TikTok's Fast Fashion Problem, Explained
What's “cheugy”? What's up with capitalism? And why can’t retail therapy fill the void inside?
Credit: Instagram/ @KENDALLJENNER
Picture this: After seeing one celebrity, several influencers, and countless social media users praise the stunning green House of Sunny dress, you finally succumb to the craze. Satisfied with your decision, you close your purchase confirmation and open TikTok. To your absolute dismay, you see video after video calling your beloved dress “cringey,” “outdated,” and “cheugy.” Rest assured, you’re not alone. It’s a tale as old as time, really: social media and the accelerated trend cycle.
The TikTok Dilemma
Thanks to its instantaneity, widespread reach, and continuous back-and-forth user interactions, social media has become a global addiction, as well as a prime breeding ground for promoting consumerism. The many ways it influences us to spend can be boiled down to the way it indulges our social nature as humans and it’s advertisement-based revenue model.
When we are exposed to others’ ideas and lives, we want to follow suit. And brands know this, as evidenced by the strategic use of social media accounts and influencers to promote their goods or services in increasingly personable and intimate ways. This use of social media to promote consumerist (and subsequently capitalist) values has only become more visible in recent years. (Hell, it’s why Instagram opened up that damned shopping tab that everyone hates so much.)
Of all the social media platforms, TikTok has perhaps been the worst offender in encouraging consumerism, especially among younger audiences. Unless you’ve been living under a rock during the pandemic, you’ve likely witnessed the rise in popularity of the infamous Music.ly-Vine love child. Its never-ending “For You” page of short videos creates an endless stream of content that rapidly reaches global audiences thanks to its notorious algorithm. TikTok’s algorithm makes trends surge in popularity within days and fall just as fast. The short format of content and the ceaseless explosion and subsequent death of ideas results in audiences that are driven by instant gratification and short attention spans.
The impact this has on fast fashion is immense. According to TikTok user Mandy Lee, otherwise known as @oldloserinbrooklyn, the average fashion trend cycle contains 5 stages: introduction, rise, acceptance, decline and obsolescence. In the 1900s trend cycles would last 20-30 years, as opposed to the present day, where they last mere months.
The House of Sunny dress in particular is what Lee has popularized on TikTok as a “microtrend”, which is exactly what it sounds like: a fashion trend that goes in and out of style “in the blink of an eye.” The issue with the fashion industry now running on “microtrends” is that fast fashion companies rush to meet the demands of the masses by creating cheap dupes that often rip off smaller designers and end up discarded when they inevitably go out of style months later.
The fashion industry holds the title of the world's 2nd largest polluter. Among the many negative effects of the industry, fast fashion production creates toxic waste, exacerbates environmental poverty, and exploits the working class worldwide (often women and children). Developing countries face the brunt of these consequences, so much so that our demand for fast fashion is destroying them. Even our discarded clothing ends up in Asian, South American and African landfills. (And before you ask, the majority of clothes in thrift stores end up in landfills as well.)
Social media under capitalism has distorted our values and behaviors in favor of this fast fashion machine. When our ever-changing desires are immediately rewarded, we place less value on the art and utility of clothing and treat it as if it were disposable. This mindset of ‘disposable’ fashion has only existed as long as fast fashion has, though it’s hard for most of us to consider a world where overconsumption, in theory and in practice, is not the norm. It’s no wonder the use of the word “cheugy” erupted lately after it’s initial creation as a joke. A synonym for “cringey,” “uncool” or “basic,” “cheugy” has recently been used en masse by TikTok users to judge fashion trends. The word reflects the aforementioned lack of value we place on clothing and our obsession with novelty. It’s use promotes the opposite of sustainability: to constantly consume.
After all, the root problem is overconsumption, an inevitable consequence and instrument of capitalism. A permanent solution to this dilemma, therefore, lies beyond this system. However, an issue being systemic doesn’t exempt individuals of all responsibility. We now live in an age where the average person takes part in shaping cultural and social trends more easily than ever, thanks to the internet and social media platforms like TikTok. While celebrities and influencers play a special role in promoting unsustainable attitudes and behaviors, the vast majority of us have already internalized those values and behaviors as well and reinforce them among ourselves.
A Way Forward
So what do we as individuals do? We follow the basic pillars of sustainability: to consume less, and use what we have. We can question our consumption habits: what we buy, how often we buy and why. Not everyone will be able to dedicate their life to sustainability whether it be due to money, time, or accessibility, and that’s completely fine. But those of us that can shift our habits should try. As a zero-waste chef once said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” While in reference to the concept of zero-waste living, the same applies to fast fashion. The goal isn’t to devote yourself to minimalism or discard all earthly possessions, but to be intentional when shopping so that you invest in pieces you genuinely appreciate. Lee suggests looking into longevity and versatility when shopping for fast fashion and trends. Do you actually like that corset or is it just a piece in the larger puzzle of a new aesthetic you are imitating?
A common response to the question of individual responsibility goes along the lines of, “I can’t participate in sustainable fashion because fast fashion is all I can afford.” The problem with this notion is that it shifts blame to fast fashion so people can safely deflect criticism without reflecting on their consumption habits. What are you actually implying: that you can only afford fast fashion or that fast fashion is the only thing you can afford to overconsume? Regardless, it doesn’t matter what you consume — fast fashion, second hand, high fashion — overconsumption is a possibility with them all. (Not to mention even if one could afford high fashion, luxury brands are guilty of the same things that fast fashion is). It also presents a common misunderstanding of sustainability as just being shopping ethically, instead of shopping less and reusing or repurposing what you already own.
Being intentional with the clothing you buy isn't just a win for battling fast fashion, but it’s also a win for the individual. Lee notes, “We’ve lost a sense of individuality.” Our capitalist-driven social media platforms condition us to categorize ourselves into identities, aesthetics, and communities to be able to be marketed to. It's part of the reason why subcultures and aesthetics exploded in popularity on TikTok in the past year, from “Alt” to “Cottagecore”, to “Dark Academia”. Young adults and teenagers, keen on figuring out who they are and what they like, were drawn to the idea of easily picking out an identity like picking a product off a shelf. (Think 2010s Tumblr but on steroids.) Not only is this a disservice to subcultures with real history and significance, but it promotes the idea that identity is a product that can be bought and sold, and not an ongoing, lifelong process where there is no end product.
Despite what TikTok may tell you, personal style doesn't fit into a certain “aesthetic” and can never be as instantaneous as an Amazon purchase or TikTok trend. It’s not to say one can never follow trends or participate in subcultures. We don’t exist in a vacuum; of course we're going to be influenced by the culture of the society we live in. But our end goal should be to have a sense of self regardless of social media, not one that relies on it.
Open TikTok and you’ll see everyone from teenagers to influencers to brands demanding for their voice to be heard in an infinite void of video and text. This accessibility to an endless stream of content is a double-edged sword. Among the clamor of millions of strangers' opinions, can you hear yourself?
Nabiha Nur is a copyeditor and writer at Rowdy Magazine. She's a big fan of sci-fi, noodles, bollywood songs, and Shrek 2. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.