There’s no ethical way to earn money as an environmentalist. As a “climate influencer”, this topic offers a chance for me to directly examine my work, my praxis to privilege, and be creating a dialogue with a systemic focus. There are many valid critiques in the influencer landscape, but there are also nuances and things I’ve experienced that deserve an active conversation. Is the environmental movement more concerned with acting as purists, or embracing mistakes as lessons for growth? I hope for the latter.
First, the creator economy is here and it’s rapidly growing.
It’s described as a class of businesses composed of over 50 million independent content creators, curators, and community builders including social media influencers, bloggers, and videographers. Even though the boom of the creator economy only began around a decade ago, it’s now the fastest-growing type of small business. It’s taking root in mainstream culture in more ways than that. One survey found that more American kids want to be a YouTube star (29%) than an astronaut (11%) when they grow up.
“Eco influencers” or “climate influencers” represent a niche within the creator economy of various activist communities that focus primarily on communications work. Much like my own work, they’re using a mixed use of video, photographic, or designed content illustrating their respective missions and organizations, but with a social or ecological foundation. Similarly to small business owners that have become influencers, many eco-influencers have created organizations and are running their own platforms based on the work in their careers.
Now, especially for eco-influencers, whether this economy is sustainable in the long term or not creates ethical quandaries. It begs the question, are we still upholding global capitalism as content creators? The answer is yes. We all uphold capitalism because we need jobs to survive in these systems. Now, as an environmental educator that’s previously been labeled as a climate influencer in this space, there are some valid critiques that I wanted to talk about (in this YouTube video, I cover it as well).
There was an article posted on Teen Vogue that talked about the issues within the climate influencer landscape. After reading this article, I agree with all the points made. I’d like to share with you some of the most interesting points that were discussed.
1. Which environmental accounts end up becoming famous on social media?
Usually, these social standards and algorithmic biases are based on Eurocentric beauty standards and cater to people good at marketing themselves. As a result, platforms and growth tend to be biased toward those from Global North Countries. These eco-influencers can more quickly grow large followings than Global South activists and organizers. If you look closely within the environmental influencer landscape, the majority of people who have large followings are White people. When compared with BIPOC communities, we can see how colorism and racism play a role in who is being centered in those conversations. For myself, marketing as QueerBrownVegan was a strategic tool as my username is more distinctive than my real-life name. Now, how do we address this? How are we making sure that diverse voices are heard? It comes down to intention: choosing to amplify campaigns, sharing relevant links, and ensuring that diverse voices are centered in digital media conversations, are all ways to grow and improve our own communities while building intersectional relationships.
2. How does social media influence biases in representation and activism?
Much of the eco-influencer landscape is communication work that orients around awareness, which is a precursor to action. However, what happens on social media is a limited experience designed to be maximizing screen time, not action. Grassroots organizers are in a different category because, by definition, their work is primarily in advocacy and centered around serving communities, both online and offline.
Many eco-influencers, myself included, do share and promote ads for products, but this is primarily due to a lack of funding models for content creators to sustain their work. For myself, specifically, I’ve discussed on my page that advertising or promotional agreements support my work, fund my team, and support my family. Of course, I like some (most?) of the products that I use and try my best to ensure that brands don’t greenwash.
Do I think that it’s the solution? No, but I do think it can help some consumers that have the money to start reframing their relationships with products and services, which can influence other equitable and sustainable behavior changes. It’s also one of the sole options to support the educational work I’m doing through QBV. I will say for my work, I’ve always said that I’m an educator, not an activist, and my work is centered on introductory education. For many people using social media, it’s become one of the largest sectors in which people are learning about climate change because educational systems are failing children to teach these concepts, primarily due to fossil fuel and corporate influence.
3. Are eco-influencers the problem?
Here’s where I diverge some. I disagree with the idea that influencers are incapable of engaging with communities because that solely depends on the individual. I come from a frontline community and began my environmental justice work by doing language translation in high school. When we make blanket statements like, “online activism isn’t real activism”, that can contribute to the erasure of people’s work.
However, I personally think there are power imbalances in how online activism is now being valued higher than offline activism. Grassroots organizers and organizations have highly relevant data and case studies, showcasing how injustices were fought and what was demanded. Social media is commonly limiting the visibility of those stories and solutions, especially with a bias toward short-form content and short attention spans. We can talk about the general statements of fighting for justice and getting involved with communities, but what are the tangible climate solutions and fights that people have produced? This is where I believe the critique comes from. It’s not about the individual, but the system we are part of, and when we uphold the system we are erasing decades of work. This is why it’s important that those who continue to practice local grassroots activism are also elevated to share the real-world examples and work being done on campaigns to create change.
Another point in the article states:
“Influencer culture’s focus on individual branding and personality is antithetical to grassroots organizing. It creates a hierarchy within the climate movement, bestowing more clout on those with the largest platforms. The media fuels this effort by repeatedly highlighting a handful of individuals as the “face of the movement,” when it is actually a collective effort. Moreover, these “faces” are rarely from frontline communities, whose voices should be uplifted the most.”
I agree. Influencer culture is an issue. I want to be clear with you all that I uphold it and am a part of that problem. As mentioned in my previous video, the creator economy is thriving on the commodification of the individual and valuing your community, which then leads to people being put on pedestals. It’s completely frustrating that grassroots activists aren’t always being centered simply because they don’t have social media profiles or followings. This isn’t about people being bitter toward not being centered but the fact that grassroots activists are not here to chase the accolades. They’re fighting for justice, and have unique lessons not frequently found in the eco-influencer space. The environmental movement isn’t exempt from human ego, yet I personally find it valid to honor one’s work so long as we’re also challenging individuals’ work in the movement.
I had a recent experience of people saying I was disappointing them. Saying that all climate influencers are the problem and they will not save us. Seeing this as a critique of the system rather than something I take personally, I was realizing we need to peel back some layers on these statements. I don’t think anyone within environmental movements is labeling themself as the end-all-be-all solution. It’s much easier to point out flaws in climate influencers’ (very public) work than to analyze the continued work being done.
What I can’t stand for is individuals making binary statements on social media platforms to over-simplify nuanced issues and re-traumatize others. The reality is that accountability isn’t found in Instagram comments. It will never be enough. The fact that people have direct access to our platforms creates a sense of urgency to respond to prove individual accountability. Urgency culture is a form of perfectionism and upholds unsustainable productions of work (re: upholding the same imperfect systems we operate in).
Something that I’ve been wondering when discussing with individuals is if people are actually hearing what I’m trying to communicate. I like to do one-on-one calls, not to hide away from people but to responsibly communicate and learn. This isn’t so I can hide information, but to actually understand the theories of change that others hold. I still haven’t met people who were able to showcase full accountability via a comment thread.
What really worries me is: are we actually giving grace to people in the environmental movement? Has it come down to a purist ethics movement where there are zero mistakes to be made? This type of framework is dangerous, yet I want to be understanding. Many people within movement spaces have been harmed and carry personal traumas that end up reflecting in how we talk to people. I’ve realized no matter what I do, there will always be people that call me performative.
So what happens when you’ve messed up before?
In part because of my platform, I feel a higher responsibility to do extensive research on who I’m working with and know that I may be contributing to people’s oppression because global capitalism relies on the oppression of others.
I’ll be honest, I’ve messed up before. Rather than throw myself a pity party, I’ve felt a greater need to showcase what’s behind the scenes and even the legal issues that we face while trying to make a living. Like other work, there are contracts signed with brands and those have certain clauses. If an issue arises, or if I’m questioning the integrity and practices of a brand, not only am I commonly not able to talk badly about the brand but what I end up having to do is take a call with the brand and then speak to my lawyers about finding ways to cancel the contract and delete the ad legally.
What I don’t think people realize is that you can’t easily take down an ad when there is a contract (especially if you don’t have money to pay for an attorney instantly). The other thing is that if it is unable to be done, can I use the money to redistribute that back to a community I may have harmed? Even when people say they want receipts of what has been done with the money, regardless of what we do, it will be performative. I know there are certain people in the movement that are waiting to see me mess up, so I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to apologize to them but to myself. Giving myself grace, standing up, admitting that I messed up, and relearning new processes in my work have all become essential aspects of my career. At the end of the day, I was destroying myself trying to please the people that only partake in my work to critique me and ultimately don’t have anything to offer but hostility – real accountability isn’t found in Instagram comments. I cannot resolve their own personal traumas or insecurities, but I can give myself the grace needed to continue my work anyways.
A bit deeper, there are misconceptions that influencers divert funding from nonprofits. The truth is that many of us are LLCs and not 501c3s, so we aren’t even able to apply for the same grants (which ties back into the issue of having few funding models in this landscape). We can do a better job to amplify grassroots movements, but I don’t think that people should attempt to shut down others with a misunderstanding, simplification, or understatement of their work. You can disagree with a person’s work or action and still respect them as a being, respect their past, and respect their future vision. We are imperfect. I will not stand for people who have been traumatized in the movement to redirect their energy to harming other BIPOC in the group. This is why I’m concerned about the way people are being treated in this movement. Is it actually about accountability or an expectation of perfection?
I make these videos and posts as a form of accountability toward myself to open a dialogue, but what I fear is that people will misconstrue my words because any one Instagram post, YouTube video, or TikTok doesn’t encapsulate the full-depth of my thoughts on the movement. This is where social media is limiting and I think if we gave people more grace and kindness, we wouldn’t end up as fragmented in our movements. I hope that we can continue giving ourselves the patience to learn, rather than interrogate our intentions. Movements don’t thrive in interrogation.