Aja Barber: The Problem With Sustainability Influencer Culture

Is the influencer business model at odds with leading a truly sustainable lifestyle? Aja Barber weighs in on the problems of promoting sustainability while still pushing daily consumption through social media, and the importance of representation within the movement. 

The time has finally arrived that everyone is talking about sustainability. I mean everyone. And rightly so – everyone should be talking about sustainability because our mutually assured futures depend on it. Everyone should care about ethics because lives are at risk here. Our supply chain is hurting and harming humans and needs immediate reform. Ethical fashion is a feminist issue and if we are all feminists we should try and divest from practices which are hurting other women. 

More and more people are hosting or talking on panel discussions, contributing to books or articles and seemingly aligning themselves with the sustainable fashion movement. However, when the same people are simultaneously filling their Instagram grid with tags and sponsorships from less-than-sustainable brands, it raises the question as to whether the popularity of the sustainability conversation is just being used for profit? 

The funny thing about doing the work I do is that many of my friends are also involved in sustainability in some capacity. We write, we educate, we make ethical and sustainable clothes, we protest, we consult; yet for many of us, this last year is the first time we’ve been able to make a liveable wage from this work. This was certainly was the case for me.

I spent many broke years in my past writing and speaking about sustainable and ethical fashion, when this didn’t pay your salary and it certainly didn’t make you any friends. Even now, in a time when sustainability seems to be one of the most commonly used words throughout the fashion industry, it still isn’t as lucrative as many other occupations. Like me, most people do a variety of things to match our dreams with our pay. But I love what I do and genuinely believe that in the future there will be budgets and there will be more money. We’re going forward not backwards and sustainability is our future.

One of my friends recently expressed how disappointed they were that they had to turn down a client who would have increased their yearly salary by 25% (they don’t make that much annually to begin with) because the brand was participating in a fair amount of greenwashing and they couldn’t in good character take the work. It’s a story I know all too well, as I sit here wondering why I can’t just look the other way and take money from every business that comes my way. I can’t – because that’s not how any of this works.

I received a message as I write this from a company that wanted to give me an affiliate link to use. I said no. I don’t want to sell people products they may not need because the process simply isn’t sustainable. I have turned down more work than I care to remember because pushing daily consumption through social media is the opposite of sustainable, even though the money would have been nice.

Of course, it’s okay to have made mistakes in the past. I know plenty of people who have worked with brands in the past they now regret. Sometimes you think a brand is better than it truly is and then you find out unsavoury details and feel ashamed of your previous support. And this happens to all of us – before we truly realized fast fashion was a huge problem, I wouldn’t fault anyone for receiving sponsorship money from any brand because at the end of the day, getting paid is a part of survival.

There are very few wardrobes on Earth without old fast fashion (my own included). But I’m not buying it anymore and I’m certainly not selling it. So, is it right for voices to be at the centre of the sustainability conversation while still actively promoting fast fashion, or should it be about becoming a listener in the audience while slowly changing these habits? It’s arguably more valuable to amplify the voices of others within the movement, while making sure that these endeavours are not just being done to make profit by association with sustainability. We must be careful not to confuse the sustainability conversation with the promotion of unnecessary consumption, no matter the paycheck.

In a time when everyone wants their name associated with sustainability, actions speak louder than words. Without trying to divest from fast fashion, there is an argument to be made about how this kind of influencer culture might co-opt the work of people who are doing the heavy lifting. It sometimes makes me feel like my voice is being erased from a movement I helped to build and being replaced by voices who insist that sustainability is their thing, all while continuing to profit from fast fashion. It doesn’t feel very good.

Instead, we must respect those who have been talking about this all along and missed out on the profits to truly stand for sustainability instead. After all, isn’t that what an ethical approach to influencer culture should be – making sure these voices are still at the forefront of the discussion today, and not becoming victims of erasure?


“Is fast fashion actually that cheap?” asks Aja Barber. Read her response

Discover what Lyst’s Year in Fashion 2019 report says about sustainability.

Find out the best ways to talk to your friends about quitting fast fashion