the haul video trend promotes the worst parts of fast-fashion

A closer look at the YouTube subculture and its impact on shopping habits.

|
Jun 21 2018, 3:08pm

YouTube still

Type the word "haul" into YouTube and you’ll be presented with 28 million different choices. Scroll a short while through the videos and you’ll notice a disconcerting continuity among the many video cover images. A female presenter sat in her bedroom, mouth agape, holding a shopping bag in one hand, the other points a finger towards her mouth, conveying a message of “Should I? Shouldn’t I?”

Welcome to heady world of professional YouTube haulers. What you’re about to experience is five to ten minutes of overzealous Western teenagers discussing in painstaking detail products they’ve just bought.

"While websites like The Fashion Law are consistently pointing out undeclared advertisements, it’s not always easy discern when an influencer has been remunerated to market something."

The videos are wildly popular. And, all jokes aside, it’s not hard to understand why. After all, look at the similar rise of ASMR and mukbang videos. Though they differ in content, these videos all implicitly focus on intimacy and forging a seeming connection between viewer and vlogger. But, given the materialistic heart of the haul video, should we be more skeptical of their success?

Brands are harnessing the power of influencer marketing more than ever. TheFashionLaw reported in late 2016 that the most-liked Instagram post of all-time (at the time of writing) actually featured subtle product placement which, incidentally, wasn’t disclosed until after an article exposing this fact was published. And, while websites like The Fashion Law are consistently pointing out undeclared advertisements, it’s not always easy discern when an influencer has been remunerated to market something. But a look at the best performing haul videos shows the same high street brands again and again.

Consumer psychologist Kate Nightingale, founder of Style Psychology, explains that our social circles are increasingly global and overwhelmingly digital. We recognize elements of ourselves in influencers, and therefore select — through follows, likes, and subscriptions — a database of internet personalities we’re willing to trust. “As people choose to follow influencers similar to their actual or ideal selves, there’s a default basic level of trust,” explains Nightingale. “But, like in any relationship, they have to continue to deliver a value to keep the power of influence.” They need to keep showing the goods. And brands can now profit off the levels of trust we’ve built up with these online personalities.

Despite the “should I, shouldn’t I keep this item” dynamic of many videos — their existence is definitely driving consumption. When there exists a vicious cycle of overproduction driven by corporate greed and mountains of discarded clothing in landfills worldwide exacerbating climate change, the ethics of these videos can further be called into question. But some YouTubers are using their platform to promote second-hand, charity shop, and vintage clothing, a market which offers an alternative to fast-fashion without sacrificing style or sustainability.

"As people choose to follow influencers similar to their actual or ideal selves, there’s a basic level of trust. But, like in any relationship, they have to continue to deliver a value to keep the power of influence.”

DianaChamomile, for example, has amassed 70,000 subscribers. Her entry into YouTube hauling came via the output of influencers like TheFashionCitizen and ClothesEncounters, whose videos often featured vintage hauls. “I got such a thrill from seeing the gems they found at their local thrift stores. It really made me want to start shopping secondhand, and because I was a college student with all of my money going towards tuition, it was a great alternative for me.” She says it took her a few years to bite the bullet and make videos of her own, but when she did she soon found a community of like-minded online users genuinely engaging with her videos.

Chamomile is very aware of the exploitation often enabled by consumerism and the fashion industry. Haul videos have a huge role to play in this; countless influencers stock up on new clothing simply for the purpose of showing them off to the camera and then returning them. But returned clothes are rarely ever reused.

“They’re no longer new,” explains Stephanie Klotz, Senior Communications Manager of C&A Foundation — an organization which supports Fashion Revolution’s vital Transparency Indices. “There are initiatives like RePack, which work with postal services to create reusable pouches, and I’ve bought from ethical companies which enclose letters explaining the impact of returns, but ultimately that trend of buying online to return immediately isn’t going anywhere.” This is damaging; plenty of our clothing returns are simply thrown out instead of donated, whereas some are ‘downcycled’ to create lower-quality, lower-priced goods still destined for landfill.

But these conversations are complicated, and often need to be filled with industry-specific jargon. “Sometimes I’ll see reports using language like 'value chain,' 'stakeholder' — not everybody understands that language, and even if they do, it’s boring,” laughs Klotz. “So we need to make these conversations more accessible, and that’s where I think influencers come in.”

“I learned about the factories filled with faceless people made slaves for capitalist gain. So I started picking up newer pieces and just asking myself whether they were worth someone else’s misery."

Influencers, like Chamomile in particular, who understand the issues and offer actual, practical solutions, have a vital role to play. It was during her studies at New York’s prestigious FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) that she realized the importance of sparking these conversations: “I learned about the factories filled with faceless people made slaves for capitalist gain,” she explains. “So I started picking up newer pieces and just asking myself whether they were worth someone else’s misery. On top of all that, demand skyrocketed so much with fast-fashion that textiles became a huge environmental pollutant.”

We know these problems exist, and solving them can seem an impossible task. There are small changes we can all make, like buying vintage and second-hand, or using apps like Depop, or just buying one-size online as opposed to that second "just in case" size. It’s also worth noting that plenty of international heavy-hitters responded to Rana Plaza by complying with calls for transparency, as shown by Fashion Revolution’s annual Transparency Index. It’s crucial to remain vigilant – many high-street brands still work in countries buoyed by low wages and exploitative governments – but, as long as you’re not scooping up armfuls of $2 Hello Kitty tees each weekend, buying high-street isn’t as bad as it was.

When it comes to haul videos, it’s time to start investing our energy and our digital currency -- our views, likes, subscriptions -- into influencers who are actually trying to spark change. Search "haulternative" videos instead, and delve deep into a world of customization, vintage treasures, and charity shop gems which is — I promise — just as rewarding as that Fashion Nova haul. The high street might not thank you, but activists and advocates for change will do. Oh, and your wallet. Your wallet will thank you, too.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.