The Inherent Contradiction of Being a Sustainable Influencer

April 18, 2021

pinterest pin that reads 'The Inherent Contradiction of Being a Sustainable Influencer' against a laptop flatlay background

As a creator in the sustainability sphere, I’ve been thinking a lot about the inherent contradiction of being a sustainable influencer. While I want to be paid fairly for my work, I also don’t want to earn that money by compromising my values.

In this post, I want to talk about the issues with traditional influencing, some alternatives, and reflections on my own journey.

For some context, I’m not a full-time creator; I have a freelance/hourly job that provides my main source of income, but allows me the flexibility to work extensively on my blog and social accounts. Most of my sustainability work is also in the slow fashion niche, which is important to note because there’s a lot of overconsumption in fashion especially.

What Are Influencers?

The word is pretty self-explanatory: influencers public figures who have the power to influence or change their audience’s behaviors. A lot of the time, however, influencers are trying to sell you stuff. They’ve become synonymous with marketing and promoting consumption.

As a result, the word “influencer” has a negative connotation, and many creators try to distance themselves from the term (I personally prefer the word “creator” or “digital storyteller” myself).

Over the past year, however, I’ve been noticing a shift away from traditional lifestyle influencing towards educational influencing. There are more and more creators teaching people about important issues like sustainability, rather than selling their shoppable lifestyles.

So, influencers can also have quite a positive impact. The creators I follow regularly teach me to live more mindfully, raise awareness on environmental justice and racial justice, and encourage me to unlearn the harmful narratives taught in school or portrayed in mainstream media.

On my platforms, I try to teach others about sustainable fashion and what people can do on a personal level while pushing for more systemic change.

How Influencers Traditionally Make Money

To understand how sustainable influencing can feel like a contradiction, we need to understand how influencers make money. Here are the main ways creators get paid.

  • Sponsorships: Brands will pay to be featured in certain pieces of content, like a blog post, TikTok, Instagram post, or YouTube video.
  • Ads: Sponsorships are ads, but creators also often earn income from ad networks like Google Adsense on YouTube or Mediavine for blogs. You basically open up your platforms for advertisers, and you’re paid a small amount each time someone views the ad.
  • Affiliate links: Creators may talk about products in their posts and link to them. Anytime you buy through those links, influencers receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
  • Products/services: Sometimes, creators will create their own digital or physical products, such as an eBook about blogging or their own jewelry line. They may also offer consulting services like Pinterest management or blog audits.

sewing kit on a blue sheet
Wearing what you already own and mending your clothes are the best ways to participate in sustainable fashion, but it’s difficult to monetize this

The Inherent Contradiction of Sustainable “Influencing”

As you see, most creators’ income depends largely on promoting consumption. Sponsorships, affiliate links, and ads all rely on people buying something, or the influencer encouraging their audience to buy something.

At the same time, true sustainable living means buying less. It feels hypocritical to promote brands and receive free product, as this is rooted in consumption.

That said, people will need to consume anyways, so one may argue that it’s helpful to provide better, more sustainable options for when that happens.

In fact, brand-based content tends to perform best for many sustainable creators. My sustainable brand suggestions regularly outperform my regular educational videos on TikTok. People are most curious about shopping “better” probably because it feels like the most accessible change. It’s much easier to switch brands than to tackle systemic issues or change your own consumption habits.

But to even gain an audience for more serious, less-glamorous topics, many creators choose to mix in some brand-based content because we know it will perform. I just try to avoid making it my focus and I constantly remind my followers to reduce their consumption and buy used first.

Influencer Greenwashing 

You have to walk a really fine line when sharing sustainable alternatives, as there are creators who end up promoting an inaccurate image of sustainability. The mainstream sustainability movement tends to push the narrative that you can buy your way to sustainability, when that’s not the case at all.

In fact, there seems to be a new wave of sustainable fashion influencers who are solely focused on promoting sustainable brands and outfits. Sustainable fashion isn’t only about where we buy from—in fact, I’d argue that brands are overemphasized in the movement. What’s way more important is reducing consumption and ensuring garment worker rights. We need more literacy on getting creative with what you own and tackling important issues in the industry.

Other influencers will continue to partner with fast fashion brands despite saying that they care about sustainability. Sure, no one is perfect as an individual, but individual consumption is totally different from promotion. Yes, maybe your followers can’t afford sustainable brands, but actively endorsing companies that mistreat their workers and pollute the earth doesn’t seem like the right solution. People already know where to find cheap clothes if that’s what they need.

Another prominent issue is when celebrities and influencers help fast fashion companies with their greenwashing campaigns. H&M came under fire after appointing Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams as their “sustainability ambassador.” Laura Whitmore, Love Island host, also got a lot of backlash for her role as a “Primark Cares” ambassador. These influencer partnerships only end up confusing the general public about sustainability. Companies like H&M and Primark can never be sustainable because of their scale. Their entire business models are focused on overproduction and exploitation. It doesn’t matter how many recycling programs they implement or how many “sustainable” collections they create.

me sitting on a turquoise chair against a white wall during golden hour

The Challenges of Earning a Living as an Influencer

To be totally fair, I want to point out that’s is actually pretty tough to make decent money as a creator, especially those with smaller accounts.

I get 1-2 brand offers daily, but 99% of them don’t pan out because:

  • The brand isn’t sustainable enough or is plain sketchy
  • It’s not a good fit for my lifestyle or style
  • The brand doesn’t want to pay fairly

Brands are actually notorious for taking advantage of influencers—even “ethical” ones. I’ve had a so-called sustainable vegan bag brand offer me a 45£ voucher for 3 TikTok videos (the kicker is that their products were 150£+). I’ve had another greenwashing shoe company offer $300 total for a blog post, YouTube video, and TikTok. Don’t even get me started on all the sustainable brands that want to pay me in product only.

I get that small businesses don’t always have the budget to pay creators, but this happens with even companies that have a marketing department and person in charge of influencer partnerships. It happens even with companies that hire PR agencies.

And even if you’re a small brand, you have to understand that most creators don’t have the bandwidth to advertise for free. It’s a lot of work to put together a post or video. Brand deals also come at an opportunity cost, as that’s less time you have to create your own content. You also technically have to pay taxes on gifted product that’s offered as compensation, so you’re basically paying to work for free, both financially and in terms of time.

Instead of giving bloggers raises, affiliate programs are also constantly slashing commission rates or getting rid of their programs altogether. The latest upset was Airbnb cutting its affiliate program just a month in advance when many travel bloggers had gone all-in on creating Airbnb-focused guides.

As your platform grows, these issues are mitigated because more companies are willing to work with you, and you can also hire managers or agencies to coordinate sponsorships where you’re paid fairly. This also saves you the time and mental space of negotiating contracts. This doesn’t really solve affiliate program woes, but it at least helps one income stream.

So, if you see a creator do a sponsorship, it means they jumped through several hoops to get there. If you want to support them, it really helps when you like, comment, share, or swipe up.

Can You Even Make Money Ethically?

Is there an 100% ethical way to make money? I don’t bring this up as a cop-out, but I think it’s important to recognize that we all probably have to make some sort of value compromise when earning a living.

For instance, is it wrong for people to work at unsustainable companies like Amazon or H&M? I know someone passionate about sustainable fashion who worked at GAP for years. I know other people who deeply care about social justice who work at Amazon. I know people who care about animal welfare but work in science and need to experiment on mice.

Even if you don’t work at an inherently problematic company, these “bad” businesses may be your company’s clients, or maybe the company is owned by corporate giants. You work at Whole Foods—owned by Amazon. You work for an architecture firm and have to design a prison. You work at a statistical consulting firm and have to help pharmaceutical companies find the best price to make the most profits.

It’s a privilege to earn income in a way that aligns with your values. If you have that privilege, I think you should try to work at a company you believe in. But that’s easier said than done, especially in a pandemic, and especially in a capitalistic society.

Some may argue that we need people in these unsustainable spaces to push for change. At the same time, major corporations like that are highly unlikely to change their whole business model, so it may be fruitless.

I don’t want people to excuse willful influencer greenwashing just because “everyone needs to make money.” Everyone does need to make money, and making money ethically is hard, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Promoting brands is also more visible and should be held to a higher standard, in my opinion. It’s one thing to be a cog in the machine at Amazon, but another to personally endorse them to thousands of people.

The ethics of making money as a creator isn’t well-defined; I see it as a sliding scale. I’m not going to say it’s right for a sustainable blogger to promote H&M or Amazon, for example. But what about these scenarios?

  1. Advertising the release of Dove’s refillable deodorant. Dove is owned by Unilever, a corporate giant known for human rights violations and being a top plastic polluter. At the same time, Dove’s products are much more accessible physically and cost-wise than those of niche sustainable brands. Dove has also funded a coalition to advance legislation that prevents race-based hair discrimination.
  2. Working with Nike on a WNBA and women’s empowerment campaign. Nike is known for not paying workers fairly, potentially using forced labor, and mistreating its athletes (particularly women).
  3. Partnering with Love Beauty & Planet, and consulting for them to improve their sustainability measures. Unfortunately, they are also owned by Unilever.
  4. Sharing the release of Fossil’s plant-based cactus leather bag. Fossil as a company is not ethical or sustainable, however.

It is nice to see larger companies make improvements, but these ultimately feel like greenwashing campaigns. Does it matter if Dove’s deodorant is refillable if their parent company is still responsible for 70,000 tons of pollution per year? To what extent can you separate the brand from the parent company?

These are all partnerships I’ve seen my fellow BIPOC creators take, and I don’t judge them for it because I respect that it’s a complicated decision (and difficult to make money especially as a person of color). Many of them were also able to provide feedback to these companies to help them improve. We also need to keep in mind that these companies are paying these creators, which ultimately allows them to continue creating educational content for free.

That said, creators have to walk a fine line between providing for themselves and being complicit in greenwashing. Luckily, I usually see eco-creators work with small, sustainable companies more than they do with these larger corporations that have small sustainability initiatives.

I myself recently agreed to work with a payment plan company that allows you to split online purchases into interest-free installments. On TikTok, I’m sharing some sustainable brands offering this service and hosting a giveaway for gift cards to those brands. I know that “buy now, pay later” services can encourage overconsumption and debt. At the same time, when used responsibly, it can help people budget for expensive purchases from sustainable brands. It can also help ethical brands compete with fast fashion brands, which are way cheaper. Their PR agency was also super professional and agreed to pay me fairly.

I am not 100% comfortable with the payment plan sponsorship, but I believe it to be a net positive for the slow fashion movement, which is why I accepted it.

In the end, there’s not going to be a “perfect” partnership or way to make money entirely ethically. But if we carefully consider the nuance and try to stay true to our values, I’d say that’s pretty darn good.

Me wearing a retro turtleneck top and back skirt among magolia trees

Alternatives to Brand Deals

While most influencers make money in traditional ways, there are other income streams that allow you to stay closer to your values.

1. Patreon

Patreon allows you to pay creators directly for exclusive content. You pay a certain amount monthly and get access to things like Q&As, voting rights on content, or Patreon-only blog posts. One of the most prominent sustainable fashion activists, Aja Barber, uses Patreon as her main platform.

A direct pay system solves for the problem of promoting consumption to make money, but it does make your content less accessible. It’s also not typically a feasible option for small creators, as usually only a very small percentage of followers join Patreon.

I would love to be paid directly for my work, but the idea of actively creating content for yet another platform really stresses me out, as I barely have time for my regular platforms as it is. I feel like Patreon would be a good option if I were a full-time creator though.

2. Digital products and services

Instead of selling other companies’ physical products, you can create your own digital ones. I’ve seen creators make eBooks on how to make money blogging, video courses on Google Web Stories, or calculators on how much to charge for brand deals. You also see people selling Lightroom presets or providing consulting services to brands and other creators.

I think selling your own products or services is a pretty smart business strategy, as you’re not depending on a brand or affiliate program to treat you fairly. I’d love to offer my own digital product someday, but am not sure yet what would be helpful, so feel free to leave suggestions!

I have consulted once for a sustainable brand, and it was cool to be part of the development process. I’d do it again, but I also realize that consulting would take me away from creating my own content.

3. Speaking

You can be paid to share your knowledge at events or workshops. I actually recently gave a virtual talk at a university in the UK, but it was unpaid. I’d love to do more talks, but it’s really difficult finding paid gigs if you’re not a very prominent figure, especially since it’s usually non-profits who invite sustainability creators to speak.

4. Promoting service-based brands

While this option still relies on selling something to your audience, service-based brands feel more ethical because they’re not based in consumerism. You could promote educational platforms, clothing repair services, or apps to help you make the most of your closet.

Reflections on My Own Journey

I personally try to focus on educational content but also throw in some brand-based content for income and exposure. When I do write brand-based posts, I aim to be thorough and also discuss the brands’ areas of improvement (see my Allbirds Tree Dashers review or guide to sustainable underwear). 

I haven’t really taken a lot of partnerships because most brands don’t meet my standards or refuse to pay me fairly. If I do take brand deals, I make sure the brand is trustworthy, that I’m properly compensated, and that I’ll actually use the gifted items or find someone else who will.

I’m not 100% comfortable with my income-generating content, but I will always encourage readers to shop mindfully and buy used when possible. 

The “business” side of blogging is actually my least favorite part. I find it exhausting to coordinate brand deals, update affiliate links, and create the content itself. It’s just not exciting to me to create ads or research products/brands. Because of the inherent ethical dilemma, income-generating posts also cause me a lot of anxiety and take up significant mental space.

My favorite posts to write are more philosophical/analytical, like this one, and don’t directly generate any income at all. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my relationship with blogging. It used to be something I did for fun, but now that it’s generating income, it’s become work. I feel pressured to post daily on TikTok, write a blog post per week for this blog and my other site, make 2 YouTube videos per month, and upload consistently to Instagram. It’s really overwhelming and not financially efficient.

I’m almost tempted to work a full-time corporate job so that I can focus on making content I actually enjoy and forget about the money. At the same time, I know working full-time means less time to create. It’s something I’m going to have to think about over the next few weeks or months.

My Pledge to You

I don’t ultimately blog to make money. I blog because I want to help people live more mindfully, share my experiences, and push for meaningful change. This is why I want to make these pledges to my readers and followers:

1. I will only take brand deals that I believe are a net positive for the sustainability movement, my followers, and me.

I can’t realistically promise to eliminate brand-based content altogether. But I do promise to remain as true to my values as possible and reject greenwashing campaigns that would only benefit me and corporate giants. I will thoroughly consider the nuances and only accept offers that ultimately benefit the sustainability movement. You may not agree with everything I do (and I myself may not be totally comfortable with everything I do), but I ask for empathy and an open dialogue. I am always happy to explain why I chose to take a partnership.

2. I will donate 10% of my take-home blog income to grassroots environmental justice orgs or mutual aid.

If my blog isn’t only for myself, it only seems right to give back to the communities I want to advocate for. This donation will be on top of the money I regularly give from my main source of income. With this pledge, we’ll hopefully be able to make a real impact outside of our online bubble. 


 

If you’re a fellow creator, I’d love to hear how you’ve grappled with these issues. If you’re a reader or follower, I truly appreciate your support, as it allows me to keep creating content on topics I care about. There’s nothing more fulfilling than being able to create posts and videos that people appreciate and learn from.

Other posts you may like:

Our Dangerous Obsession with Huge Fashion Hauls
9 Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion 
Sustainable or Greenwashing? How to Evaluate Fashion Brands

6 Comments

  • Nina | Lemons and Luggage April 19, 2021 at 2:31 am

    Loooove this post! I especially like the fact that you brought up that everyone needs money to live in this system. I completely struggle with this as well. Of all the jobs I’ve had, I’d say the only one I felt wasn’t for an immoral company was an internship at a leftist publishing company. (And perhaps delivering the local newspaper as a teen.) And yet, when it comes to sponsorships, affiliate links I’m much more strict because I agree with you that simply working there is not the same as promoting a brand. But it’s a fine line when we set very high standards for ourselves that don’t allow us to make a full income. I’m sure there are people who would judge any participation in this system as immoral and suggest becoming active in physically organizing a revolution. 😉

    The question is also if working a full-time job at an immoral company in order to not have to promote the same company is really better than taking a sponsorship every now and then but still being able to educate people in all other posts.

    At the end of the day, I think we all have to decide for ourselves how many compromises we are willing to make. Though I do agree that obvious greenwashing is a no-go (I see too many people promoting Faith in Nature these days).

    • Lily April 20, 2021 at 9:14 pm

      You always have the most thoughtful comments, Nina! I totally laughed at that part about starting a revolution. I actually get the occasional comment from people saying that it’s useless to think about whether a brand is sustainable, or whether hauls are problematic, and that we should dismantle capitalism instead lol. I’m all for systemic changes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about other things.

      Also super good point about weighing the difference between working a corporate job at an unethical place and taking the occasional sponsorship from them to create educational content. At the end of the day, the most ethical way to earn a living as a creator is to be paid directly, but that requires an entire revamp of strategy and accessibility of your content.

  • Vivian April 29, 2021 at 10:29 pm

    I just found out about your blog recently and I have to say, I LOVE IT! I absolutely loved this post and the peek into your thought process for how you evaluate potential income sources, as well as just what you prefer to write about.

    I recently have been trying to start a blog about sustainability (mainly zero-waste brand reviews or guides), but I’ve also noticed that I already feel tired just doing product research & writing reviews and want to create more content that is not always in the sustainability space, that touches on other topics important to me too. I find it super inspiring that you didn’t follow the trend to focus on just one niche and truly did what felt good and true to you!

    • Lily May 4, 2021 at 11:50 am

      Hi Vivian! So glad you enjoyed this post. Product reviews can definitely be tiresome – I feel the same way. I’m definitely a big proponent about writing what feels right to you!

  • Isabel Hendrix June 23, 2021 at 7:03 pm

    I just found this post and honestly you voiced so many thoughts that constantly go through my head. Thank you for sharing this and for writing it all out, it’s hard for me to always articulate what I mean when trying to explain “influencer” opportunities & how they relate to sustainability efforts.. anywho I just really appreciated this and am going to save it to refer back to it when I am feeling extra stressed about decisions on what brands to work with, etc. 🙂

    • Lily June 30, 2021 at 10:03 am

      I’m so glad this could help! It is a really complex process.

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    About Me

    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it). I also try to advocate for the planet & its people.
    Here is where I document my (mis)adventures and try to offer some helpful advice. Feel free to join me for the ride. Read More

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