The Case against the Sustainability “Influencer”

The Case against the Sustainability “Influencer”


For pervasive transparency,“semi-green” Instagram influencers must be taken with a pinch of salt and the bar raised for fashion activism 

A recent collaboration between Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede’s fashion label Lemlem and Swedish clothing brand H&M that dropped on Earth Day (April 22) was seen as antithetical by some. They saw Lemlem’s avowal to slow and sustainable fashion, its commitment to transparency and empowerment of the African supply chain in conflict with H&M’s fast fashion model. In a story reported by The Business of Fashion, Jacqueline Shaw, the founding director of sourcing and production consultancy African Fashion Guide said, “The contrast between the two brands is confusing. People are upset because they stand for different things.”

This “confusion”, or boundary-less ambiguity is a pervasive issue in the global sustainability pursuit. But in fashion, it is peculiarly confusing because it opens gates to self-declared green influencers. An assortment, they stand for different things, sometimes just a “love for vintage”. Yet they rush in to share space with trained sustainability experts, environmental activists, knowledgeable speakers and advocacy personnel.


A campaign image from H&M’s with Liya Kebede’s label Lemlem.

The fact is that an influencer who can change in and out of a hundred so-called sustainable fashion labels, take beautiful photographs or zoom into a self-branding opportunity on the sustainability bandwagon is not equal to an activist.

Fashion brands, organisations and platforms which claim sustainable practices can at least be evaluated for compliance. The Higg Index, a suite of tools for the standardised measurement of value chain sustainability by The Sustainable Apparel Coalition; or Fashion Revolution’s annual Fashion Transparency Index and the definitive guidelines set by the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals are scientifically developed models of assessment.

But the “Sustainability Influencer”, could well be an untracked peacock in this “green” forest.


Photo: Fashion Revolution

Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2020.

Boutique Activism

Sustainability advocacy is not the sole prerogative of the fashion industry, yet the very nature of fashion, dependent on personal politics, image identification, vanity and brand building makes the path easy for an influencer without an index. In no other industry also in dire need of conservation, reuse and eco-friendly practices—car manufacture, bottling, industrial recycling, spacecraft, household and electrical appliances, food packaging or e-commerce to name some—can a person be recruited purely because he or she is a “sustainability influencer”. But in the fashion industry, such a person will be quoted.

Just as fashion media and brands are assessed (and should be) for how good their claims really are, shouldn’t self-branded social media influencers on sustainability be put through the same grind? So that they don’t sit on a stylish merry go round of “ethical”, “responsible”, “green”, “eco-friendly”, “mindful”, “recycled”, admirers of “clean beauty” and have us tripping. Those who claim to speak about the planet and support workers who live and die making our clothes and cosmetics need a much higher bar.

Admittedly, this conflict is industry wide. Can a magazine like The Voice of Fashion that also publishes shopping lists, thus supporting consumerism even open such a debate? Should a fashion week which is essentially about “new” collections and “business of buying” have a Sustainable Fashion Day? Should platforms invite panel discussions on sustainable and conscious consumption alongside shopping bazaars?


Photo: Shutterstock

A representative image for boutique activism.

Isn’t this “boutique activism”? The term is used by David Abraham, designer and creative director of fashion label Abraham & Thakore. “Shop for a cotton shirt in the morning and sit on a panel in the afternoon to discuss the burden of excessive consumption, you mean?” asks Abraham rhetorically. He pertinently brings in numerous arguments on consumerism, the true cost (through water and other resources) of recycling denims for instance, the social and political culture that supports aggressive manufacturing. “Fashion has always brought out the most superficial aspects of human behaviour. However this question needs a deeper philosophical evaluation,” he says.

The Activist’s Resume

Others agree. Fashion journalist and sustainability activist Bandana Tewari, among the most consistent and well-known speakers from India, a pursuant of sustainability in fashion (who currently lives in Bali, Indonesia) agrees that sometimes facetious claims do creep into the way some people define their work. “It is one thing to be called an influencer and quite another to live like an activist,” says Tewari who has been studying the subject for the last few decades. “I engage in study of sustainable development goals, water resources, land aggregation and work as a conduit between experts in the industry and the mainstream fashion media,” she adds. She also works with students on the subject. The former fashion features director of Vogue India who writes persuasively about these concerns and also credits her life in Bali, close as it is to nature’s multi-layered nuances, refrains from calling out those who may be insincere or inauthentic. “It is a two-edged sword. On the one hand is greenwashing by many big brands. On the other, is a small section of social media influencers. It would be pompous of me to judge.”

Like others interviewed for this story, Tewari agrees that sustainability influencers need credibility and consistency, but she adds that every little bit of awareness counts. Abraham chimes in. “Better half-baked than not,” he says, arguing that the entire field is clouded with emotion and hypocrisy. From uninformed sentiments around “pure cotton” (which people assume is organic but is actually most burdensome on the environment) to fashion’s consistent search for “something new”.


Photo: Fashion Revolution

A still from Fashion Revolution’s ‘Who Made My Clothes’ campaign.

Boutique or armchair activism may contribute to awareness about fashion’s role in environmental degradation for the truly ignorant. Yet, given the seriousness of the subject, the Green-Preen lobby could risk diluting the message..

“Boutique activism is not sustainable at all. It might look pretty on the outside but it doesn’t take long to figure out lip service activism. The moment you flood (social media) networks about how sustainable you are, the stalwarts step in to let you know that you are not,” says Suki Dusanj-Lenz, co-founder and country head of Fashion Revolution India (FR). “Even though Fashion Revolution (FR) has grown to become the world’s fastest growing sustainability campaign in the fashion industry, we too have been criticised publicly for some monumental parts of our campaign,” she adds. Dusanj-Lenz cites an instance of the Fashion Transparency Index. “As much as it is celebrated, there is always a critic. It is only with authentic activism at the core of what we do we have a solid stance that can explain our ‘why’.”

If her arguments emphasise the rigour expected from a true sustainability advocate or a platform, Tewari accentuates it. “It is not a fad to acquire, for social media followers. You have to live it. It is a complex study, with research and commitment. It is not the most, well-paid job and you need to put in serious time. In my work, I ask for ideological change. It is about things of value, the right people and the right value of things,” she says adding, “I feel people confuse influencers with activists.”


Photo: Instagram/StellaMcCartney

A campaign image from Stella McCartney’s capsule in collaboration with Greenpeace.

The Activist and the Influencer

That is about right. Dwelling on the difference can help us edit and sift through Instagram’s “green” influencers.

Just as we appreciate the difference between the practices of designers like Anita Dongre, Stella McCartney or Ermenegildo Zegna and that of fast fashion business models like H&M and Zara. We agree after all that brands, like the UK-headquartered Boohoo, which exploit supply chains must be investigated. We insist that even the world’s top luxury brands must come clean about using cotton grown by slave labourers in China’s Xinjiang province.

On the other hand, we also know what it takes to become a “green celebrity”. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, producer of the environmental documentary The 11th Hour (2007), serves on many environmental activism boards, including the World Wildlife Federation and Global Green USA. Musician Sting started The Rainforest Foundation with his wife Trudie Styler. They saved more than 115,000 sq km of tropical forests. Livia Firth, founder of Eco-Age and The Green Carpet Challenge, brings some of the world’s most known celebrities to drive attention towards fair mining, trade, labour rights.. Eva Kruse co-founded the Global Fashion Agenda that runs the annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit. She was its CEO until recently. Kruse took sustainability in fashion to the World Economic Forum with the CEO Agenda, another initiative. Author of the recent book Loved Clothes Last, fashion activist Orsola de Castro internationally co-founded the “influential” Fashion Revolution.


Photo: Shutterstock.

Leonardo DeCaprio at the screening of The 11th Hour.


Back in India, Gautam Vazirani, (currently on a spiritual education sabbatical), the former Sustainability Head at Lakmé Fashion Week, brought the sustainability conversation mainstream to fashion week. He co-launched the Circular Design Challenge, the only such competition in India that rewards fashion brands innovation for circularity.

There are dozens of workers off the social media grid who spend hours with organisations, NGOs, sustainability platforms like soldiers to save the world from fashion production’s disastrous consequences. We may never know their names.

That is why, says Abraham, a deeper philosophical evaluation is required. “We (the fashion industry) will never address the core issue which is consumption. We evaluate success by production. In that sense fashion can be dangerous but the entire political will is geared to manufacturing.”

If you go by that reasoning, it may actually become easy to spot the light green influencer on Instagram compared to the Green Activist, who is a person of our times.

Follow, unfollow as you will.

Banner: A representative image of boutique activism. Shutterstock.