One cannot scroll on social media without the bombardment of ads and influencer-promoted product posts pushing fast fashion hauls onto unassuming consumers. At times, it seems that every other post is an influencer promoting the newest, “hottest” trends in fashion from the largest fast-fashion houses, such as FashionNova or Boohoo.

Influencer marketing has become increasingly popular online, and is expected to grow to a market size of $13.8 billion in 2021. With an uptake in social media use within the last year, influencer marketing has gained even more power, driving the latest trends, and therefore the purchases of many individuals. Influencer marketing has grown with the expanded use of social media, and therefore, brands have begun to utilize this form of advertising more frequently, many having their own “influencer relations” department or specialist. Influencers are an extremely effective method of marketing because “…the recommendations of an influencer can feel more natural and organic, since it grows out of a perceived relationship,” and perceived trust between follower and influencer.

Woman taking a selfie for Instagram.

With that being said, increased discussion of sustainability online due to ongoing environmentally-friendly trends has produced a new variety of influencer: the Sustainable Influencer.

The sustainable influencer is someone who participates in influencer marketing that specifically promotes products that are considered to be sustainable, ethical, and/or eco-friendly. However, while sustainable influencers are vocal in promoting sustainably and ethically produced products, they run amiss in a number of ways.

For example, Free People often promotes their Care FP sustainability line through the use of sustainable influencers, despite lacking transparency regarding their treatment of garment laborers and their environmental impact.

Sustainable influencers often promote brands that do not put sustainability into practice (seems strange, right?). Since sustainability has become a trend, especially among fashion brands, greenwashing has become more prominent within influencer-based advertising. (Greenwashing is the use of generic, sustainably-minded verbiage in brand advertising in order to create an ethical or sustainable facade. This is a form of manipulation that is increasingly present in online advertising, especially in influencer-based advertising.)

For example, Free People often promotes their Care FP sustainability line through the use of sustainable influencers, despite lacking transparency regarding their treatment of garment laborers and their environmental impact. Their philanthropic initiatives serve as the perfect method for greenwashing; influencers and consumers alike do not question sustainability and ethics when presented with them. Influencers especially might take an approach (whether through email or direct messaging) from a large brand like Free People as a form of flattery, pushing them to overlook blatant greenwashing.  However, a deep dive into Free People’s transparency practices shows that the brand only scored a measly 3 out of 100 points in Remake’s Seal of Approval process. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

sustainable influencer
An example of the Free People brand reaching out to a sustainable influencer for a partnership.

With the right sustainability jargon, even the most unethical brands can seem as though they have good intentions for the environment and for garment makers. Sustainable influencers are (or can be) paid to promote a product or brand in a particular way, which can promote greenwashing. Granted, not all sustainable influencers promote greenwashed products, but monetary incentives involved with influencer work can cause many to overlook a brand’s true practices, which are often abhorrent. Furthermore, these influencers may not research a brand before committing to collaborations or brand partnerships, resulting in the unintentional promotion of greenwashing. This goes against the supposed beliefs and morals of the sustainable influencer, whether it was an intentional promotion of greenwashed products or simply ignorance.

Granted, not all sustainable influencers promote greenwashed products, but monetary incentives involved with influencer work can cause many to overlook a brand’s true practices, which are often abhorrent.

In addition to the intentional or accidental promotion of non-sustainable products, most sustainable influencers ultimately make their livings off of the promotion of consumerism, which in practice is not sustainable. The excessive consumption of clothing goods has led to the current state of waste in the fashion industry: exponential clothing waste and further mistreatment of garment makers globally due to the ever-accelerated trend cycle for fashion. In California alone, over 1,234,711 tons of textiles were discarded, making textiles the sixth most prevalent material type, according to the California 2014 Waste Characterization Study.

Even if a garment or product is produced sustainably and ethically, it is still possible to over-consume. The overconsumption of ethical goods does not contribute to a more sustainable future, and the only way for a “slow” fashion future to exist is to slow down all aspects of production, which includes the consumption of clothing goods (the rate at which we purchase clothing). The irony isn’t lost that many sustainable influencers perpetuate the idea that individuals need to buy more clothing or items to achieve a fashionable lifestyle worth photographing and hashtagging.

The sustainable influencer has sway at the intersection of sustainability and social media. One such way that these influencers can have an impact that truly supports sustainability practices is by allowing for the sustainable influencer culture to shift as a whole. Influencers could place their power behind legislation that would promote a more sustainable and ethical garment industry, such as the Garment Worker Protection Act, or the extension of the Bangladesh Accord, rather than continue to promote the ongoing cycle of overconsumption — be it by advertising clothing from ethical companies or not.

Influencers could place their power behind legislation that would promote a more sustainable and ethical garment industry, such as the Garment Worker Protection Act, or the extension of the Bangladesh Accord, rather than continue to promote the ongoing cycle of overconsumption — be it by advertising clothing from ethical companies or not.

Mandy Lee, fashion trend analyst and TikTok creator, notes that influencer culture as a whole has begun to shift away from the promotion of “new things”. Lee believes that “the new wave of fashion influencer” will emulate that of Style Rookie and other fashion lifestyle blogs; they will showcase more thoughtful, creative viewpoints on style rather than fast-fashion hauls.

@oldloserinbrooklynReply to @noirerever trend cycle deep dive: fashion influencers part 3 ##influencersinthewild ##trendcycle ##fashioncycle♬ Sex and the City (Main Theme) – TV Sounds Unlimited

TikTok creator Taylor Bright, who is better known as @sustainablecherub online, is an excellent example of what sustainable influencing should look like. Bright uses her influencing power as a TikTok creator to promote sustainability-minded legislation and educate her following, only promoting brands that are thoroughly transparent in their ethics (and doing so in moderation).

As consumers, it is important to remember that products promoted by sustainable influencers are not guaranteed to be what they claim to be. Due to the nature of influencer work, sustainable influencers can participate in the perpetuation of greenwashing within the industry. After all, the most sustainable items are the items of clothing that already live in someone’s closet, not the clothing in sustainable influencer posts.

@sustainablecherubWE DONT NEED FAST FASHION ##learnontiktok ##tiktokpartner ##fastfashion ##fyp ##viral ##fashion♬ original sound – Taylor Bright

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