Sustainable Influencers and the Problem with Trendy Environmentalism

Anita Vandyke, a thin woman with dark hair, takes a mirror selfie. In the background are plants, and she wears a nice sweater and jeans.

Anita Vandyke, author of A Zero Waste Life in Thirty Days (Photo credit: Instagram/ @rocket_science)

As our climate falls into deeper disarray and environmental concerns come to the forefront, a new brand of influencer has cropped up. Long gone are the days of the once hugely popular “haul” videos wherein influencers and YouTube personalities—mainly young women—showed off the affordably (read: cheaply) and unethically made fast-fashion pieces they bought for hundreds or thousands of dollars. Now, some young fashion- and lifestyle-focused YouTubers are using their platforms to discuss bigger societal concerns and ways to combat them via thrifting, sustainable clothing, veganism, and other facets of environmentalism. On the whole, this shift is a good one: These women are using their platforms to alert their followers to the state of the climate crisis and they’re offering tangible examples of big and small ways that individuals can fight against environmental catastrophe rather than fanning the flames of panic.

These examples are valuable and original, and allow their followers to learn new ways to care for the planet. Naomi Nowak (@Naominowak) makes handmade clothes and jewelry from 100 percent recycled textiles, while Anita Vandyke (@rocket_science), author of A Zero Waste Life in Thirty Days, gives her followers reasonable tips for shopping sustainably on a budget. However, there are drawbacks to the way that many of these women, particularly those who have incorporated sustainability into their lifestyle or brand, frame an environmentally conscious lifestyle. Namely, their content often promotes a form of “sustainable capitalism,” which suggests that buying trendier and more environmentally conscious clothing, food, or other items is a viable solution to saving the planet—instead of not buying these items in the first place.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, women are both the main creators and audience for sustainable content. While environmental racism is slowly becoming more of a focal point in discussions surrounding climate change, we rarely speak about what I consider “environmental sexism,” or the extra onus placed on teenage girls and women to save the planet. We see elements of environmental sexism all around—like how we refer to the planet as “Mother Earth,” and use similarly gendered imagery to refer to the bounties of nature. In many ways, sustainable influencers and the content they put out are the epitome of environmental sexism. 

“I do feel the sustainability and wellness space is gendered,” sustainable influencer Lindsey Rempalski (@lindseyrem) tells Bitch. “I think a few contributing factors are outdated stereotypes of women and decades of toxic masculinity. The assumption that women shop more and are more empathetic contributes to them being a bigger target for environmentalism.” Remplaski is referencing the ways brands often capitalize on female consumers. Strangely, however, sustainable influencers and their viewers are also imposing environmental sexism on each other. It’s impossible to ignore the ways the sustainability and wellness movements have been perverted to support a specific vision of thinness and wealth that somehow translates to the “perfect” environmentalist by offering an ideal that leans into the idea that ecofriendliness leads to healthiness, which leads to thinness. By encouraging other women to go vegan and purchase expensive sustainable clothing, influencers—along with the larger structures that encourage their success—are controlling how women shop and, subsequently, live.

One of the biggest flaws of sustainable-lifestyle content is that so many of its thin, young, white, affluent creators refuse to recognize their privilege, which then leads to the alienation of large portions of their audience. Their videos rarely recognize how their identities play into their ability to live out their recommended sustainably minded lifestyle. Instead, a lot of the sustainable-lifestyle hybrid content that has recently become so popular on Instagram and YouTube revolves around a few key lifestyle changes that are both trendy and expensive: switching to veganism or a more plant-based diet and prioritizing thrifting or buying more sustainably minded clothing brands instead of purchasing from fast-fashion chains. Both of these changes can help the planet (or at least make people feel better about their individual impact on climate changes), but they also require money, a fact these influencers rarely grapple with onscreen.

In 2018, Rempalski, a YouTuber with more than 300,000 subscribers, posted a video titled “What I Eat In A Day + Vegan Grocery Haul.” As the title suggests, Rempalski shows her viewers what she ate that day, and then presents them with a large grocery haul from a subscription-based service called Thrive Market, an online market that prioritizes selling organic and non-GMO products at up to 50 percent off the regular retail price. When Rempalski showed off the goods she got from Thrive, however, viewers were upset by the large amount she spent on vegetables and canned goods. “As a college student I don’t understand how anyone could spend $50 on some beans and lentils,” one viewer remarked in the comments section, while another noted that the amount of plastic Thrive Market uses in its packaging isn’t good for the environment. Rempalski addressed these concerns (“I can definitely do one on a tighter budget!” she replied to one fan), and has also made several other vegan videos where she grocery shops herself instead of relying on an online service. 

Rempalski isn’t the only sustainable influencer recommending these sorts of products or subscription services: Many YouTubers who follow plant-based diets or produce a lot of health content similarly include sponsorships from food subscription services such as HelloFresh and Green Chef that send recipes, and premeasured and packaged food to an individual to make it easier to choose and cook “healthier” meals. Unfortunately, these services—much like the influencers who recommend them—often fail to recognize that plant-based eating is already a financial burden for many, and the pricey cost of subscription only makes it more expensive. What’s more, many aren’t available country-wide: HelloFresh doesn’t deliver to Alaska or Hawaii, while Misfits Market, a source of affordable, “ugly” produce “designed to break the cycle of food waste” only delivers to 23 states and Washington D.C. The failure to recognize the inaccessible cost of living what is socially deemed an “environmentally conscious” lifestyle seems to be a constant in this sector of YouTube.

On the clothing side, many sustainable influencers are sponsored by or promote sustainable fashion brands such as Reformation and Everlane that run a similarly high-price tag (the average dress on Reformation’s website, for example, is more than $200). And while it’s possible that purchasing a Reformation dress has a lower impact on the planet than buying one from a fast-fashion chain, not everyone can afford one, and there are other ways to help the planet without such a purchase—nuances that are rarely addressed by these influencers. Of course, there are some creators who address these points more directly than others. Aja Barber (@ajabarber), a queer Black sustainable influencer with more than 40,000 Instagram followers, tends to focus her content on how racism and classism intersect with climate change. “I think the key to my popularity has been talking about how privilege, race, fatphobia, and financial means absolutely play into all of this, and how sustainable movements have to be more accessible and diverse if we want them to work,” she tells Bitch. “We can’t claim our movement is ‘better’ while leaving out large groups of the population.”

To be clear: The issue lies not in the actions that sustainable influencers are taking, but in the implication that these are the measures that should be taken if one cares about saving the planet. Not everyone can afford to go vegan or spend hundreds of dollars on ethically made clothes—and they shouldn’t have to. Ultimately, sustainable influencers rarely address the various ways that people can care for the planet without making a purchase. This is particularly interesting given that measures that are traditionally known as environmentally conscious are actually causing more harm: Veganism, for example, has been known to upset our ecosystem in a number of ways, and certain foods that many people with plant-based diets eat—such as almonds—can be terrible for the environment. Notably, during the course of my research, not one sustainable influencer mentioned these facts, which points to one of two conclusions: Either these women are prioritizing their trendy lifestyle over more intensive environmentalism, or they’re not as knowledgeable about sustainability as they purport to be.

Their content often promotes a form of “sustainable capitalism,” which suggests that buying trendier and more environmentally conscious clothing, food, or other items is a viable solution to saving the planet—instead of not buying these items in the first place.

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Perhaps this is too harsh of a critique, but this discrepancy also raises the question: What exactly should the role of a sustainable influencer be? Are these women meant to be sources of information for those who want to learn more about environmentalism and environmental catastrophe, a way for viewers to find cute sustainable clothes or delicious vegan recipes, or something in between? “I choose to lead by example,” Hitomi Mochizuki (@yaknowme_hitomi), an influencer with nearly 200,000 Instagram followers and nearly 500,000 YouTube subscribers says. “I appreciate those who are educating with facts and important statistics on climate change, but also find that those videos can make people feel hopeless or stressed. I don’t want to care about the environment only out of guilt, I want to do it out of love.”

“And this is more of the way I share how to be more environmentally conscious: through a vegan lifestyle, shopping secondhand, conscious consumption, and only buying things you need that will last a long time,” Mochizuki, continued. “I promote resting in the energy of love and doing little things every day to create less waste.” It seems that many sustainable influencers hope to lead by example as Mochizuki describes. The problem ensues when the “example” many of these women are setting perpetuates the myth of ethical capitalism.

Miriam Nielsen (@zentouro), a climate researcher and communicator who also makes videos about the environment, is frustrated by how often sustainable influencers present consumerism as a viable solution for combatting the climate crisis. “I often find myself actively convincing myself not to go out and buy whatever new ‘sustainable razor’ or ‘ecofriendly floss’ I see folks touting, because in addition to being extremely expensive and inaccessible to most, these products aren’t reducing much waste and are adding to the demand for new products,” Nielsen says. “This is where a lot of sustainable influencers miss the mark on actually promoting a sustainable lifestyle. Talking about ‘sustainable swaps’ is pretty antithetical from what would be an effective way to reduce your individual footprint.” 

A refusal to delineate between individual choices and larger, structural action is another highly discussed defect of sustainable influencer’s content. “Individual choices are pretty minimal in terms of effectively addressing climate change and environmental issues,” Nielsen says. “Buying a zero-waste kit, even if it is all made of bamboo, is no better than just using what you already own.” Ultimately, these influencers are a product of our hypercapitalist environment that, whenever possible, commodifies ideas and causes, so peddling products—both sustainable and not—is their primary source of income. Many influencers are trying to grapple with this conflict to varying degrees of success. For example, Hitomi says that the first thing she tells any management team she’s ever worked with is that she will only promote ethical, vegan, and sustainable products.

“There’s definitely a valid conflict for a lot of influencers in this space because it’s so easy to nitpick how buying anything firsthand is unsustainable and adds to capitalism, or how the plastic cap on a vegan face wash could end up in the ocean, etc.,” she says. “Acknowledging that certain products may not be completely waste free but are good for anyone trying to switch to more sustainable ingredients is a good way to be transparent in the world of sponsorships.” Clearly, many pieces of the trendy sustainability movement need changing, but any discussion about climate change, on Instagram, YouTube, and beyond, is an important step forward. “Corporations are destroying the climate; we all know that’s the beast,” says Kennedy, a student and sustainable content lover from Missouri. “In doing what we can personally to counteract some of that, sustainability influencers are hitting their mark.”


by Mary Retta
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Mary is a freelance writer covering culture, identity, sexual politics, and wellness. Her work has been featured in The Nation, Glamour, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media, Vice, Nylon, Allure, and other similar outlets. When she is not writing she can be found scheming, watching cartoons, or sending unnecessarily long emails. To see more of Mary’s work and adventures, follow her on Twitter.