Gen Z loves shopping hauls. Can they ever be sustainable?

By Lucy Maguire for Vogue Business

Younger generations can’t get enough of watching people try on “hauls” of clothing on TikTok and YouTube. Previously associated with ultra-fast fashion brands, now secondhand platforms are seizing the opportunity.

Creator and curve model Remi Bader started posting weekly hauls on TikTok during the pandemic. In the two years since, she has amassed 2.1 million followers, who regularly tune in to watch her try on clothing from brands including H&M and Urban Outfitters. “When I got started, fashion hauls had been around but people would only show what looked good on them,” she says. “No one was showing the bad, which is an important part of the real shopping experience. So, I started doing realistic hauls.”

Originally a YouTube phenomenon that dates back to the early 2000s, hauls — where a creator goes through a pile of clothing they’ve bought or been gifted on video, and reviews the quality, style or fit — have become popular across social media platforms. The #haul hashtag has 24.4 billion views on TikTok, and has been used in 2.4 million Instagram posts and 347,000 YouTube videos. Many creators, like Bader, will buy clothing with their own money, but sponsored hauls are becoming big business — creators can be paid up to £15,000 for a post, according to one agency source. Return on investment is tracked through views, engagement and conversion to sales.

Often promotional, hauls are typically associated with high-volume, fast fashion players such as Shein, Zara, Boohoo and Amazon. #Amazonfinds, the hashtag for Amazon hauls, has had 26.1 billion TikTok views to date, while Chinese fast fashion platform’s #Sheinhaul has had 6.4 billion. That’s led to criticism from sustainability advocates that hauls encourage overconsumption and lead to excessive waste through the buy-and-return cycle. Some resale platforms have tried to shift creators’ attention to secondhand fashion for their hauls, but these companies have also been accused of promoting overconsumption.

While many Gen Zers are conscious of overproduction of fashion and its impact on the planet, it’s a constant “push pull” between how they say they want to consume and their actual behaviour, says Julia Peterson, senior insights strategist at US-based youth culture agency Archrival. “Despite their desire to shop responsibly, I think there’s also this other side of them that is craving style, craving products that are going to make them feel good and that are affordable,” she says.

Experts say hauls have grown in popularity because Gen Z uses social media as a discovery tool, in the same way previous generations might use Google. Often, the creator will try on the pieces and discuss whether they like them or not, or rate how similar the item is to how it looked online — providing essential information that can support a sale. “Gen Zs know the internet as an app-based ecosystem,” says Chris Beer, trends manager at audience research company GWI. “They’re a lot less likely to browse for products online [on search engines or e-commerce sites], relative to how much they buy.”

“YouTube users trust our creators,” says Chanel Tyler, global lead for creator partnerships (beauty and icons) at YouTube. “[Hauls] really give them the opportunity to get insight into all of the information that they’re looking to know before they decide to go and purchase.”

Alyssa McKay is a cross-platform creator with 9.4 million followers on TikTok, 902,000 followers on YouTube and 1.8 million on Snapchat. In her most popular videos, she plays a “rich girl” character and enacts lifestyle and fashion scenarios, including hauls. Her most successful haul style videos are embedded in day-in-the-life content of her getting dressed and going shopping. “I always try to pitch to brands that we do a lifestyle integration [haul],” she says. “I feel like the conversion rate is much higher.” McKay uses YouTube Shorts’s product tagging feature, currently in beta, and sees high conversion on links from embedding her shopping finds in her lifestyle haul videos.

Another reason hauls appeal is because they show real people trying on clothes, rather than models. “I resonate with my audiences because many of them share the same body type as me,” says YouTube creator Clara Dao, who works with brands including Zaful and Thredup to create sponsored hauls. Bader says she receives the same feedback from her community, who want advice on how garments fit curvier bodies. Brands are taking note: last year, Bader did a haul of clothing from Revolve on TikTok in which she claimed it lacked size inclusivity. The American brand saw the video and approached her to do a collaboration. The collection, which ranges from size XXS to 4X, launched two weeks ago on Revolve’s website.

The sport of consumption

Critics argue that hauls encourage buying in volume and perpetuate a culture of throwaway fashion. “Hauls are connected to gamification and the ‘sport of consumption’ when it comes to fashion, which is incredibly difficult for those of us in the campaigning space, where we encourage folks to have a long-term relationship with their clothing,” says Maeve Galvin, global policy and campaigns director at non-profit organisation Fashion Revolution.

“I enjoy watching [haul content] because it is easy for people to get access to the clothes. Not everyone can buy an $80 pair of jeans,” says 18-year-old US-based student Zara Mendes.

Still, on TikTok hashtags including #thrift (6.9 billion views) and #slowfashion (628.6 million views) are gaining traction as users shop more consciously, says Holly Harrison, luxury, fashion and retail brand partnerships manager at TikTok. She namechecks some of TikTok’s most popular fashion creators such as Dendzi Ntambwe (@decadendz) and Jen Brady (@charityshopgirlcsg) who are driving interest in thrifting and slow fashion.

On YouTube Shorts, content centred around upcycling and thrifting garments has seen 350 million views over the past year. Uploads around these two trends have grown 67 per cent over the past six months, YouTube says. The platform is working with more than 40 creators to make a collection of “Remake the Runway” shorts featuring upcycled or thrifted looks, launching during New York Fashion Week in September. This trend is coming through in its hauls content, too. “We are paying very close attention to what Gen Z’s interests are and what they’re engaging with most, and thrift haul content is something that does astronomically well with our audience,” says YouTube’s Tyler.

“We are really seeing the whole haul culture change,” says Harrison. “Hauls are now more considered, more thoughtful.”

Inspiration instead of sales

Resale platforms such as Depop and ThredUp have spotted the opportunity, and are working with creators to provide haul content using pre-loved fashion. “Gen Z utilises hauls as a way to blur the boundaries between commerce, connection and entertainment,” says Dontae Mears, Depop’s global head of influencers.

Last year, a Bain & Co study in collaboration with Depop explored the consumption habits among Gen Z Depop users and found that 80 per cent cite social media as a source of inspiration. “Shopping and styling yourself is no longer an individual act, but a source of entertainment, creative inspiration, online relationship building and, for those who create entire channels around their shopping hauls, another way in which they can become entrepreneurial online,” adds Mears. When partnering with creators on hauls, Depop pays a fee, but it won’t ever send unsolicited gifts and products, Maers is keen to note. “We always encourage [creators] to choose something they would wear and re-wear, reducing waste.”

“Thrift hauls are different from normal hauls. I don’t have everything linked down below. You can’t buy it all,” says Macy Eleni, also known as @blazedandglazed, who exclusively creates secondhand and vintage haul content. She started her YouTube channel just before the pandemic in 2019 and joined TikTok shortly after. Now she has 145,000 YouTube subscribers and almost 450,000 followers on TikTok. “I will give tips and tricks on how they can find similar brands and styles on Ebay, Poshmark and Depop, but for the most part, it’s providing inspiration [rather than driving sales],” she adds.

“Thrift hauls have definitely influenced my shopping habits,” says Gabrielle Ragsdale, an 18-year-old student at the University of San Francisco and aspiring fashion designer. “Fast fashion hauls are pure entertainment. I still watch haul videos of the Zaras and the H&Ms and all of those type brands out of curiosity, but I don’t shop like that anymore. I prefer finding unique things.”

Some Gen Zs might have changed their perspective on haul culture. And thrift hauls may be thriving. But with multi-billion dollar incumbents like Amazon, Shein, Zara and Boohoo still benefiting from organic and sponsored hauls on a daily basis, it’s a long road before real change is seen to reduce overproduction of fashion, says Fashion Revolution’s Galvin. ”It’s not just fast fashion, it’s the way in which we purchase clothing. There’s an awful lot of damaging DNA to begin with that really needs to be corrected. We need to challenge the whole culture of overconsumption.”