When someone utters the word “influencer,” usually a version of a conventionally attractive YouTuber or Instagrammer who lives in LA floats into my head. They drink coffee, live in a beautiful modern apartment or house and post sponsored videos or photos telling their followers about the best new product they need to buy and to also use their discount code. With a career rooted in consumerism and influencing (read: controlling) your followers to purchase things- is it possible to be sustainable?
According to Chris Boone, Dean of the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, sustainability is “…improving human well-being and ensuring social equity for present and future generations while safeguarding the planet’s life-supporting ecosystems.”
The short-lived 2019 VSCO Girl trend scratched the surface of this idea. A girl who wears pooka shell necklaces, drinks out of metal straws and Hydroflasks as well as uses bright VSCO filters over Instagram posts is both cool/trendy and cares about the environment. She was somewhat the face of the “sustainable” influencer.
In relation to clothes, this would mean sustainable and ethical production—fair wage labor, no harmful dyes or chemicals and usage of organic and natural materials.
But most influencers aren’t VSCO Girls. The trend was short-lived and born and died a meme. No one took the VSCO Girl seriously. In reality, the influencer’s job in the most basic terms is to sell to their audience alongside creating content. Whether it’s flat tummy tea, an at-home tooth whitening kit, a collaboration with a popular clothing company, or even gummy hair vitamins, they are supposed to encourage their followers to spend money.
Usually, the problem with influencers and social media marketing is that they are peddling the idea of mindless consumption. Buy this, buy that, you need this new item. Most of the time, people don’t need the newest pair of jeans or multiple bikinis, usually a small number of those items serve their purpose. This becomes a problem when an influencer promotes sustainable ideas but doesn’t follow through in their brand deal ventures.
Ashley Rous, better known as bestdressed on YouTube, fell into controversy for taking an Amazon Prime Wardrobe sponsorship. Many fans pointed out that a majority of her content focuses on thrift flipping clothes and sustainability, so to take a sponsorship from Amazon Prime Wardrobe is the antithesis of what she represents. She has made thrifting a part of her brand identity, “fashion, thrifting, and other misadventures of a 20-something living in nyc,” is in her YouTube bio and in an interview with Fashion Revolution, bestdressed mentioned her love for thrifting stemmed from “a financial perspective.” With most fans associating her with sustainability and thrifting, this sponsorship felt out of left field for most, and that she was “selling out.”
While these criticisms are valuable, being a sustainable influencer and expanding that into your brand deals and sponsorships makes the job much harder. Many popular clothing sponsors are also fast fashion companies with big budgets like Free People, Princess Polly, Fashion Nova, Levi’s and others. When only accepting sponsorships from brands that don’t use unethical manufacturing processes, there are fewer options and usually higher price points for the items, which could turn away followers who can’t afford them. Fewer opportunities mean less money. Most of these semi-sustainable influencers that work with unsustainable brands have content that applies to a wider audience than a solely eco-focused fanbase.
But even with creators like Shelbizleee and Levi Hildebrand who only work with sustainable and ethical companies, is what they’re doing still contributing to consumerism and as a result, unsustainable?
Well, it depends. Both aforementioned YouTubers take sponsorships from brands like Klean Kanteen, Earth Hero, ThredUp, Sunski and others, but they never entertain the idea of reckless consumption. They emphasize the importance of only buying what you need and Shelby specifically mentions in many of her videos that the most sustainable thing is to not buy anything at all and use what you already have.
Personally, I do believe that it is possible to be an influencer and simultaneously be sustainable. Although the job description is advertising to your audience along with creating content, context matters. As long as someone isn’t telling their audience to constantly purchase items they don’t need, they are in the right.
Sustainable influencers are changing the game. Those who go all the way and are sponsored by brands they share values with put honesty and caring for the planet first- which is admirable! In the end, every creator, whether semi or completely sustainable, is doing their part of helping the planet, bit by bit.
Featured image via bestdressed’s YouTube channel.