Have you noticed the rise of a new generation of IG accounts, influencing through education rather than centring themselves in their content? Megan Doyle speaks to a few of Instagram’s self-elected sustainability spokespeople to understand why (and how) they set out to condense complex eco-issues into digestible posts.
Just how wasteful is the fashion industry? What is climate debt? Is it sustainable to rent your clothes? Chances are, if you’ve scrolled through Instagram at any point this year, you’ve seen these questions answered by a growing cohort of eco-educators appearing on your social media feed. Everyone from environmental activists to university students are creating brightly coloured, bite sized infographics to help unpack the industry’s biggest issues, redefining what it means to be an “influencer” along the way.
The trend indicates a real shift in the types of content we engage with on Instagram. “Social media has become a place to share more than simple life updates — it’s an information hub, a place people go to learn about the latest news, trends, and now, education around environmentalism and social justice.” says Besma Whayeb, author of sustainable fashion and lifestyle blog Curiously Conscious, and founder of Ethical Influencers. “I believe this rise is to do with people wanting to share more complex topics than can be explained with a simple photo and caption.”
Some eco-education accounts start life as personal projects, while others stem from frustration at the inaccessibility of information available online. Faith Robinson, a British fashion industry consultant based in Copenhagen, started her account @entrylevelactivist in 2019 to decode the sustainability terminology she saw brands adopting. “Brands were using activist-informed language and assuming that all of their consumers understood it,” says Robinson, “But after working in the sustainable fashion space in my day job, even I was finding the terminology confusing so I thought, this is a big problem.”
Entry Level Activist has steadily built an audience over a year and a half, but saw a huge spike in followers around the death of George Floyd, and subsequent protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement. LA-based environmental educator Isaias Hernandez, founder of the @brownqueervegan platform, experienced a similar boost in followers around this time — his account is only a year old but has amassed nearly 65,000 followers. “That time sparked a lot of interest for people to learn more about environmental justice and racism,” he says. “My platform includes a lot of my lived experiences of dealing with environmental racism and injustice in my own community and from there it really took off,” he explains.
Social media is a huge source of news for Gen Z and Millennials, thanks in part to the ease of access and shareability that platforms like Instagram offer. It also means that information can spread incredibly fast, for better or worse. Venetia La Manna, a London-based fair fashion campaigner and co-founder of Remember Who Made Them knows all too well how rapidly content can travel. In June this year, her post Stop Supporting Racist Fashion Brands — which called out the hypocrisy of brands supporting the Black Lives Matter movement despite their long history of exploiting the people of colour working in their supply chains — was liked by 218,000 people. “Infographics are a good way to break complicated issues down for people in a digestible way,” says La Manna. “But sometimes, the posts that I’ve done have gone a bit out of hand, I lose control of the eyes that see them and the response that they get, which can be quite stressful.”
In a year where suspicion of misinformation is rife, it’s understandable that eco-educators feel enormous pressure to make sure their posts are water-tight. “It’s pretty loaded, a lot of this content — it’s political, it’s often gendered — there are a lot of places that you can mess up,” says Robinson. Regardless of where you’re sourcing information, Whayeb has a few golden rules: “Fact-checking is a must. Read articles in full and go looking for more information,” she recommends. “Give sources — reputable ones — and continue to educate yourself. Be open to learning, and to having your opinion confronted and changed too.” The good news is, eco-educators often come from academic backgrounds or have established careers in the sustainable fashion space, which helps to inform the content they create and gives them access to information that might not be readily available to your average consumer.
La Manna, for example, recently used Twitter to connect with a garment worker union in Myanmar to do first-hand reporting for her post about workers being fired at a factory employed by fast fashion brand Mango. “I get my information as much as possible from garment workers and their unions directly, because they’re the voices that I want to be amplifying and showing solidarity to,” she says. “On that occasion, I spoke with the union directly but it ran me into a bit of confusing territory with my community because they couldn’t find the story online — it hadn’t been reported. But [the information] was completely correct, and now the workers have been reinstated, which is awesome.”
Gaia Rattazzi, founder of the account @ssustainably, is a first year student studying environmental management and sustainability in Leeds. She started her account during her International Baccalaureate a year ago and now has almost 45k followers of her bubblegum pink posts that tackle everything from consumer psychology to colonialism. “Now that I’m at university, the library is helping me a lot,” she says. “I get my information from peer reviewed articles because I know the information at the library is reliable.” Despite graduating with an environmental science degree from the University of California a few years ago, Hernandez still refers to his old course work to inspire the content he creates. It’s his way of rebelling against a system that he believes deliberately makes academic information inaccessible. “Why are we paying academic institutions to privatize information that should be widely available?” he asked in a recent Reel posted on Instagram. “As an environmental educator, I hate academia because it perpetuates elitism and colonialism and doesn’t create a welcoming space to those who don’t come from strong academic backgrounds.”
Growing a platform as an eco-educator means expressing your opinion and occasionally making mistakes, both of which inevitably lead to backlash. “A few times it’s stopped me from posting things because when posts reach a lot of people, you get a lot of trolls,” says Rattazzi. “I made a post on the idea that vegan fashion doesn’t mean sustainable because often vegan leather is plastic, and I got so many vegans sending me DM’s of animals getting slaughtered.” For La Manna, her journey from buying fast fashion to being a fair fashion campaigner means she’s embraced the fact that mistakes are part and parcel of the world she works in. “Of course I’m concerned about saying the wrong thing, every time I post something I freak out if I’ve got something wrong,” she says. “But my main issue with the internet is that it doesn’t allow people the space to grow, learn and admit that they failed. However, in the space that I’m in, that’s part of it — I’m going to make mistakes, I’m going to mess up — it’s part of the learning.”
A question that eco-educators eventually grapple with is how to make money from their work — and it is a lot of work that goes into these accounts — without falling into the trap of traditional influencer revenue streams. “My problem with Instagram is that you’re making the app a tonne of money but there’s no way of monetizing it [for yourself],” says La Manna. “This work is exhausting and for a lot of people it doesn’t end, so we need to stop expecting free content all the time.” Brand partnerships, discount codes and sponsored products are all well and good for most influencers, but when you’re making your name as an educator and in some cases a critic, it can make your audience question your credibility. “At the crux of this whole thing is, is this a business model for people?” questions Robinson. “It’s something I’ve toyed with a lot with Entry Level Activist, but I don’t know how to scale it apart from applying for funding, but that’s really hard and time consuming.”
Others have found ways to monetise their work to varying degrees of success. Rattazzi, for instance, has a Patreon profile where she directs the people DMing her with questions. “Now that my following is growing a lot, I get too many requests,” she says. “I want to have these conversations with people, but I have to narrow it down to people who really value my time and my effort.” Subscription to Rattazzi’s Patreon starts at £4/month, unlocking additional content, brand recommendations and more. However, Patreon is an unreliable income stream and to generate decent money as an eco-educator, you’ve got to market the hell out of it, something that Rattazzi doesn’t feel comfortable doing often.
Hernandez has been partnering with brands like Repurpose and environmental institutions like the Rainforest Alliance to create educational infographics that seamlessly integrate into his feed and style of content. “I’ve been able to create a lot of partnerships through creating educational graphics on themes that they want to explore, they may have a challenge or fundraiser, so they work with me to produce that.” he says. “I’ve gotten all my partnerships from people reaching out to me, for which I feel very privileged. I have a philosophy that if brands want to work with me, then they’ll reach out to me. Luckily I get a few partnerships a month, which has been steadily going on since July.”
For La Manna, diversifying her content across a variety of platforms means that while Instagram may not be easily monetised, her advertising on her Youtube channel and podcasts allow her to build multiple revenue streams. “I’m really conscious to not focus too much on Instagram, because we don’t have any way of making money off it and we don’t know how long it’s going to be around for,” she says. Until then, she believes that normalising paid-for content is a step in the right direction for eco-educators and activists to continue doing the important work they do. “Let’s be optimistic about not expecting free content all the time,” she says. “People expect to hear adverts on a podcast or on Youtube, they expect to pay for events and panels. Why do we expect so much for free on instagram?”
For now, it seems like just the beginning for eco-educators on social media, who are making sustainability accessible and engaging on a huge scale. After all, Whayeb says: “Learning is the first step to making real positive change happen.”