may not fully understand the impact of fashion on the environment. “I think the average young person doesn't realize that, for example, polyester is plastic, and it comes from fossil fuels,” she says. “When we talk about plastic waste, people are thinking about food packaging, but they're not thinking about fashion.”

And the pull of all those cheap clothes worn by a supercool influencer is hard to resist—even for eco-savvy kids. After all, fun TikTok and YouTube videos don’t show the costs of creating the clothes. But parents can take steps to make sure young viewers understand their impact on the environment and discourage overconsumption. Here’s how to get started.

Make the environment part of the purchase. A kid might think they’re being budget-minded when they beg for cheap clothes, but parents can help shift their mindset to also focus on the eco-impacts of their purchase. Before you agree to click “buy,” ask them to find out things like where the item was made, how many miles the item would fly, and the carbon emissions produced by that flight. (This clothing calculator can help put things in perspective.) Then see if they’d rather find a more sustainable, local option.

Reveal the influencers. If your child shows you a haul video and asks to buy a new piece of clothing, Michelle Nelson, a professor in the Charles H. Sandage Department of Advertising at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, recommends asking pointed questions so they understand that haul videos are often advertisements: Why is that person showcasing this particular fashion brand? Do you think that they were paid? How much do you think this haul would cost someone who isn’t receiving the items for free? 

“If we don't know that we’re being persuaded, then maybe we're not so critical of the message,” Nelson says. “[Children] think ‘Oh, that influencer looks really cool and I see my friends are liking it.’ If we don't know that it's advertising, we're just more susceptible.” (Here’s how to talk to your kids about advertising—including influencer content.)

Buy slow, buy better. If your child is asking for a non-essential item, tell them to ask you about it again in a week or two. Taking time to think about a purchase can sometimes be all a kid needs to lose interest. If they’re still asking, look for a quality garment made of lower-impact materials (think plant-based linens or wool). Third-party certifications from independent review organizations like Certified B Corps and Fair Trade Certified brands can indicate that an item has been made sustainably.

Be thoughtful about purchases. Help kids build healthy purchasing habits by establishing some of your own fashion do’s and don’ts. For example, limit everyone’s clothing purchases to one item per month. You can also give children a fixed allowance so they think through purchases more carefully and start learning about budgeting. (Read why too much stuff can make kids unhappy.)

Buy secondhand. “I think it's hard to say, ‘Oh, don't buy this stuff’—I don't want to be the Debbie Downer all the time,” Barber says, who speaks with school groups in the United Kingdom about fast fashion and consumerism. Instead, she encourages them to consider buying the brands they love secondhand to lighten their impact on the environment—and their wallets. Websites like Depop, Poshmark, and threadUP are places to start, but supporting a local shop is a great way to cut out packaging waste and shipping emissions.

Spot “greenwashing.” Some fast fashion brands have launched sustainability initiatives to lessen the environmental impact of their clothing, but some consumer protection groups say these claims can be misleading. Companies aren’t actually required to disclose their social and environmental practices or information about their supply chains, so work with your kids to do some extra research. Fashion Revolution ranks 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands on the transparency of their social and environmental practices; you can also search for clothing brands using Rank a Brand.

Use social media for good. Fashion influencers often focus on external qualities, says Rachel Rodgers, an associate professor in the Applied Psychology Program for Eating and Appearance Research at the Northeastern University Bouvé College of Health Sciences. Instead, she suggests that parents focus on other influences in their child’s life. “For example, [compliment] a child on their qualities and achievements, not their outfit,” she says. Rodgers also suggests that parents encourage kids to fill their social media feeds with content that reflects their interests instead of #hauls. Whether it’s baking, dancing, or crafting, content that aligns with who they are can make kids’ feeds more holistic and less consumeristic.

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