‘Haul Culture’, Paid Promotions and Needless Merchandising are Contributing to Global Patterns of Overconsumption
Written by Sarah Fyffe
The rise of the ‘influencer’ as an opinion leader is a phenomenon that doesn’t seem to be dissipating any time soon, with research even uncovering that one-in-five British children now aspire to a career as a ‘social media personality’. As the ways in which we consume and share marketing material has evolved, so too have the opinions we trust and the actions we replicate. For some, this means adhering to the lifestyle choices of an influencer you admire, even if their actions place highly unsustainable choices in a positive light.
The growth of Youtube-centric trends such as haul culture, particularly in fashion circles, displays an excessive pattern of purchasing as the norm; showcasing hyperconsumerism as something to be celebrated and encouraged. Frustratingly, almost all content of this nature involves ‘hauling’ from brands that have been shown to hold deeply unethical practices. A Google search of ‘high street haul video’ yields almost 60 million results, despite high street stores having been repeatedly outed for their harmful business practices and disposable ‘fast fashion’ approach to garment manufacture.
Encouragingly, though, as sustainable living moves to the forefront of the public consciousness, a growing community of ‘anti-influencers’ has emerged, tackling their peers’ ignorance with content that highlights the cruciality of ethical living. Kristen Leo has amassed nearly 300,000 subscribers to her stream of Youtube videos which discuss “ethical living, fashion and veganism”, backed up by her comprehensive understanding of the topics. Leo’s exposé videos, outing the unethical practices of powerful brands such as Zara Inditex, have even been demonetised as brands push back against a new community of socially aware fashion enthusiasts, who don’t buy into traditional marketing messages. Regarding the influencer community, Leo has said that “[their] ability to influence is essentially their ability to promote products… many have expressed how they censor their opinions, in order to stay advertiser-friendly.”
“Influencers have the power to inspire, enlighten and revolutionise the way an entire generation thinks, but ultimately they can’t because they will then lose their source of income. So how does this cycle break?” — Kristen Leo
So, there’s evidence that sustainable living is infiltrating the ‘influencer’ domain, but the message doesn’t seem to be spreading with enough urgency. Earlier this year, Alix Coburn of I Covet Thee faced backlash for sharing a video detailing a hoard of fresh Zara purchases, many of which bore a resemblance to pieces she’s previously documented and therefore already owns.
Many commenters noted that the Zara video came just a week after Coburn had shared the process of a “streamlining” wardrobe clear-out in order to make better use of pieces she already owns. In response, Alix and other creators facing similar criticism have justified their promotion of fast-fashion by arguing that the nature of their work means it is inevitable that they will need to engage with fast fashion at times, even as they attempt to incorporate sustainability. Yet, treating sustainable shopping as a part-time trend to dip in and out of whilst continuing to support destructive brands like Boohoo, Missguided and Zara simply isn’t good enough, particularly when your job is to encourage many thousands or even millions of viewers to follow suit.
We are faced with an ever-expanding repertoire of ethical fashion brands who are striving to create an industry that works in partnership with the environment. On top of this, second-hand and vintage shopping is becoming more and more commonplace with the help of platforms like Depop, which now boasts over 13 million users. As a result, it’s becoming inexcusable, brave even, to actively promote deeply harmful fast-fashion brands in the current climate.
Perpetuating a cycle of overconsumption and the belief that material products can bring lasting joy, it’s frustrating to see influencers racking up views, shares and advertising revenue from a largely young and impressionable viewership. Viewers place so much trust in these ‘relatable’ internet personalities that they wholeheartedly buy into their paid marketing promotions, or aim to replicate lavish, unsustainable product consumption, celebrated through ‘haul culture’. It seems there are many hundreds of successful influencers not yet willing to acknowledge that the nature of their work carries a level of social responsibility that they simply aren’t living up to. It is encouraging to see ethically-focused online communities growing in numbers, and the discussion moving into the realms of more popular influencers. Yet, until the biggest creators begin to broadcast the critical importance of sustainability to their devoted following, can it really be said that their influence is at all positive?