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A Viral TikTok Can Be The First Step Of Real Policy Changes — But It Is Only A First Step

In one-part of this week's newsletter: Anna Sacks used a tongue-in-cheek "unboxing" video to galvanize people to tag @Coach and put pressure on the company to speak to its questionable practices. But she reminds us that social media activism is only a starting point.

Posted on October 15, 2021, at 7:01 a.m. ET

This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.

Anna Sacks had been running educational programs on how to reduce waste in New York City, working closely with various environmental coalitions. But the 30-year-old is now channeling that advocacy work on her social media. Over the weekend, she posted a TikTok that not only broke through the public consciousness but also inspired an actual (however incremental) policy change.

Sacks filmed an “unboxing” video where she showed off a haul of Coach purses and other goods that were slashed. She claimed in her video that these were pieces of unwanted merchandise that the company couldn’t get rid of, and thereby were slashed by Coach employees so they could be marked as damaged goods for a tax write-off. Sacks then pointed to the hypocrisy of the company proclaiming to care about sustainability. Coach even touts a repairs program that Sacks said in her TikTok she’ll be taking advantage of by dropping off bags the company apparently destroyed itself. The video gained so much attention and fervent responses from TikTok users that Coach was forced to respond. The company pledged to stop destroying “unsalable” products.

This might sound like a fitting response from a large corporation, but there are subtleties to this language. Coach announced this week that it has “now ceased destroying in-store returns of damaged, defective, worn and otherwise unsalable goods.” When I talked to Sacks, she pointed out that there are a host of other reasons companies like Coach can continue to justify damaging their inventory — “If stitching is not up to standard, if a bag in a store is scratched, if it’s a style that might not sell” she listed as just a few examples.

I reached out to Coach representatives to ask them to clarify what exactly constitutes “unsalable” goods and if they’ll be ceasing this practice for other circumstances too. I’ve not yet heard back from the company.

Sacks told me she’s surprised, but overall pleased, that her TikTok inspired a “tipping point” for change. She also credits the herds of engaged people sharing the post widely and tagging Coach.

“I actually made a similar video last year that didn’t blow up; it didn’t make waves or cause any changes. It showed images of Coach destroying merchandise contrasting with what it said on its website and reports,” she said. “It was a stronger video [this time around] having the actual merchandise in hand.”

She also said that the TikTok may have struck at a time when a lot more people are “grasp[ing] the severity” of climate change by experiencing the effects first hand.

“Maybe in the past year we’ve seen more of the physical effects of the climate crisis. We experienced Hurricane Ida in New York City, the flooding, heat waves, flood … All these climate events that people have to admit are unprecedented. These are exceptional.”

On Tuesday, Coach released a very June 2020 statement on Instagram. “We are committed to sustainability,” its slideshow post began.

The company reiterated its commitment to “destroying in-store returns of damaged goods” and other “unsalable goods” (again, TBD what that entails) before reminding us that it’s also “donated product valued at over $55 million to support low-income families, individuals in need.”

The TikTok, its galvanizing energy, and Coach’s response are all momentum forward for something ostensibly good. We’ve seen time and time again how weaponizing social media to speak up and to organize around social causes can be effective. So I give a lot of kudos to Sacks for thinking creatively about how to approach an issue she’s all-too familiar with in a way that activates people online to care. Coach was pressured to respond and minimally corrected its contradictory practices because of all the bad publicity surrounding them.

But, as Sacks mentioned, companies in the hot seat of social media backlash respond strategically. It’s hard to trust that these changes will...sustain.

“What Coach will do is lay low for a bit,” Sacks said. “And then continue as if nothing has happened. It’s because of the severity of people’s reactions, and people wanting to hold them accountable, that they were forced to issue a statement on one aspect of their policy.”

(As much as Coach is taking the heat for this, Sacks wants to remind us that many, many big fashion brands have similarly controversial policies for their outstanding inventories. You can scroll through her @thetrashwalker TikTok account for a myriad other examples of companies throwing out huge quantities of their products as waste.)

Social media can be a subversive tool for campaigning for social causes — but it’s only a starting point.

“It can’t just be social media; it has to be social media paired with emails and calling,” Sacks advised. “Politicians don’t log comments and shares. It might catch their attention, but they don’t log it the way they log the number of calls and emails. Maybe that will change for politicians, but you need to do both.”

Sacks is right; social media “activism” is a tenuous way to engage because it’s debatable how active it really can be. It’s great for putting pressure on big brands when they care most about their image, but right now it starts and stops there. It’s exciting to me to imagine lawmakers one day being able to quantify social media engagement the way they do logging petitions, calls, and emails. For now, social media is a springboard and a call-to-action for more traditional models of advocacy. When you watch a TikTok or scroll through an educational Instagram slideshow and are compelled to act, it’s as important to then follow through.

And, I’d add, TikTok itself can help with pushing these videos to the top of people’s FYP, instead of, well, perhaps conspiracy videos. I reached out to TikTok about this idea.

Sacks is going to continue posting TikToks as she works with local coalitions in NYC like Save Our Compost and Donate Don’t Dump. They won’t all be hits, but she said she’s definitely felt reinvigorated by how successful her last TikTok was. She also hopes people who work for these fashion companies can use social media to be more transparent about what’s going on internally.

“One day it could be powerful to see more people who work for these corporations sharing behind-the-scenes of what’s required to do their jobs,” she said. “People message me footage, it’s powerful to see, but it’s also very risky.”

I don’t think I need to reiterate to subscribers of this newsletter how both empowering and precarious social media is for sounding an alarm on a company that projects an image or standard it can’t live up to.

When that alarm is ringing, I hope we’re paying attention.

Until next time,

Tanya

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.