TikTok is a video-sharing focused social networking service owned by Chinese company ByteDance. It hosts a variety of short-form user videos from genres like dance, comedy, and education, with durations from 15 seconds to three minutes. The TikTok mobile app allows users to create short videos, which often feature music in the background and can be sped up, slowed down, or edited with a filter. Since its launch in 2016, TikTok rapidly gained popularity in East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the USA, Turkey, Russia, and other parts of the world. As of October 2020, TikTok surpassed over 2 billion mobile downloads worldwide.
So how do we analyse the company in a sustainable perspective? We all know that Tik Tok belongs to social media and it seems like it has no relations with sustainability. However, it can be a strong tool to make people be aware of the importance of sustainability and let it be a kind of trend. Because of the the viral nature of social media, it is easier for people to follow the trend and receive information. And TikTok, boasting millions of users, is honestly one of the go-to platforms for raising awareness on social responsibility causes. We have already seen its influence---and Tik Tok starts to take actions and take the responsibility to make the world more sustainable. What did they do for sustainable development? Or what can they do? Below I will discuss about two main features that Tik Tok provides, how they are related to sustainability and what we expect them to do in the future.
The "For You" page on TikTok is a feed of videos that are recommended to users based on their activity on the app. Content is generated by TikTok's artificial intelligence (AI) depending on the content a user liked, interacted with, or searched. Users can also choose to add to favorites or select "not interested" on videos for their page. TikTok combines the user's enjoyed content to provide videos that they would also enjoy. Besides, Tik Tok will randomly recommend videos to users and calculate their preferences according to their views.
Trends are shown on TikTok's explore page or the page with the search logo. The page enlists the trending hashtags and challenges among the app. Some include #posechallenge, #filterswitch, #dontjudgemechallenge, #homedecor, #hitormiss, #bottlecapchallenge and more. In June 2019, the company introduced the hashtag #EduTok which received 37 billion views. Following this development, the company initiated partnerships with edtech startups to create educational content on the platform.
The two main functions made it easier for users to gain the sustainability-related knowledge. “For you” randomly gives users opportunities to watch the short videos which are about sustainability, even if they know nothing about it. If they like it, the platform will continue to recommend related videos and keep attracting them. However, TikTok also heavily promotes consumerism of fast fashion items and unnecessary products that people constantly see on their feed. As they are promoting news related to sustainability, they also keep promoting some unsustainable news like fast fashion. And if users viewed it and liked it---they will keep receiving similar videos. It is promoting this problem just as much as it is trying to mitigate it. Trends are more important---it creates a chance for people to follow the latest trends that can go viral. Now, if you open up the app, you will see many popular trending hashtags like #WeAreCommitted or #ClimateChange. These tags have high views and the information has been spread widely.
TikTok has also created a collaborative, educational space; a platform where users have access to a wide array of easily accessible content. Delving into topics like climate change, sustainability, and conscious consumerism can be daunting and confusing. TikTok videos have made the learning experience more personable and digestible than turning to traditional media sources. Brands that practice sustainability have been able to share their messages on TikTok and grow their businesses. The algorithm gives any user the chance to go viral. Consequently, sustainable small businesses around the world are presented with an unparalleled publicity opportunity.
TikTok has taken over the social media sphere in the midst of COVID-19. As the world went through lockdown, users turned to TikTok to try new dances, experiment with trendy recipes, and now, educate themselves on sustainability. In just a few scrolls, users can learn about climate change, sustainability practices, and conscious shopping. Designers, climate change experts, and vintage stores have used the platform to share tips, tricks, and facts about saving our planet.
While some may use TikTok as an entertaining, humorous escape from the chaos of the world, others are using the app as an educational source. With a never-ending stream of content, TikTok viewers can utilize the app to expand their knowledge of the climate crisis. Viewers can find simple ways to contribute to the cause in their everyday lives. Fashion creators with a focus on vintage shopping share ideas on upcycling clothing and how to spot the best finds in a thrift shop. Crafty teens teach users how to transform old sheets into a chic new dress. Vegan vloggers show off how to live a zero-waste lifestyle. Young activists share how we all can stop the water shortage caused by denim production.
With its bite-size videos and an algorithm that prioritises discovery, turning a user with zero followers into one with a million in seconds, TikTok has become the go-to app for Gen Z, in particular, for information on all kinds of things, including climate change. On the platform, upcycling — the process of taking an existing item of clothing or fabrics and reworking it into a new piece — is portrayed as a fun new craft project. And making your own clothing isn’t an inconvenience to be solved by a trip to Zara, but rather an excuse for a photoshoot, one that resembles being on set with Florence Pugh and Timothée Chalamet. But more than just providing sustainable fashion inspiration, the app has become an educational platform — one that many young people turn to and even trust more than traditional media outlets.
TikTok feels very real to users. There’s a personable aspect that makes the educational part of it — especially about sustainability — come across better. Prior to TikTok, one of the bloggers on TikTok says finding information about sustainability that she could relate to was a struggle. Instead, she saw videos of unrelatable “experts” on Instagram and YouTube living perfectly zero-waste lifestyles in their greenhouses, wearing 100% organic cotton jumpsuits and preaching about the importance of veganism. This is a good way to spread information and increase more views--- and the users on TikTok are making sustainability more personal, interesting and reasonable.
However, Social media platforms, especially TikTok, also heavily promotes consumerism of fast fashion items. They are the perfect vehicle for trend cycle acceleration because the short-form nature of the content allowing for rapid and indiscriminate consumption. Essentially, brands use the trend-setting status of influencers to their advantage and also the nature of trends. The power of influencers and trends is incredible and theses videos could influence users to follow and consume in a short reaction time. Also, because brands send out PR packages in one big push, the items often become microtrends, appearing everywhere all at once and then disappearing once content creators have a few solid pics. The other negative impact is that perhaps because of the existence of influencers, almost everyone want to make perfect photographs and pretends they are perfect on the social media. However, these actions make them waste food, water and other resources.
Specific genres of TikTok videos also contribute to unsustainable practices. Many TikTok For You pages are saturated with hauls featuring several hundred dollars worth of clothing from fast fashion giants such as Shein, Zara, Princess Polly, and Amazon. The popularity of these videos is indicative of a larger problem of normalized overconsumption. Because of the low cost of information transformation, this fashion can quickly become a trend and then become popular among the whole platform. Then, as time flies, a new trend of fast fashion products will be popular again. So people have chances to view new PR products and consume for them.
Besides, Tik Tok is also thought to be unsustainable in terms of energy consumption. According to one of the statistics which compared the 10 most popular social media applications in terms of carbon impact (from Greenspector), consumption of energy and data exchanged, TikTok is the worst in terms of all aspects. Additionally, for each of its applications, measured on an S7 smartphone (Android 8), the scenario for scrolling the news feed was carried out through Greenspector Test Runner with all data was based on this phone. With their data and research method, the carbon impact of newsfeed/min of Tik Tok was 2.63 gEqCO2/min with 0.27 liters of water resources consumption and 1.88 m² land use which were both the highest among all applications. The energy consumption of newsfeed/min from Tik Tok is 15.81 mAh. And the TikTok news feed here consumes 1.8 times more power than Youtube‘s. In terms of the exchanged data, the bad guys included the news feed of the TikTok with 96.23 MB of exchanged data on newsfeed/min.
What did TikTok— the company itself— do for sustainability? Well, the “TikTok challenge” challenged content creators to pledge their own sustainability commitment for a greener and more sustainable future by using the #WeAreCommitted hashtag. It also has TikTok Earth Day which is an important global moment where users stop to think about our planet, and more importantly, our impact on it. TikTok has also emerged as a destination for content creation and conversations focused on environment protection and sustainability, with this category garnering almost 200 million video views a month all over the world. Over the past year alone, climate-related conversations on TikTok have garnered over 20 billion views globally. TikTok is trying to give the community support to make creative content. However, besides support for content, TikTok can do more for our planet. Can we expect larger-sized activities held by the official instead of creating more hashtags? The company can also create funds to encourage users share more about sustainability. There are still many other things they can do—let’s see what will happen in the future.