Influencers and sustainability - can I choose my sustainability?
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
“Sustainable and v soft cashmere from Frame launches today”. This is what Brittany Xavier’s Instagram followers can read on a post from the 9th of September 2019. But in May this year, Brittany, an American blogger and influencer with more than 1.6 million followers, posted a sponsored post on Instagram for Boohoo.
Now, why does this particular post catch the eye? The 2020 Fashion Transparency Index, an index that “reviewed 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers and ranked them according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts” gave Boohoo a 9% score. This is amongst the worst scores on the index.
It is notoriously known that within fast fashion, few players are sustainable. So for the follower conscious about sustainability, this lack of cohesion from an influencer might seem a bit confusing. As one of these followers myself, here is the portrait of an internal debate.
A first step?
Holding influencers accountable is a difficult task. Starting to discuss sustainability is definitely a great first step to bringing the idea of sustainability to an audience that might not be aware of these problems. It can also drive people that are opposed to this lifestyle to buy into it.
And indeed, according to a research paper by Agnieszka Chwialkowska at the Richards College of Business, social media can make people more “open to adopting a green lifestyle, which involves both consumption and non-consumption behaviours”. In this research paper, sustainability is considered as something that is still a “minority view”.
Social media is considered as a vector “in influencing behaviour change”. And you can see this just by looking at posts mentioning sustainability. As of the publication of this article, more than 7.2 million posts on Instagram include the hashtag “sustainability”. It clearly is a talking point. So discussing sustainability does have a major advantage, the one of bringing awareness to the issue and making social media users realise which brands are working on sustainability and those that are not.
However, like the example of Brittany with Boohoo above, some collaborations do raise an eyebrow.
A lack of cohesion and knowledge that could confuse your audience?
Clara Berry, a model and Instagram influencer, created a hashtag called berry trash, with her more than 500k influencers, the goal was to get her followers to pick up any trash they might see in nature and put it in the right place. She was then hired for an Adidas x Zalando campaign and did a collaboration with them where they did a massive “#berrytrash” day. This initiative was met with both admiration comments and its load of criticism, arguing that Adidas was far from sustainable.
In the report mentioned above, one key finding was that consistency was the main common point of success for influencers; “social media pages have been maintained for 4.5-7 years and continuously support the same message”. When following influencers, you put your trust in them, you consider that they have insights you may not have. But when the influencer promotes any and every brand, this pushes me away from the influencer.
Brittany’s post poses the question - are the posts on sustainability informed or just another way to earn an income? This is something that Lauren Singer, influencer and creator of Trash is for Tossers, also expresses. In an interview with Elle, she explains that she completed a degree in environmental science and often notices posts from influencers saying that a certain product is sustainable when it actually isn’t. For instance, recycled materials don’t always mean the material is sustainable, it might even be harder to recycle at the end of its life.
To in-cohesive messaging, many people respond by unfollowing the influencer, which could limit the margin of action the influencer has in terms of messaging and push some influencers to forgo sustainability altogether to stick with their brand. But there are actions influencers can take to mitigate this.
More transparency and cohesiveness for a more aligned strategy that resonates with consumers.
Generation Z is asking for transparency in order to make conscious choices in regards to what they are buying. And this is advancing a lot. For instance, the app Good on You, an app available on the App Store and Google Play, rates brands according to its “impact along the supply chain”, its environmental engagement and “animal welfare”. This enables the consumer to choose which brands to buy or avoid in terms of sustainability.
And this isn’t it, along with Good on You, you have various indexes and reports that show the consumer which brands are engaged in terms of sustainability and are striving to change. Brands have already noticed this trend, with very descriptive explanations of pricing and sourcing for brands like Maison Cléo or Lolita Vintage.
Some influencers have already shifted their messaging and promotions to always include consistent sustainable messaging and transparency. Celine, the founder of the Instagram account @Maison_Cee on Instagram, has an account-based around upcycling and vintage clothing. When fast fashion brands contacted her for promotion, she came on her Instagram stories to explain exactly why she wouldn’t be working with them; because it defied her values and beliefs. In doing this, Céline kept and even increased my trust.
So what should influencers do? Forgo mentioning sustainability completely, have a confusing messaging for their followers or completely pivot their messaging to fit with being a “sustainable” influencer? Though there is no right answer, mentioning sustainability in any way helps push the cause and enables consumers to ask themselves more questions. For Grace Forrest, an activist for social and environmental change, a simple answer: “What if influencers were simply honest about the true cost of their clothes?”
For more content like this, right in your inbox, sign up to the newsletter.