A Good Influence?

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This CSPP21 Guest Blog is created by Alba MacGillivray, a politics student at the University of Edinburgh .

‘Influencers’ are those who promote products or services on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. In recent years, influencer marketing has grown out of  a small number of bloggers into a host of digital creators and social media influencers, as brands increasingly utilise influencers to market their products.

The success of influencer marketing is undeniable. A recent study by Forbes found that influencers helped sell £3bn worth of goods in 2022, whilst a survey by Meta found that 46% of people made a purchase either in the moment or after seeing a product or service on Instagram. So  influencer encouragement of consumerism, broadcasting the notion that people need certain items to improve their looks or quality of life through mass shopping, helps propel growing mass over consumption and waste.

In another recent Forbes study, it was found that it in the UK alone, individuals spent £1000 on average in 2022 on clothes and footwear, coming out top across the board in comparison to the EU average of £500. This reflects a rise in excessive consumption on a global scale which is completely unsustainable, given the detrimental environmental impact of the mass production of goods (like clothes and footwear). As influencers thus tend to contribute negatively to the environment, the question of whether these same influencers [or different influencers ] could instead be a force for environmental progress is an important one.

The optimistic answer is ‘yes’; influencers could use their unique platforms and relationship to audiences to shift attitudes to the environmental challenge and encourage different behaviours. It is apparent that influencers can forge a relationship between company and consumer which can have a significant impact. This could potentially be harnessed to use influencers to direct everyday behaviours regarding the environment, and so could become a positive driving force against climate change.

Accordingly, 2022 saw the rise of the ‘de-influencing’ trend, which grew in reaction to influencers’ mega-hauls and encouragements to buy overpriced goods at the expense of the environment. ‘De-influencers’ such as Michelle Skidelsky (@michelleskidelsky), who has over 169k followers on TikTok, gained popularity for her videos condemning unnecessary purchases, such as skincare fridges, kitchen equipment she deems excessive, and overpriced makeup products. TikToker Nava Rose (@the.navarose), who has almost six million followers on TikTok, posts videos addressing the environmental impact of fast-fashion hauls and the merits of shopping second-hand. These  informative and persuasive accounts take a refreshing turn away from the development  of Instagram and TikTok towards becoming akin to shopping sites, with both apps implementing functions such as shopping baskets to facilitate this.

While decreasing unnecessary consumerism is a sizeable project, the de-influencing trend indicates a promising growing backlash to the pervasiveness of consumer culture. It therefore has the potential to change behaviours, raise awareness, and propose changes to daily habits. This is welcome given that it is increasingly obvious that our current consumerist habits are unsustainable.

The past few years have also seen the rise of Instagram users who consciously advocate for changing environmental habits and have grown platforms out of this. Sophia Kianni, an Iranian-American climate activist, is one such individual. As well as being a United Nation’s youth advisor on climate change and the founder of Climate Cardinals, a website translating climate change information into different languages, Kianni has amassed 126k followers on Instagram through posting updates on her activism and calls to action, such as the 2019 Black Friday Climate strike that she helped organise. In a video posted on the 13th of March, Kianni states that “With climate education, I turn from a passive consumer to an empowered citizen, ignorance and indifference become strength and agency…We young people lead by example”. Her overwhelming message is that access and education can enable individuals to move from ‘apathy to action’.

Instagram accounts like Kianni’s reflect the rise of ‘environmental influencers’; individuals who have built a following that engages audiences on environmental issues, spreading awareness and educating to influence not consumer behaviour but environmental action. Environmental influencers spreading a progressive environmental message can target young people in particular who may not be  exposed to environmental news from elsewhere, and so increase awareness.

De-influencers and environmental influencers provide examples of how influencers can make a positive environmental impact in encouraging small scale behavioural changes. These could counter the argument that individual actions do not have a significant environmental impact, and that all climate responsibility lies with large corporations.

Of course we should acknowledge that the ‘big’ corporations with the greatest carbon emissions have much responsibility for deteriorating environmental conditions. However, it’s also clear that influencers could be an effective channels  to spread the word  that individual actions such as reducing consumption, buying second-hand, educating oneself on environmental issues, and participating in environmental protest, are important.

Where influencers have until now been cast as a force for growing consumerism at the expense of the environment, it is very possible that they could use their unique positionality vis-à-vis social media users to become a force for positive environmental action.

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