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Sustainable Influencers: Hypocrites, or Catalysts of Change?

Noa Ben-Moshe wants the fashion industry to #PayUp.

The sustainable influencer and creator of “Style with a Smile” blog recently took to her Instagram to call on the industry to fairly compensate garment workers who are currently out of work as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

In a post published on April 13, Ben-Moshe educated her 16,800 followers on the consequences of brands and retailers canceling their orders, and shared steps consumers can take to effect change.

And she’s not alone.

Ben-Moshe is part of a new wave of influencers focused on sustainable fashion. Pierre-Loïc Assayag, CEO and co-founder of influencer marketing technology platform Traackr, defines sustainable influencers as those who promote fashion brands dedicated to minimizing the impact that production and operation lines have on the environment. According to Assayag, to make a positive impact, these influencers can share something as simple as a sustainable outfit with an educational caption. But if they truly want to drive change, they can go deeper.

“Others have gone a little outside the box and shared posts that show a behind-the-scenes look at the process brands go through to ensure sustainability,” said Assayag, pointing to an Instagram post from influencer AnnaSophia Robb who was photographed touring a denim mill in 2019. Her post, which has since garnered more than 27,000 likes, was possibly her 1.1 million followers’ first glimpse into the denim supply chain.

Fashion brands are increasingly working with sustainable influencers to promote responsible consumption—a concept some find hypocritical.
AnnaSophia Robb touring a denim mill in 2019. @annasophiarobb/Instagram

With sustainability becoming a top focus for many, consumers are quickly learning that their purchasing habits are directly related to the state of the environment. By consuming more responsibly and supporting companies with ethical supply chains, they can inspire brands to produce more responsibly, and the ripple effect continues.

“As an ethical blogger, I strive to educate people and expose them to the better alternatives existing in the market,” said Ben-Moshe, who was a social activist for animal rights for two years before starting her blog. Now an influencer who lives a sustainable and vegan lifestyle, she hopes to inspire others to do the same.

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Though they’re a far cry from the stereotypical influencers who often fall under scrutiny for promoting harmful products and posting ostentatious displays of wealth, sustainable influencers are not immune to criticism. In fact, their ethical stance and high standards often make them the subject of intense scrutiny, Assayag noted.

“Brands that work with sustainability influencers should be prepared to have practices and messaging put under the microscope—any overselling, exaggeration or misinformation could end up becoming the center of negative attention,” he said. “We are now in an age where audiences pay close attention to everything influencers post, and they’re unafraid to point out anything they take issue with or feel is false marketing.”

These influencers have also been called out for being hypocritical. Critics claim that encouraging people to consume is inherently contradictory to a sustainable lifestyle.

But Marta Canga, whose Instagram account @martacanga has 18,800 followers, disagrees.

“The nature of being an influencer is, unfortunately, based on brand deals, so it is true that whether you are sustainable or not, you are still promoting products,” she said, pointing to the larger problem: a capitalist system. “Consumerism isn’t going away any time soon, so you might as well consume in a better, more eco-friendly way.”

And it’s not just influencers who are on the receiving end of scrutiny. Those who choose to promote a brand’s sustainable products need to take measures to verify the brand’s authenticity, as greenwashing is a major issue in the industry—and supporting the wrong company could be detrimental to their personal brand.

“You have to study the entire supply chain model of a brand,” said digital influencer Shraddha Singh, whose Instagram account @shrads has a following of 324,000. “Why did they choose a particular raw material like silk or hemp, and where did it originate?”

Ben-Moshe, who sends brands a nine-page questionnaire on their ethical practices, added that research is critical—and sometimes just the way a brand responds to the questionnaire is enough to help her judge its authenticity.

“I view it as a good filter, in a way, as the good brands usually answer, and the ones who aren’t interested in opening up are brands that I wouldn’t want to work with or support anyway,” she said.

Nine pages of questions regarding a brand’s supply chain may seem like overkill to some, but considering the uptick in sustainable fashion searches, it might just be the new normal.

Fashion brands are increasingly working with sustainable influencers to promote responsible consumption—a concept some find hypocritical.
Noa Ben-Moshe @style.withasmile/Instagram

According to Traackr data that looked at 25,410 fashion influencers across all major social media channels from 2018-2019, influencer posts focused specifically on “sustainable fashion” increased by 54.6 percent, and engagement increased 161.2 percent.

There’s been a cultural shift in recent years that has turned the spotlight onto environmentalism, said Stephanie Chong, founder and director of PR agency Nood PR.

“We are living in the Greta Thunberg era,” she said. “Sustainable marketing is definitely a growing category.”

Despite the universal shift toward sustainable fashion and consumers’ growing self-awareness, shopping will always be a hobby for some—and Singh sees that as a good thing.

“I love fashion and would never advise anyone to stop buying clothes,” she said. “This industry employs a large number of people. But if we’re equipped with the essential information, we can move forward in the right direction.”