Get Off the Grid: Instagram and Environmentalism

As Instagram environmental influencers take off, one writer explores the problem of environmental activism and capitalism’s unlikely union

Feature by Mayanne Soret | 08 Aug 2019
  • Instagram Environmentalism

With more and more of our lives spent online, and more and more of our future being threatened by climate change, it comes as no surprise that environmental activism would harness the power of digital technologies to reach momentum and spread awareness. In fact, activism is no stranger to the internet: ever since the popularisation of household computers, digital tools have been used to inform, mobilise, and organise for political purpose, increasingly becoming more central to the nature of activism.

In the case of environmentalism, online tools such as blogs and e-commerce can be used to create accessible learning platforms, build specialised market places selling eco-friendly everyday items that may not be available on the high street, and encourage alternative economies. Online forums and social media have also helped to foster community, and create a consumer-led dialogue, sharing knowledge horizontally from peers to peers. And while the full power of the internet has been harnessed by organisations to build upon their offline work and drive in new crowds, more and more initiatives are created as online platforms first, with or without the intention to extend to offline action.

Eco-friendly Instagram and influencer culture 

In the case of sustainable living, Instagram is host to a variety of eco-friendly accounts. Just type in the words 'zero waste' and you’ll be given a full list of accounts ready to upload daily reminders, tips and ideas to lead a waste-free life, with many accounts’ followings rivalling beauty and fitness influencers.

Among the most successful, Trash Is for Tossers, a zero waste blog created in 2013, boasts over 347K followers, while The Zero Waste CollectiveTM is followed by over 423K. Smaller accounts still drive consequent engagement, ranging everywhere from Australia’s blog The Green Hub Online (31.2K followers) to The Ethical Fashion Guide (nearing 8K followers). With their overly positive message and helpful content, the success of these accounts is cause for celebration, but engagement numbers are not the only thing they share with influencers. They also feature a familiar aesthetic: a look at these accounts will reveal an abundance of overexposed flat-lay, earthy colours, and smiling portraits of their founders and ambassadors, almost always a young white woman in a pristine, urban interior.

By borrowing the codes and aesthetics of influencer culture, these accounts have effectively harnessed the power of social media for maximum visibility. But is this proximity to the social media sub-culture threatening to corrupt their message – the medium being inherently and irremediably against the message? 

Born online in the past decade, influencer culture can be seen as the direct continuation of the mid-noughties bloggers, albeit almost entirely native to social media. Usually focused on a specific topic such as beauty, fitness, or fashion, the influencer is essentially an individual becoming a brand. Through a carefully and coherently composed online presence, influencers grow engagement, driving brands’ interest to generate both social and monetary capital in the form of sponsor posts, gifted products, and ambassador roles. The influencer business model thus relies on a never-ending loop of consumption, where the product is the influencer’s own, unique personhood. 

This business model thrives most on Instagram, due both to the platform’s visual nature and to its unique position as both a social media and an app. As a social media platform, Instagram focuses on the individual interaction with the whole, letting individuals construct and broadcast their identity piece by piece on the platform’s distinctive grid galleries. On the other hand, as an app, it is geared toward consumption, using its format as a marketing platform for something that is so expansive and intangible that you will never be done buying it: lifestyle. Both of these aspects unite to create the very singular digital space the platform has become, and it is this very structure that risks complicating, and even negating, both intentions and methods adopted by eco-friendly accounts. 

Environmentalism, individualism, and neoliberalism

With Instagram being wired toward the individual, it only fits the model that these accounts would be putting the onus on individual choices and changes; but this approach to environmental activism presents several problems. First, the belief that saving the planet is an individual responsibility, one that relies solely on our capacity to outgrow our ego and ditch plastic straws.

This is not to say that individual action does not matter: it does. Individual action is an important tool to make our consumer voices heard and a good exercise in building alternative structures of consumption, as well as an effective way to set in motion long-term changes in our everyday behaviour. However, with only just over a hundred companies responsible for 70% of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere between 1988 and 2015, individual action must go hand in hand with radical political action and a dismantling of the very economic and political structure that has created the climate crisis.

Moreover, by focusing on individual action, these accounts risk positioning the climate crisis as an individual moral failure rather than a political and societal one, ignoring how climate change impacts populations along racial and class divides. Interestingly, two of the most popular environmental influencer accounts have recently launched zero waste related businesses: Trash Is for Tossers’ creator Lauren Singer opened a high street shop in New York, dedicated to re-usable packaging, while the Zero Waste CollectiveTM – an already trademarked brand – has an online store selling similar low-waste items.

At their core, they have valuable ideas but these approaches nonetheless suggest that it is in everyone’s economic power to have a zero waste lifestyle, presenting it as an immediate and permanent fix to climate change, universally accessible. While some of these goods are available to purchase online, it still does not account for geographical disparities in food access that will impact the capacity of individuals to buy sustainably and cruelty-free. Aside from accessibility, this attitude also risks to create ineffective solutions in the long run, as well as to foster a neo-colonial attitude toward climate change. By ignoring the nuances of environmental racism and the class system, these platforms seem more interested in catering environmentalism to a capitalist sensibility than they are in raising awareness of the climate crisis. 

Of course, influencer culture does not exist in isolation: it is part of a wider neo-liberal digital culture focused on self-improvement and quantifiable productivity meant to amass capital. By presenting zero waste solutions as permanent ones, devoid of any socio-political reading, these accounts offer a vision of climate justice and sustainable living that is not only compatible with, but also thrives on capitalism. In fact, the creator of The Zero Waste CollectiveTM recently launched a new consultancy business, with the Instagram handle @sustainable.influencers and slogan: 'Being sustainable and making $ don’t have to be mutually exclusive.'

But with the realisation that capitalism is the economic and power structure that has unequivocally led to climate collapse, can sustainable living truly succeed in an individualistic, capital-focused economy? It would be too easy to portray social media as the root of all evil, but what these examples remind us is that digital spaces – much like physical and institutional ones – are not neutral. Remembering our own proximity to capitalism may help us keep integrity in our intentions and values, and establish more sustainable solutions in the long run, both on and offline.