Venetia La Manna isn’t afraid to tell you she’s a hypocrite. To be more specific, she’s a “recovering hypocrite,” a label she proudly puts in her bio on Instagram, where she boasts 72,600 followers and counting.
La Manna wasn’t always an influencer. The London-based 30-year-old started her career working in television as a producer, and later as a host on Tastemade, a video network and YouTube channel that focuses on travel and food-based content. It’s not an unfamiliar start for a content creator; Instagram is filled with attractive men and women who built an audience through their 9-to-5 and then branched out on their own when the iron was hot and their brand was strong. But for La Manna, there was more of a perceptible shift. The self-described activist has been using her platform to highlight issues around the global climate crisis, including calling out fast fashion companies and teaching her followers how she pulled off a low-waste, sustainable wedding this past fall to her climate activist husband Max La Manna. In a series of Instagram posts and YouTube videos, she explained how the two served vegan, locally-sourced food (with leftovers composted in her parents’ garden) and requested a “something old, nothing new” dress code.
“I describe what I do now as kind of activism,” La Manna tells me over the phone. “I share as many actionable tips as I can for people to live in a more eco-friendly way. And then I encourage people to be their own activists. I’m aware that I’m not really qualified in anything, so I use my podcast as a way to chat to experts.” La Manna also started her own Facebook community group called the Slow Fashion Exchange to encourage her followers to host clothing swaps in their communities and create a larger conversation about the benefits of avoiding fast fashion.
The move toward sustainability is an increasingly common one, even if influencers choose to participate in varying degrees. VSCO girls implore you to avoid plastic straws and save the turtles; some women I follow are simply more prone to show off an Everlane puffer made out of recycled materials, while still continuing to inform followers when their LBD was a Topshop purchase. Others, like La Manna, are dedicated to promoting sustainable brands and secondhand clothing in an effort to reduce landfill waste and avoid supporting unfair labor practices. (As it stands, the fashion industry produces 10 percent of global carbon emissions and 20 percent of global wastewater, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, more than both international flights and maritime shipping.) Last December, the site Fashionista asked whether it’s possible to even be a “sustainable influencer,” reporting that the #sustainablefashion hashtag had quintupled on Instagram since 2016. For La Manna, and a number of others, it’s a question worth considering.
Instagram intrinsically thrives off consumer culture. Though people like La Manna have been able to harness its powers for something akin to activism, the app’s own shopping feature—and its overflowing crop of influencers—sends a clear message: Instagram wants you to buy things, and it doesn’t really care whether they’re eco-friendly or not. While an influencer in 2020 could be interpreted as someone who hawks products or a particular lifestyle, when the two are combined, there’s a contradiction for those who want to make money but also want to create a brand around informing the public about climate change, which is partially caused by household consumption. As Fashionista reports, “The tension between conscience and commerce is nothing new. Neither is the idea that conscious consumption, as a concept, is fundamentally flawed.”
“Every single thing we do has an environmental impact,” La Manna says. “Although I try and live with the lowest impact that I possibly can, there’s no way that I’m not creating some kind of negative impact on the planet, and I have to be aware of that.” As a full-time influencer, she chooses to work with brands that align with her own values. (For example, she refuses to fly for any sort of paid deal.) Her perspective has led to partnerships with brands like The Body Shop, which—while not zero waste—have started using recycled plastics and allows customers to return empty bottles to be recycled into new items. Not everyone has access to a zero waste store, La Manna points out, but they can probably get themselves to The Body Shop. “It’s the hardest thing about what I do. How can I do things in such a way that I’m not adding to needless consumption?” Still, La Manna admits, in a dream world, she wouldn’t do any brand partnerships at all.
For Tolmeia Gregory, 19, a call from a fast fashion brand was not only once welcomed, it was celebrated. The now-activist, known as Tolly Dolly Posh online, started a blog back in 2012. At the time, it was fun to have brands she loved offering to send her free clothes. But then a few years into blogging she watched the documentary The True Cost that details the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in 2013, which killed more than 1,100 people, making it the deadliest garment factory disaster in modern history. “That was my lightbulb moment, where I knew that I needed to use this platform I’d created to educate other people about the issues within the fashion industry.”
Now, she says she’s reached a “climate emergency mindset….I can’t really share or do anything without it relating to that in some way or another.” Since she began focusing on ethical fashion, and subsequently calling out brands that were harming the planet, she’s received less and less opportunities for sponsored posts. At the moment, she doesn’t do any brands deals, though she’d be open to it if she found a company that she felt comfortable promoting, and supports herself as a freelance graphic designer.
Gregory knows that some people don’t have the luxury of being as selective, that there are those who have chosen to make a livelihood off their slew of sponsored posts. But she still gets bothered when she hears of someone posting about the devastating fires in Australia and then turning around and posting a sponsored deal with a fast fashion brand soon after. “It’s kind of like, OK, it’s your job, but think about what that really means. Are you truly committed to this message that you’re spreading?”
The same goes for when influencers and media fall for “greenwashing,” a term coined in the 1980s to describe “the corporate practice of making diverting sustainability claims to cover a questionable environmental record,” according to The Guardian. Much like people on Instagram, companies are harnessing the climate crisis as a marketing tool. Brands like H&M and Zara have been called out in the past for misleading “conscious collections” and vague sustainability targets, which can misinform consumers—and influencers who then go onto misinform consumers—into making what they think are more responsible, eco-friendly purchasing decisions. “As consumers of content, we have to be very woke to what is legitimate and what isn’t,” La Manna says. “We have to just keep asking ourselves, ‘Hey, even if this is sustainable or not, do I actually need it?”
Lauren Singer, the 28-year-old owner of the zero waste lifestyle store Package Free, agrees that influencer culture can push people to make decisions that aren’t necessarily rooted in fact. Singer first started a blog called Trash is for Tossers in 2012 to document her experience going zero waste, a decision she made in her senior year of college as an environmental science major. She currently has over 376,000 followers on Instagram.
“I feel like what I’m doing is a little bit different because I have a degree in what I’m talking about,” she says. “But a lot of influencers you see pushing product, even in the sustainability space, are people that are just not qualified to talk about what they’re talking about.” One example she sees? Any textile made out of recycled plastic water bottles, like that aforementioned Everlane puffer, is often not actually sustainable. “You’re taking something, a water bottle, which could be recycled into other rigid plastic items, and you’re turning it into something that’s very, very, very hard to recycle again.” These textiles, when washed, will also release microplastics back into the ocean.
But she still agrees that a more mainstream discussion is a net positive: “Climate change and sustainability being at the front of media dialogue and individual dialogue is hugely important. Even if brands are making less bad products, the effort toward sustainability is still good.”
As influencers-turned-activists (or vice versa) wrestle with how to make use of a platform that can go against their own ethos, some are also trying to use social media to expand the modern sustainability space. When Dominique Drakeford thinks about her own feed, she says overall it’s about redefining sustainability. “There’s a very monolithic understanding of what it means to be sustainable,” she says. “A lot of times, especially coming into the space, it was very white women-driven. It was monochromatic colors only. It was just this one singular paradigm of what sustainability looks like.”
Originally from Oakland, Drakeford now lives in Brooklyn and created a site called Melanin and Sustainable Style, where she highlights sustainable companies and initiatives founded by women of color. She also co-founded Sustainable Brooklyn, which works to “bridge gaps between the sustainability movement and targeted communities.” On her Instagram, she avoids providing affiliate links to her 16,000 followers, thus forgoing any potential commission on purchases she’s influenced. But she does participate in brand sponsorships and will travel by plane for work.
Her hope is to encourage her audience to take a step backwards and discuss indigenous culture and race relations as they pertain to sustainability. An example, she points out, can be found in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been reliant on plastic water bottles due to the toxic water crisis in the city. A government-appointed civil rights commission published a report stating that “historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias” helped cause the crisis. Drakeford says, “Plastic pollution is freaking insane, but then when you say no more plastic water bottles…[you’re] not getting to the root of the issue. We need to say no more plastic water bottles, but let’s also look at the infrastructure in communities that rely on them, and let’s mitigate that so that we actually don’t need plastic water bottles.”
Mikaela Loach, a 21-year-old based in Scotland, agrees that it’s this narrow vision that will continue to keep us from a truly sustainable world. As a medical student, Loach treats her Instagram as more of a hobby, meaning she can easily turn down sponsorships she doesn’t agree with. In the past, she’s worked with a company that promotes buying secondhand tech products.
On the internet, she says, you often find a privileged bubble of people who have resources and money talking about sustainability like it’s a new, trendy thing. “A lot of people I know who grew up with not much money would be bullied because they wore secondhand clothing—and now secondhand clothing is trendy. A lot of the things that have been appropriated by very wealthy, privileged, and usually white individuals are things that people of color and marginalized communities have been doing for a long time. I do think that’s problematic because I know a lot of people who feel they can’t get involved in climate activism, or they can’t live sustainably, because they aren’t a middle class white woman and that’s the image they’re seeing constantly online.”
In a world full of trash, both literal and not, it’s difficult not to commend these women and their efforts. Blurring the line between activism and influencing can be a scary prospect, if not a good branding opportunity, but might there be an inherent good in people learning about the climate crisis during their daily scroll? Perhaps. But only if those captions encourage them to actually take action in the real world. Liking an Instagram won’t save the planet.