Social media’s dangerous aestheticisation of sustainability

Sustainability is on the rise and now, in 2022, green consumption can be considered trending. As the world continues to recognise and feel the impact(s) of climate change, the number of shoppers wanting to reduce their impact on the planet, people and animals continues to increase. In line with this demand, western civilisation has ironically birthed a most grandiose and perfunctory “green movement” – with social media being its beating heart.

Sustainability is the balance between the environment, equity, and economy.

UCLA Sustainability.

Sustainable development is developments that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

UN World Commission on Environment and Development.

The digital world has seen social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and now TikTok become central networking hubs for conversations regarding climate change and ecology in recent years. This dialogue has played and continues to play a crucial role in how these topics are addressed, both inside and outside of said respective platforms. A concerning paradox – social media is used as an indispensable tool for educating people about the importance of sustainability and sustainable practices yet has given rise to a slew of greenwashing trends and hashtags (think fast fashion’s “conscious collections” and #eco-friendly) that have dominated the discourse of climate change.

This report intends to analyse the role social media plays in the perpetuation of aesthetic sustainability and aims to discuss how this is detrimental to true climate activism.

Aesthetic Sustainability: a brief case study

The past four years, namely 2020, set the scene for climate change responsibility and saw improved sustainable efforts on an individual level. Social media galvanised this green movement by offering a universal space for open, passionate discourse on the topic and through its use of influencers as powerful marketing tools to share brand stories, create communities and promote products.

While this increased widespread awareness may seem an impressive feat, there are consequences to social media’s influence on sustainable development. The metal straw movement is a demonstrative example of this dichotomy; it highlights how social media can help to solidify the online presence and popularity of sustainable items and discussions surrounding plastic waste, but also reveals the implications of reshaping a real, serious issue into a familiar aesthetic.

The metal straw movement

The straw has been around for some 5,000 years, dating back in the U.S. to the use of rye grass straws in the 1880s. Reusable straws aren’t a new concept either, with original wholesalers dating back over a decade. In 2008 though, business was much slower – the demand for reusable straws and a reduction of single-use plastics was catalysed by a 2015 video of a marine biologist extracting a plastic straw from the nostril of a live sea turtle. The video, which has 108.8 million views to date, received global attention and garnered significant support for the metal straw movement. A shorter, more shareable, version of the video was later released and social media rapidly turned the turtle into the “anti-plastic straw” poster child.

The viral video gave the metal straw movement legs; after it was posted (10/08/2015), Google Searches for both “plastic straws” and “metal straws” spiked across Australia and searches for “plastic straws” saw a significant global increase. Searches for “metal straws”  continued to fluctuate and gradually increased for three years ensuing until, in 2018-2019, the movement erupted as global searches for the accessory peaked. Possible factors that may have contributed to this peak include localised campaigns and promotions in hospitality venues, online campaigns (e.g. Lonely Whale’s #StopSucking) to encourage national and international single-use plastic bans and the advent of the “VSCO girl” aesthetic on TikTok (which projected an image of sustainability as being inextricably tied to owning eco-friendly products like metal straws).

Image 1: Google Trends: “Plastic Straws” Interest over past 5 years, Australia.

All of sudden, metal straws were hot commodities – they had become the ultimate symbol for environmental consciousness.  In what can only be deemed misguided acts of performative activism, influencers and celebrities posted an unyielding stream of videos and pictures sporting reusable straws, paired with captions that insisted plastic straws were responsible for ocean pollution and were effectively, killing turtles. Hashtags like #ecofriendly, #DitchTheStraw and #BeatPlasticPollution dominated the internet and soon enough, major companies heeded the global conversation and hurriedly adopted their own sustainable – though mostly superficially conscientious – online discourse. Various countries and states followed suit, as one by one, their governments pledged to abandon single-use plastics and enacted bans.

Image 2: YouTuber and social media influencer Emma Chamberlain sporting reusable straws and accessories on her YouTube channel.
Image 3: Social media influencer Bretman Rock promoting metal straws on his Instagram.

The consequences of real issues becoming online trends

As more and more people flaunted metal straws dangling from their lips on social media, what began as a modest movement turned into a worldwide trend and eventual unavoidable habit. Dialogue surrounding plastic waste was drowned out by incessant, fashionable posts of metal, silicone and bamboo straws.

The increased demand didn’t go unnoticed; global retail giants, fast fashion companies and high street brands have all taken to the desirable business case aesthetic sustainability presents. In this scenario, in order to satisfy the new customer needs and generate revenue, local shops, supermarkets and high-end stores all rushed to produce a larger green portfolio by filling their shelves and racks with stylish, “eco-friendly” products. Entirely commercialised, the metal straw became easy-to-access and millions of consumers chose the path of least resistance and purchased the accessory. Misguided by the item’s reigning online aesthetic and reusable premise, not only did retailers and consumers of the product fail to recognise the ecological impacts of the mass distribution of these straws but were able to easily feel absolved of further social responsibility regarding plastic consumption.

With every purchase, the ubiquity of the trend was furthered and the core message of sustainability and helping the planet was diluted. Just as quickly as the metal straw movement had come into the limelight, did it suffer immense online backlash and dissipate into little more than a fad.

But sustainability isn’t fashionable and it certainly isn’t meant to be photogenic; the sheer scale and severity of ocean pollution and climate change (think Great Pacific Garbage Patch, dwindling icecaps and lowering PH levels in the ocean) cannot be conveyed in a 320px by 1080 px image or within a 180-word tweet.

Herein lies the true consequence of social media aestheticising a genuine issue. By watering down important issues into bite-sized, easily-digestible chunks, social media creates a narrative that implies resolutions to these issues can be just as minute – such as purchasing a $3 metal straw to counter the ecological behemoth that is ocean pollution (certainly not the best solution). This distorted mindset is real and can render serious issues vulnerable to the same backlash and criticisms that drive hairstyles and fashion looks out of style every year.

What should journalists do?

It’s important to note that society’s struggle with aestheticising serious issues is no one person’s or demographic’s fault – those who own metal straws or partook in the hashtag challenges cannot be blamed for how social media caused the rise and fall of the metal straw. It is rather, an example of how deeply engrained western culture’s reliance on, and daily use of, social media is.

As social media continues to infiltrate every facet of our lives, in seemingly more and more intimate spaces, journalists and other media professionals must question its role in shifting conversations and how easily these platforms can dictate what issues are viewed as important and popular in mainstream society. Social media’s relationship with sustainability and climate activism can be symbiotic but it’ll be a long process – one that has to start with a big wake up call and a widespread attempt to take accountability for the current state of things.

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3 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

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    Like

  2. Anonymous says:

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    Like

    1. Anonymous says:

      Keep on doing what you are doing. Because sister, you are absolutely killing it in every aspect of life. Adore you endlessly x Lou***

      Like

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