How Instagram Culture Is Contributing To The Climate Crisis

Social media feeds our appetite for fashion, but the result is a recipe for environmental disaster.
Isabella Carapella/HuffPost; Photos: Getty
Isabella Carapella/HuffPost; Photos: Getty
Isabella Carapella/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

What Will Be Lost is a series of reported stories and essays exploring the ways climate change is affecting our relationship to one another, to our sense of place, and to ourselves.

In 2018, popular beauty vlogger Samantha Ravndahl announced to her legion of subscribers that she would no longer accept boxes of promotional samples because she was concerned about the waste in beauty packaging.

I was feeling like this walking billboard because all I was doing was constantly pumping out videos of new products,” Ravndahl said. It wasn’t just her own waste she was trying to combat. It was the glamorisation that “new” means better ― a trend that social media has certainly amplified in recent years.

It happens with clothes, too. One of the biggest “rules” in fashion is not duplicating an outfit. It’s so deeply embedded in our culture’s subconscious that people can still vividly recall a scene from ’00s Disney show “Lizzie McGuire” in which mean girl Kate Sanders accuses Lizzie of being an outfit repeater. Fast forward almost two decades and the insult still carries weight.

Now social media gives users unlimited potential to broadcast their lives — and increasing pressure to dress for it as well. Forty-one percent of 19- to 25-year-olds said they won’t rewear an outfit to go out in a survey from the environmental charity Hubbub. For 17%, rewearing it all was a nonstarter if they’d posted a picture of themselves in it on Instagram.

The consequences of an entire generation rapidly cycling through products and clothes — the majority of them completely non-degradable — is apocalyptic. As it stands, the fashion industry is responsible for 8% of all global carbon emissions in the world.

Consumers play a major role — consumers who are deeply influenced by social media and who copycat the behaviour of others. But in these times of impending environmental doom, it’s worth reexamining the patterns that make them complicit in the climate crisis, starting with their relationship with social media.

What’s Old Is … Old

Before social media, there were magazines, of course: glossy pages upon pages that dictated what was in and out. Popular publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar served as instructional manuals for what to wear or not wear at a given moment, perpetuating the idea that fashion had an expiration date.

Fashion is intrinsically tied to identity and politics, but the bottom line is that fashion exists to sell itself.

“What’s popular now on Instagram won’t be popular in a few months and all of that contributes to textile waste.”

- Adam Minter, author of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale"

“Fashion is not a practical business and if it was, no one would buy anything,” said Tyler McCall, editor-in-chief of the site Fashionista. “For example: You may already have a handbag, but here’s why you should get this specific handbag, and it goes on and on.”

Adam Minter, author of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale,” noted that the culture around consumption has drastically increased in recent years. Between 2003 and 2017, the amount of apparel sold globally doubled, but the amount of times a single piece of garment is worn dropped by a third. The fast nature of trends only escalated this concern, and social media then amplified it.

“When someone buys a piece of clothing for Instagram, the resale value decreases,” said Minter. “Even if they return it, it’s not going to end up back on the rack because it’s already starting to wear out or go out of style. What’s popular now on Instagram won’t be popular in a few months and all of that contributes to textile waste.”

The conversation about whether fashion can be sustainable at all is a complicated one. While more fashion brands are jumping aboard the sustainability train by trying to improve their sourcing and processes, there are just as many that greenwash, or mislead buyers about how environmentally friendly their products really are.

Therein lies the trap of “shopping sustainability.” In addition to the higher cost that sustainably made items bring, producing more clothing with better practices cannot address the heaps of unworn, discarded clothes already made ― not to mention the brands that burn millions of dollars’ worth of unsold stock each year or send returned items straight to the dump. Even if you send your old clothes to thrift stores or charity, 80 to 90% of it still ends up at the landfill.

“Our sustainability writer, Whitney [Bauck], likes to say, ‘You can’t shop your way out of the sustainability problem,’” said McCall.

The Influence Economy

The vlogger Ravndahl, with 982,000 subscribers on YouTube and 2.1 million followers on Instagram, has considerably more reach than the average human. But when four in five consumers say they have made a purchase because an influencer shared it, influencers also have a responsibility. For Ravndahl, it means setting an example of doing what is doable to move forward.

“If we are able to slowly push into the direction of less waste, that’s the best thing we can do than sit around and feel helpless,” said Ravndahl. “It’s no excuse to continue wasting unreasonably if you don’t need to.”

Sam Fazz, a fashion influencer who sports the casual chic aesthetic dominating Instagram these days, says that actively recognising the urge to shop unnecessarily is key to stopping wasteful behaviour. And she thinks her content is better for it.

It’s so easy to get caught up in what’s cool and want a new outfit every day to show off,” she said. “Something that I realised with my own content is that it’s not about what you’re wearing; it’s about who you are and the way you put things together. It doesn’t have to be trendy or new; it’s about having something real to say.”

Even Fazz isn’t immune to the temptations of social media, but knowing she doesn’t have to rely on props for engagement has made her a stronger creator.

“It’s actually empowering to know I’m not giving in to the pressure of other people and I’m not projecting a false image of myself,” she said. “You learn to talk about fashion in a different way, because you’re being more creative in your styling.”

Fashion At Warp Speed

It’s a game of chicken or the egg to decide who is to blame for the culture of waste: social media or fashion itself? The answer is a toxic combination of both. Alice Marwick, a professor of communications at the University of North Carolina, credits this to digital culture accelerating some of the more insidious patterns of the industry.

“It’s very rare to see a behaviour on social media that has no basis in pre-social media. The behaviours that tend to take off are the ones that already have a precedent in our culture,” said Marwick. “Fashion culture has sped up in the last couple of decades. Trends now can be trends that disappear in a matter of months. Something can be in style and then be out of style in a moment.”

The consequences of a short life cycle for garment — now dependent on its longevity on social media — is our environment. In the face of potentially irreversible climate crisis, it could not be more clear that the draws of social media, measured in likes and shares, is not worth the harm it’s doing to the planet.

All in all, it may be unfashionable to repeat an outfit. But given the choice between less engagement on social media and the utter destruction of our ecosystem, perhaps Lizzie was in the right after all.