Instagram is no longer just a social media app, but a platform for businesses to promote and sell their products. As targeted advertisements increasingly dominate Instagram feeds, users have become upgraded to influencers and customers, whether they like it or not.
The app’s transformation into a burgeoning marketplace is largely thanks to the rise of the notorious “influencer.” Influencers market products and services for brands by promoting these to their followers as things they enjoy and require for their daily lives. This is incredibly successful because the influencer-follower relationship is built on the idea that followers want to align their daily routines, purchases, and appearances with that of the influencers. By promoting a product as essential for a certain lifestyle, influencers greatly dilute the business aspect of marketing and give companies a much more personal and long-lasting connection to their customer base.
In their perfectly curated settings, influencers flaunt an excess of clothes, beauty products, and beautiful travel destinations. With every new clothing haul, discount code, and “swipe up to shop" suggestion, they communicate the message that success and happiness comes from spending too much money and having too much stuff. Through Instagram and its influencers, brands can sell not only the products that make up consumerism, but much more importantly the life that necessitates consumerism.
Influencers commonly form long-term contracts with brands (on average 12 months to two years), allowing them to become an extension of these brands and the industry they represent. The fast fashion industry has benefited enormously from this type of influencer marketing. Internet-based companies such as Boohoo and Missguided have grown at an alarming rate due to partnerships with influencers. In the summer of 2019, for example, contestants from the reality dating show Love Island became immediate brand ambassadors for Boohoo labels after leaving the show. Runner-up Molly-Mae Hague signed with PrettyLittleThing for £500,000 and winner Amber Gill signed with MissPap for £1m. Boohoo’s results from the first half of the financial year revealed a 43% increase in revenues.
Fast fashion is without question one of the worst industries for negative environmental impact. The industry’s use of cheap synthetic materials (polyester, nylon, and acrylic) is causing extensive damage to the environment. Not only are these synthetic materials not biodegradable, but they release plastic microfibres into our waterways every time they are washed. Predictions have shown that if the fast fashion industry does not alter its methods, it will be responsible for a quarter of the Earth's carbon budget by 2050.
Through influencers, fast fashion companies promote clothing lines and trends ever more rapidly. As the lifespan of trends becomes shorter, fashion labels produce massive volumes of disposable merchandise which falls apart soon after being purchased. A vicious cycle ensues, whereby fast fashion labels churn out more and more clothing lines. Influencers funnel these to their followers, who in turn feel the need to buy more in order to remain trendy. Unsurprisingly, this “buy, wear, toss” behaviour has resulted in a third of the clothing produced each year in the UK ending up in the landfill.
The culture of showcasing an “Instagram-worthy” lifestyle has also fueled unsustainable travel and over-tourism. Explore-based hashtags and geotagging have replaced the tourism brochure and inform tourists around the world of undiscovered places that must be explored. Influencers - especially those who already focus on travel lifestyle - are also helping to drive up air travel by forming partnerships with airlines. Mirroring the fashion industry, Instagrammers have transformed travel destinations into trends.
Once a destination becomes popular on Instagram, crowds of tourists invade the area. Often, these places are unprepared and lack the infrastructure to handle large influxes of tourists. One such example is the closure of Maya Bay Beach on the Thai Island of Koh Phi Phi in 2018, which suffered extensive environmental damage due to over-tourism. To the world of Instagram, these consequences seem to go unnoticed. They merely signal the death of an area’s trendiness, which is replaced by a myriad of new hashtags of glittering waters.
But we must not forget that Instagram’s ability to connect millions of people simultaneously makes it an incredibly powerful tool for collective action. The app has already played a crucial role in connecting global environmental movements and activists of all ages. One of the most prominent examples is Greta Thunberg, whose urgent call for climate action spread across the world via social media and sparked the emergence of a global youth climate strike. Other environmental campaigns, such as The Upcycle Movement, relied entirely on social media to take off and continues to rely on these platforms to reach more people.
Instagram can therefore equally be used as a tool to challenge the system which utilises the app to spread consumer values and behaviour. We may not be able to prevent the flow of advertisements popping up on our feed, but recognising the environmental harm caused by consumerism is an important first step. As Instagram users, we can follow activists and organisations who are promoting sustainable causes and learn from them. By following people involved in environmental movements and causes, we can help to grow their platform and spread their message. The same goes for our own use of social media. We all have a platform. How we use Instagram as individuals has the potential to shift the power away from those who are sustaining environmental damage to our planet and towards a more sustainable future.