Can sustainable influencers encourage slow-living through overconsumption? The case of slow fashion
It is a known fact to anybody who tries to monetise their social media that a way to do so is by advertising products that reflect your ‘brand image.’ Following the digitisation of a lot of marketing techniques in a post-quarantine world in combination with the smart use of social media influencers in marketing campaigns, we are seeing that influencers are the centre of online interactions. The market size of influencer marketing was expected to reach $13.8 billion in 2021 in comparison to $9.7 billion in 2020 according to Influencer Marketing Hub’s 2021 Benchmark Report.
As a result, the paradox of the sustainable influencer has arisen: figures (predominantly women) who discuss the virtues of their sustainable consumerism. The sustainable influencer is someone who participates in the market by promoting products that are more sustainable/ethical/organic/eco-friendly.
However, the commercialisation of the slow-living movement and of climate change activism has become prominent in what was originally a well-intended movement. Greenwashing now dominates the ethical/sustainable/organic/eco-friendly movement through the use of nuanced, sustainably-bombarded verbiage that are unrepresentative of the transparent practices that are necessary in the sustainability movement. Sometimes the promotion of greenwashing can be unintentional due to the lack of pre-emptive research. Other times, it is blissful ignorance due to the hefty monetary incentives involved in the influencer work.
However, this goes beyond the intentional (or not) promotion of greenwashing. The crux of the problem lies with the advocacy for sustainability founded on a base of overconsumption. Let’s unpack this: sustainability: the divestment from capitalism; overconsumption: the participation in that capitalist system. On one hand, several people’s work is not the promotion of a new, disposable trend cycle. Instead, their ‘influence’ lies on the diversification of our consumption patterns. A lot of the time, this influence also extends to advocating against unsustainable practices, in favour of labour rights and more.
I find that the oxymoron of the sustainable fashion influencer does not reside with the role of the influencer, but with the part that the status quo plays in radical change. Sustainable practices/brands are faced with massive barriers to entry in an unsustainable world, creating an operational paradox. As with any consumer-based good, brands depend on capitalism, notwithstanding the fact that it has been the capitalist system that has led to mass ecological and social degradation for profit. It therefore comes to show, even if a product is ethically created, it is possible to over consume, and I believe that this is representative of the problem. It is not about cancelling slow-living influencers, but instead, criticising the system that acts as a barrier to lead a truly sustainable lifestyle. By extension, neither is this about the creation of a perfect environmentalist, rather to represent what Isabel Slone called “the moral quandary of slow fashion influencers.”
My thoughts on this are that it is complicated. Influencers themselves are not hypocrites for engaging in the encouragement of consumption in their platform, it is literally their job. It is a job that has been created within a system, a system that acts as a barrier to any meaningful change. Many influencers create a space and engage in meaningful conversation about slow fashion. However, many do that from a place of privilege, the privilege to receive gifted items from brands and organisations that make their advocacy a bit misleading for their sustainably-geared followers. This is because a chunk of the mental impact that the fashion industry has on its consumers, primarily women, is missed in the conversation that these influencers have in their platforms.
Some have argued that since capitalism and the need for consumption are not going anywhere, you might as well learn to shift your consumption patterns to a better direction, and I agree. For example, it is imperative to discuss sustainable alternatives to necessities such as sanitary products for people who menstruate, sustainable toiletries such as shampoos, face-wash and more. On the other hand, discussing our consumption patterns online is also an important conversation that we need to start having. There is a lot of shaming that goes to alienate people from the environmental movement, especially with the archetype of a perfect environmentalist that rarely exists. This is relevant in the influencing world, as well as in our social interactions. A lot of the time, getting new stuff does not have to do with purchasing, although it can be. Instead, it can be swapping, gifting and exchanging. It can also be about creating: picking up a new hobby such as knitting and crocheting, as well as learning to sew, mend and recreating.
In a world of online nuance, it is important to become critical of the information we are fed. This has historically always been the case, but is more prevalent now than ever because of just the unimaginable amounts of information that we are constantly exposed to every minute of the day. This includes learning and re-learning the ways that we can make our consumer more sustainable while advocating for systemic change.