Features Muse

EcoTok: Social media activism with a side of privilege

Zara Osako examines how eco influencers reinforce the inequalities of access to sustainable living

Article Thumbnail

Image Credit: Amar Preciado

Sustainability. Carbon neutral. Greenwashing; the sustainable Instagram influencer equivalent of “Hands. Face. Space”. Sustainability has inevitably become the buzzword of the past decade, only heightened by the Instagram girl aesthetic that shames you for your one-off single-use coffee cup purchase. An act so deviant, it can’t even be redeemed by choosing Soy milk over Cow’s, because somehow all non-dairy milks cause some degree of controversy. Yet, despite the much debated discourse of sustainable lifestyles, the trend has come about rightly so, with our planet under pressure, our daily consciousness is the least we can do as individuals. However, how achievable are these lifestyles that are pushed on us?

At one end of the spectrum lies your typical 20-something university student. Reusable Yorcup in hand, they’re more than aware of the imminent threat of climate change; they’ve tried Veganuary at least once before, their housemates are tired of being nagged for disobeying the recycling, and they rarely forget their tote bag. But this still won’t stop them from Ubering home when the bus is ten minutes late. It is me, I am her. On the other end, we have the newest wave of Instagram culture: the zero-waste lifestyle, vegan blogger who uses their platform to inspire lifestyle changes in favour of the environment. MeatlessMondays are something of a distant past to them.

I’ve personally accounted for most of the latter on TikTok, one of the fastest-growing and most influential social media platforms and it’s a good idea. TikTok users can gain mass following and attention from posting just one video, due to the app’s algorithm. If you want to get a message out there, TikTok is a great place to start. Just overnight, sub-communities of the app are formed and followed. The most notable in this example being ‘EcoTok’: a subsection of TikTok in which users share their sustainable lifestyles. However, the message to educate and inspire is often lost in translation, with many viewers interpreting the message as patronising and judgemental. And for some creators, the content is downright discriminatory and ignorant.

Sustainability is a privilege. For many of us, it’s relatively accessible and easy to make simple alterations to our daily lifestyles; cutting down on meat consumption, reducing food waste or carsharing. But for many people, complete sustainability is not always achievable. Sustainable lifestyle alternatives are often much more expensive than their non-eco counterparts. Vegan diets can be expensive and inaccessible, and often fail to acknowledge people’s disabilities or dietary requirements. Sustainable and eco-friendly clothing is usually marked at a much higher price point and often are not size-inclusive. And consciously choosing and opting for zero-waste choices can be time-consuming, a privilege that many people do not have.

One of the most prominent and talked about sustainability changes in the past few years is the ‘plastic straw ban’ which saw restaurants and bars forced to stop offering plastic straws to customers, in a government effort to reduce plastic waste.  Alternatives such as paper and metal were encouraged, instead. But this change saw a great expression of disappointment from those with disabilities that could simply not adjust their lifestyle to fit this nationally acclaimed swap, whether that be due to the inflexibility of paper and metal straws, the textures, or the ingredients. Nowadays, the paper straw is the new norm and most of us now gasp at the unheard-of sight of a plastic straw. But this has left those who rely on plastic straws feeling judged and looked down upon. Zero-waste simply is not feasible for their lifestyle, and that is ok.

Fast fashion is another collocation that has dominated social media forums in recent years, with “fuck fast fashion” having become a widely shared exclamation of disapproval across the internet. Again, this statement is proclaimed in privilege.  And if the cutesy, aesthetically pleasing Instagram graphic was not patronising enough, the message is ignorant to individual circumstances. Sustainable clothing is a fast emerging section of the fashion industry and has not only come about as a result of consumer demand but necessity.  And the majority of us have become more conscious about our shopping habits over the past few years. Whilst most of us have not completely cut ties with fast fashion, there has been an obvious shift in consumer behaviour; whether that be buying from sustainable brands, opting for second-hand clothing, or just buying less. However, these options are not always suitable alternatives for everybody. Fast fashion companies dominate the high street and the industry, therefore allowing them to set their prices low and provide size-inclusive ranges for customers. Yet, sustainable businesses are emerging and still growing, they don't have the profits to offer extensive size ranges and their eco-friendly production process means their prices are inevitably higher than high street competitors. It unintentionally isolates many shoppers. We have become too used to the idea of a £5 t-shirt or a £15 dress and therefore anything above this low threshold set by fast fashion giants seems unreasonable. And for some customers, simply seems impossible. For people with little disposable income, spending £80 or so on one garment is literally bank-breaking.  Alternatives such as ‘thrifting’ or buying from charity shops or vintage stores are usually used to counter this argument, however, this is not always an accessible option. People with disabilities or mobility issues may find this difficult or impossible, those who struggle to shop in physical stores may not find as many second-hand options available online, and many secondhand sellers refuse returns, leaving buyers out of pocket if the item does not fit or isn't suitable. Overall, simply claiming that we all should and can drop fast fashion is an ignorant comment. Yet, those who do rely on fast fashion clothing are often left shamed by social media creators whose content revolves around this slogan of “fuck fast fashion”; it essentially says, fuck people who buy from fast fashion. The patronising TikToks titled “Fast Fashion Brands I would Never Wear” and “Why You Should Stop Shopping at [insert popular and accessible clothing brand name here]” are condescending and induce guilt in those who rely on these brands. Viewers feel left with no feasible,guilt-free options and ultimately the intended message is lost.

The last type of content creator that concerns me is those that judge our eating habits and diet choices, most of whom live a vegan lifestyle. Veganism receives a vast amount of undeserved criticism and judgement, with the word often being received by an eye roll or two. Those that choose to eat a plant-based diet and follow a vegan lifestyle are not the problem here by any means, and I appreciate and follow many vegan creators. But those that overstep the line and shame others' lifestyles are problematic. Late-night bingescrolls through TikTok have delivered many unprompted judgements of those who eat meat or animal produce. For those that can healthily and conveniently follow a vegan lifestyle, this content may be encouraging or inspiring and may trigger positive lifestyle changes. However, drastic alterations such as diet changes are not feasible for many people for numerous reasons. Those that have or still experience eating disorders or conflicting relationships with food may struggle with this particular form of sustainability, something that is repeatedly overlooked in this conversation. This content can be harmful in their recovery. Allergens and disabilities may also prevent people from switching diets and these people should not be shamed for it. Yet, there are several creators who imply that those that eat meat and dairy are inherently bad people, without question. Educating viewers on the realities of the meat and dairy industries is important, but can be done so with sensitivity and understanding.

Personally, I can only pass comment on many of these issues, most of which do not affect me to such an extent as they do others. But it does frustrate me to see such content creators ignorantly pushing these changes on others. Their content is unintentionally patronising and simply unhelpful in the strive for a more eco-friendly world. Failing to acknowledge individual circumstances and limitations is a sense of privilege that should not be disguised in a 30-second video accompanied by a catchy tune. Privilege has been a much discussed issue in response to numerous recent events, and this conversation is no exception. We must also be just as keen to welcome minor changes and alterations to people’s lifestyles; sustainability is a journey that does not just take place overnight. Time, finance and health are all considerable factors that manifest in people’s journeys differently.

There is also the debate of corporation vs individual responsibility in this conversation. As individuals are we wholly responsible for our actions, or are these manifestations of the society we are apart of? The conversation around sustainability is vast, and eco-friendly content and education should by no means be discouraged or alienated from it. Social media is a powerful tool, it would be careless and stupid not to utilise it. But creators must be more conscious in recognising individual circumstances and privilege; all changes are valued and important in the stride for sustainability.

Latest in Features