The social media platform TikTok has firmly established itself as one of the leading Gen Z social media channels, boasting over one billion monthly active users worldwide. Its fast-paced, easy viewing content allows creators to upload catchy videos that correspond to both their interests and short-lived attention spans.
One element that has seen a steady rise in usage on the platform is sustainably-based content. Brands have begun implementing the theme into their strategies as a way to connect with the desired Gen Z customer group through a new means of communication.
“Brands use TikTok as a platform to expand their definition of sustainability,” noted Emily Huggard in a conversation with FashionUnited. The assistant professor at Parsons School of Design in New York has extensively studied the medium and how brands use it for sustainable means, outlining the benefits and disadvantages of taking their eco-agenda to the widely popular platform.
She continued: “I think it impacts the connection brands have with their audience, in terms of creating a lifestyle and aesthetic. They are purchasing brands that align with their wider values and purpose surrounding sustainability and responsibility.”
Suggesting that TikTok has changed the aesthetics of sustainability, Huggard noted that the content shared is not just focused on consumption and buying. The emergence of do-it-yourself tutorials and vintage purchases has caused a shift in content, that turns sustainability into an aesthetic lifestyle choice.
As part of her study, Huggard recorded the roles brands take on when communicating this newfound sustainability to the digital-savvy users of the popular app. Relaying her thoughts and observations to FashionUnited, five particular functions stood out as the most used methods of communication.
“Education is a core part of promoting sustainable consumption on social media. However, it is not nuanced in nature, and is often used by the brands as a jumping-off point to inspire consumers to seek out more information.”
It is easy for brands to slip into the habit of sharing apocalyptic statistics around environmental degradation, which Huggard affirms are crucial but may not be the way to capture the attention of the younger generation.
Instead, brands like For Days use their platforms to give followers snippets of this information, among other videos centred more around entertainment. The brand, which requests shoppers to send in goods to be recycled in exchange for store credit, covers both bite-sized statistical information as well as details on how it recycles discarded clothing.
Similarly, on-demand clothing brand Alohas also shares light-hearted data on the industry, meanwhile promoting its sustainable business model. The label relays the benefits of shopping on-demand alongside instructional suggestions on how customers can make eco-conscious changes to other parts of their lives.
“Funny and engaging content approaches a topic that is educational in a way that makes it relevant to the consumer.”
Approaching such a topic can often come across as a heavy subject, so to keep the Gen Z audience engaged, a brand needs to adapt to their particular interests. Stella McCartney, for example, addressed the subject using people dressed in animal heads parading around the city, as a more lighthearted conversation starter.
Pangaia also took to the streets interviewing members of the public with entertaining and engaging questions, such as ideal materials to use for a puffer jacket - to which one participant replied: “marshmallows”. This relaxed manner allowed them to approach the topic of innovation and biomaterials in an optimistic way, making the topic more approachable to viewers.
Something Huggard also noted was the tendency for brands to lead with qualities of design and style before taking on an educational role. Once their desired aesthetics had been achieved, they then began to address sources and garment care.
The purpose of implementing this method is likely related to the specific usage of the app as an entertainment-based platform. Videos that were either aesthetically pleasing or entertaining tend to receive more engagement than educational ones. However, relating to viewers on a more emotional level bridges the gap between the two.
“Brands often lead with overly educational content which at times falls flat," noted Huggard. "TikTok is a place where people go to have fun and interact with friends, so they want that sort of engagement.”
“There is a clear contradiction between fashion and sustainability, so most brands are talking about a product that aims to be sustainable but isn’t fully.”
Often, product-centred content looks to appear as a native part of the platform, with brands looking to find approachable ways to inform consumers about specific items.
For its cashmere collection, Pangaia posted videos with clear details surrounding the materials behind the products, with captions such as: “This recycled cashmere is made from both pre and post-consumer materials.” The simplicity behind the posts ensures that users can easily follow the message, while still providing them with enough information on the clothing.
Other ways to target consumers through a product-focused method could also include offering further reading or guiding to a link in the company’s TikTok bio that can provide an outlet to do further research, without overwhelming the viewer in a short video.
“Centering around interactivity allows brands to include parts of the platform that are hyped.”
Customer-generated content is a trusted addition to a label’s page, and with the added effectiveness of viral marketing, interactivity is a good way to reach eco-conscious consumers. TikTok dances, challenges and dedicated hashtags are noteworthy parts of the app, motivating users to create content in line with a brands message.
Taking advantage of this strategy, Pangaia introduced the #PangaiaChallenge. Complete with its own soundtrack, the brand asked users to submit a video of themselves dancing in typical TikTok-esque fashion, with each entry resulting in the planting of one tree. As further motivation, a handful of people could win the brand’s forest collection set. The dedicated hashtag garnered over four million views alone, with the hashtag still in use almost a year later.
Upcycled fashion label Vintage Stock Reserve blew up on the platform as users began discovering the brand’s easy-viewing content encompassing its products. The boys behind the brand focus on responding to customer questions through informational, yet entertaining, videos, while also showing behind the scenes footage of their upcycling process and ‘how-to’ tutorials.
“A lot of brands work with thought leaders, people within sustainability or other influencers not in that world. Purely educational content tends to have the lowest engagement, while content produced in collaboration with influencers has the highest.”
Circular footwear brand Thousand Fell prioritises content provided by creators that already have a broad following. Videos reposted from the likes of Mark Edward and styledbysoleil, either offer styling advice or extracts of facts for the label’s shoes.
On the other hand, Andagain, an LA-based clothing brand, frames its TikTok from the perspective of co-founder Morgan Young, a ‘thought leader’ in the sustainable fashion sector. Alongside behind-the-scenes footage and garment design processes, Young displays a deeper connection with the garments she makes.
The implementation of a thought leader gives a different perspective of the sustainable aspects of a brand. Consumers may find this addition of a third-party source more reliable, while also taking in product-orientated inspiration.
Of course, fashion isn’t the only area that needs a sustainable reboot. Pangaia introduced its audience to food sovereignty through a partnership with zero-waste chef, Max La Manna. Straying from its typically product-focused method, Pangaia took an influential individual from a different industry and developed a new direction for its information.
TikTok and beyond
“TikTok is a platform where people have more trust in the content, they feel it is a more approachable view of sustainability,” said Huggard. “People often find the aesthetics of sustainability on Instagram not approachable as the lifestyle portrayed is often something they can't identify with.”
Trust is also something linked to the rise of live streaming sites, such as Twitch, that promote niche communities. The platforms that have become more evident among young consumers, provide continuous visual content sources that are, often, more personalised, provided by streamers they grow to know and trust.
“The idea of a social platform where people engage with a community - I don’t see that fading,” concluded Huggard.