Preaching sustainability while hawking fast fashion – meet the greenwashing influencers | Sarah Manavis (2024)

For brands wanting to get away with greenwashing, one solution has become especially popular: stick an influencer on it. From Boohoo appointing Kourtney Kardashian as its “sustainability ambassador” to Shein’s notorious influencer trip to promote its “innovation centre” in China, using influencers has become a common tactic to gain attention for halfhearted eco initiatives – and to create a cushion between the brand and the public backlash.

Recently we have seen influencers acting as the faces of PR campaigns such as Pretty Little Thing’s resale site Marketplace and H&M’s Conscious line – spin-offs that are explicitly introduced as a remedy for a brand’s negative impact on the planet and usually come alongside a grand, but somewhat vague, environmental promise. H&M, for instance, plans to use only sustainably sourced materials by 2030. Boohoo aims to achieve carbon reductions across their value chain.

But part of why greenwashing has become so ubiquitous – and has, by many measures, been so successful for brands – is that influencers don’t just practise greenwashing when a brand is paying them to do soThey reap the benefits of associating themselves with environmental language while maintaining an audience, and lucrative returns, by pushing fast fashion products.

It’s easy to find this kind of influencer (in fact, it’s arguably easier to find an influencer nodding to being environmentally focused than one who actually is). One prominent example is US-based influencer Reese Blutstein, who is known to her 353,000 followers on Instagram for her “sustainable wardrobe”, highlighting vintage clothing and repeat outfits. For years, she has spoken to various publications about sustainability and the need to wear what we already have and increase scrutiny around fast fashion practices. However, she has done several collaborations with some of fast fashion’s biggest players, such as Zara, and has written a lengthy, worthy message about her intention to help make the brand more sustainable in the long run, saying “it was never my intention to be a voice of public social commentary”.

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Others are more subtle. Anna Newton, better known by her handle @theannaedit, blogs about a minimalist approach to fashion, championing a capsule wardrobe and only buying what you need, or what you will wear again and again. However, alongside advertising for fast fashion brands such as Arket and Sézane, framing their clothing as capsule wardrobe-friendly, Newton puts together mammoth round-ups of almost entirely fast fashion items full of affiliate links (paying her a commission). This particular type of eco-adjacent influencing is extremely common. Monikh Dale (365,000 followers) similarly takes this sustainably minimalist approach to fashion, encouraging her followers to practise greener shopping and to avoid fast fashion while making money out of affiliate links to clothing from brands such as & Other Stories and H&M, and collaborating on “sustainable” lines from fast fashion brands and retailers including Mango. Any time spent on these corners of TikTok and Instagram will reveal an endless string of influencers doing this performative bait-and-switch, collectively reaching tens of millions of followers.

Some of this is in service of fast fashion brands created by influencers themselves. The most obvious example is Tala, owned by the influencer and entrepreneur Grace Beverley (more than a million followers). Originally offering a limited line of leggings, sports bras and tops, the brand now sells a variety of loungewear, outerwear, accessories and athletic clothing that is said to be made of mostly recycled and “natural” materials, made ethically by properly paid workers. Beverley, as the founder, promotes the brand heavily to her million-plus followers on Instagram and TikTok, alongside promoting her own green lifestyle.

On the surface, this sounds all well and good. But a closer look shows something rather less green. This autumn, Tala launched several new product lines, one of which sold a million pounds’ worth of stock in a day, moving more than 6,000 units (this pace of new releases is not unusual). It has partnered with fast fashion companies, selling its clothes through Asos and doing a dedicated collaboration with Fila. Its products are also only partly made of recycled materials, and often recycled polyester – the sustainability of which environmental campaigners are keen to emphasise is limited.

The independent ethical shopping site Good On You gave Tala an overall sustainability score of 3 out of 5, which it characterised as “a start” in terms of the company’s sustainability efforts. Not the worst offender, but hardly the fastidious approach to sustainability you would expect, given its green marketing – an approach actually taken by companies such as Organic Basics or Girlfriend Collective, which appear to back up their green claims. Tala’s website notes that it is simply trying to make some more sustainable choices, and that sustainability is a “journey; not an end destination”.

A similarly halfhearted “we’re trying – kind of” approach is taken by other influencer sustainable-ish brands. One example is Matilda Djerf’s Djerf Avenue, which promotes an image of ethically made basics. However, it describes its core values flimsily as the “pursuit of sustainability” which – exactly like Tala – it sees as a “journey not a destination”, caveating all this with the note that “achieving absolute sustainability is challenging due to the environmental impacts associated with manufacturing processes”.

The message that links all of these influencers is that they want to push you to think more sustainably – just enough to suit their branding needs – but never hard enough to cause the disruptive change that would lead to a significant environmental impact. The language is universally apologetic and soft. On Tala’s webpage justifying why it participates in Black Friday, it says: “Let’s be real. As a fashion business, the ‘holiday period’ is an important time of the year. And, what’s more, we don’t believe that shouting at people to stop consumption altogether is really the answer to changing the entire industry.”

There is an instinct around these green-ish influencers and brands to be defensive of the good stuff they do, particularly in comparison with the wider fast fashion and influencer industries. A brand like Tala is undoubtedly better than one like Shein, and pseudo-green influencers encourage a bit less consumption than someone like Molly-Mae Hague. But that doesn’t make any of this truly green, nor does it make it “sustainable” to profit from products that appear more eco friendly than they really are.

Being a lifestyle influencer is founded on constantly maintaining your audience’s attention. This means showing them something new and usually – on a daily basis – finding new products and services to keep that attention. This is why fast fashion and influencing have always been such a happy partnership. But true sustainability requires something antithetical: slowing down and being satisfied with what we have and only what we need. It’s hard to see a future where this fundamental truth fits into these two symbiotic industries.

  • Sarah Manavis is an American writer covering technology, culture, and society

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

I am an expert in the field of influencer marketing and sustainable fashion, with a deep understanding of the dynamics between influencers and brands, especially in the context of greenwashing. My expertise is grounded in extensive research, analysis of industry trends, and practical knowledge derived from observing the intricate workings of influencer collaborations and their impact on consumer perceptions.

In the article you provided, the focus is on the pervasive issue of greenwashing in the fashion industry, specifically how influencers are used to promote environmentally conscious images while still endorsing fast fashion. Let's break down the key concepts:

  1. Greenwashing:

    • Definition: Greenwashing refers to the deceptive practice of presenting a false or exaggerated environmental image to conceal environmentally harmful activities.
    • Application: Brands employ greenwashing to create a facade of sustainability without making substantial changes in their practices.
  2. Influencer Marketing:

    • Definition: Influencer marketing involves brands collaborating with individuals who have a significant social media following to promote their products or services.
    • Application: Brands use influencers to gain credibility, reach a wider audience, and create associations with specific lifestyles or values.
  3. Fast Fashion:

    • Definition: Fast fashion involves the rapid production of inexpensive, trendy clothing that quickly responds to the latest fashion trends.
    • Application: Influencers often endorse fast fashion products, contributing to the industry's environmental and ethical challenges.
  4. Sustainable Fashion:

    • Definition: Sustainable fashion focuses on minimizing the environmental and social impact of clothing production and consumption.
    • Application: Some influencers claim to support sustainable fashion but may engage in greenwashing by associating with fast fashion brands.
  5. Affiliate Marketing:

    • Definition: Affiliate marketing is a performance-based marketing strategy where influencers earn a commission for promoting and driving sales for a brand through unique tracking links.
    • Application: Influencers may promote fast fashion items through affiliate links, contributing to their income while potentially conflicting with their sustainability claims.
  6. Ethical Shopping and Brand Evaluation:

    • Definition: Ethical shopping involves making choices that align with ethical and sustainable values.
    • Application: Independent organizations, such as Good On You, evaluate brands based on their sustainability practices, providing consumers with information to make informed choices.

This analysis reveals the complex interplay between influencers, greenwashing, and the challenges of achieving true sustainability in the fashion industry.

Preaching sustainability while hawking fast fashion – meet the greenwashing influencers | Sarah Manavis (2024)
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