Can Fashion ‘Haulers’ Overhaul the Way We Buy Clothes?

What fast fashion’s biggest addicts are doing to sell us on sustainable style.

Bip Ling takes a selfie with schoolgirls at Piyali Learning Center in Kolkata, India. Part of the proceeds of every sale of her collaboration T-shirt with People Tree goes to the school. (Photo: People Tree/YouTube)

Jun 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Lucy Siegle is a London-based journalist, broadcaster, and film maker 'obsessed' with sustainable style and highly skeptical about the value of mass-market fashion.

Safia Minney is the CEO of conscious-fashion label People Tree, which trades in Japan and Europe. She has spent years interrogating the global supply chain for clothes, taking it apart and fixing it. It’s serious stuff. So when she first glimpsed a young woman called Bip Ling on YouTube writhing—in very short shorts—on an inflatable exercise ball and wearing Mickey Mouse ears, she raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t exactly sure what she was doing,” Minney says.

What Ling was doing was drawing as much attention to herself as possible. That’s the job of a YouTube sensation. And it works. Once you’ve seen the blogger and DJ’s pop video, which includes the line “She’s cool, she’s hip, she’s Bip the punky chip,” and heard her sign-off catchphrase “Yar!,” they’re difficult to forget. Even if you have zero idea what the message is.

The other arguably unavoidable part of her job has been to fuel the fast fashion frenzy sweeping the planet. The world now produces 80 billion pieces of clothing a year, and there has been a 400 percent increase in the amount of clothing we consume. Like Zoella, Cutie Pie Marcia, Noodlerella, ShamelessMaya, and Grav3Yardgirl, this brings Ling into the territory of the “haul.” These are the video clips in which young women share the spoils of their fast fashion shopping sprees with an audience that will immediately want to go and do the same.

Even though they might represent different parts of the tween/teen fashion spectrum—U.K. style writer Tamsin Blanchard describes Noodlerella as “a one-woman Disney-pink cabaret act—a six-year-old Disney Princess lover’s dream”—they have a collective power. Zoella’s 16-minute “Huge Spring Clothing Haul” from May 2014 has been watched 2.6 million times.

It would be easy to cast them as fresh-faced monsters of materialism. But there’s evidence that the haulers might be developing a conscience. In April, some of the biggest names were persuaded to ditch their usual brands in favor of a “haulternative” campaign for Fashion Revolution Day. For the first time, we saw the high priestesses of Generation Y consumption shunning the big brands they usually patronize in favor of conscious consumption, including vintage, secondhand, customized, and even fair-trade pieces.

Bip Ling with her sister in London. (Photo: Bip Ling/Instagram)

Notably, Ling has produced an organic cotton T-shirt for People Tree, featuring her catchphrase (naturally). She traveled with Minney to follow part of the supply chain.

“You know what? I ended up really admiring her confidence and her attitude,” Minney says. Also, Ling’s grandmother, who lives in Delhi, is a longtime campaigner for social justice, supporting Piyali Learning Center in Kolkata for young women. Part of the profits from the sales of her granddaughter’s shirt will benefit the school. “It’s in her blood,” says Minney. “This generation just does it differently.”

For many, doubtless, piggybacking on relentless materialism seems like an odd way to commemorate the death of 1,134 garment workers at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh (the essential point of Fashion Revolution Day). But the reality is that the movement to a more conscious, sustainable fashion industry badly needs an injection of populism. Until now, many activists have been comfortable picketing stores with “Pay Compensation Now” signs, but how much traction does that have with fashion lovers? In the quarter following the Rana Plaza catastrophe, fast fashion brands—even those directly connected to the disaster—posted record profits.

The haulers bring a bit of chaotic, extroverted confidence, but their on-screen personas also need more depth before their audience gets bored. This should mark the beginning of a symbiotic relationship. Organic cotton? Yar!