Issue 1



The role, responsibility, and challenges of “sustainable influencers”

Greenwashing, as well as blue washing, (claims of a company to be more socially responsible than they are), continue to be terms on the rise worldwide. More people are waking up to the reality that a lot of companies and organizations are branding themselves as “eco-conscious” or socially responsible to create profitable marketing for their products and services, but not actually following through on those commitments.


In my experience, as both a climate scientist and environmental online educator, I deal with a wide variety of greenwashed and bluewashed companies making exorbitant claims online about their commitments to environmental and social well-being. Unfortunately, a lot of the work to vet these companies does not come with a clear roadmap or guidebook on how exactly to suss out meaningful metrics, reports, and reviews etc. to know who is legit and who’s not.


With the emergence of content creators being relied upon as a reliable source of information and marketing for many of these “sustainable” brands and organizations, creators are now also viewed as an extension of what any of these entities represent. Therefore, our reputations, credibility, and livelihoods depend in some ways on our ability to do due diligence on this front as well when we do brand collaborations. This, however, is not a perfect nor clear-cut process that isn’t discussed thoroughly enough within our polarized society.


It also, in some ways, prevents honest conversations about storytelling, accountability, and collaboration to emerge. Instead it gives rise to more cancel-culture and gatekeeping that doesn’t allow room for growth, nuance, or progression. Many of us with platforms in this space, especially BIPOC content creators, aren’t provided with many resources or support to know what standards we are collectively going to follow to determine what brands are or not effectively “greenwashing.” As a consequence, some of us are held to impossible standards (even more than the companies themselves), when we rely on these brand collaborations for our livelihood and to provide free additional resources and information on a consistent basis to our audiences.


Of course, there’s the obvious fossil fuel companies and big fast fashion companies that exude very obvious red flags. You can usually tell this by seeing their track history of how they’ve created problems for the environment and communities, and their lack of committed accountability to addressing those harms in the short and long-term ( a la exxon mobil).


Corporations with a track record of continued recklessness in parallel with “green” and “socially responsible” initiatives create the conditions for more violence, extraction, and destruction to occur under the guise of doing well for the planet. These companies are presenting contradictory claims that ultimately benefit people with power, and simultaneously continue the oppression and exploitation of the most vulnerable BIPOC communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis.


Coca Cola sponsoring the most recent UN climate talks is a perfect example of a company throwing money at an event they knew would provide them with great PR, yet doesn’t overshadow that they are one of the largest plastic producers in the world. It was reported that 95% of products claiming to be green in Canada and the USA committed at least one of the “sins of greenwashing”, ranging from mislabeling to hiding trade-offs from consumers.


But then there are many companies that are “in process” and transitioning towards doing better, and that can be a far more taxing and challenging process to decipher. There are companies, for example, that may have solid social responsibility commitments (i.e. paying their workers beyond a livable wage, responsible sourcing etc.), but still largely use plastic in most of their packaging. Is this automatic greenwashing? If the company does plan to address their packaging in the future, but currently doesn’t have the infrastructure or support to do it in the interim, is there wiggle room?


Inversely, I’ve seen “green” companies that walk-the-walk in terms of their sustainability commitments, pushing forward innovation for being more clean and ethical etc., but also exploit their workers and may even hide how they cut corners – again in the name of putting their brand on a pedestal for others to revere.


As you dive deeper into the gray areas of companies that aren’t obvious polluters or behemoths, it can be a bit more difficult for consumers and experts alike to come to a consensus on standards and boundary lines of what is and isn’t a greenwashed company. Luckily, certain third party groups are coming together to begin putting together global standards to start addressing this, but in the meantime it can feel like an experimental free-for-all to pick and choose what standards to abide by. Other initiatives like the Eco-Beauty Score Consortium are also emerging, because multiple industries and sectors are beginning to realize the lack of standardization will continue to be a growing issue to set precedents, reduce emissions, and hold companies accountable.


Some factors that need to be weighed when determining the extent to which a company is greenwashing are: the size/ scale of the business, the marketing of their sustainability commitments versus the actual proof of said commitments (via their ESG commitments, transparency reports etc.), and their relationship with the communities impacted by or connected to their operations.


With all of these factors weighed together, along with the development of more certifications and unified standards, hopefully there can be more clarity for consumers and advocates alike.


Further, when it comes to online branding, storytelling, and marketing, it is very critical for content creators who are these pseudo extensions of these companies to do their proper research and ask brands questions about their supply chains, sourcing, long term plans for their production/ waste etc. Influencers have the opportunity to challenge greenwashing – especially as most greenwashing is driven by PR and marketing. Content creators can consult these brands, turn down deals, and address the harm publicly or internally with a company’s team.


At the same time, however, it is extra (typically unpaid) work to have to basically consult and address these companies who are not putting in the work themselves for their own transparency/ reporting/ processes. So while it is great that more sustainability initiatives and campaigns are emerging from a lot of even mainstream brands, there’s a lot of additional work that in some ways is put on talent/ storytellers to research and do their due diligence. This is labor that I feel isn’t properly acknowledged, compensated, or addressed when it comes to addressing the greenwashing issues happening on the internet.


As many content creators livelihoods depends on these brand collaborations, many don’t necessarily have the ability to only work with smaller-scale sustainable brands and organizations who may not have the budget to support our work. It’s also important that content creators/ influencers strike the balance to promote, discuss, and educate folks about locally-driven, smaller-scale businesses and solutions. Ultimately, we must be clear that the most critical climate solutions are being driven by BIPOC climate justice organizations and movements. Without listening and uplifting the voices and work of those on the frontlines and making a difference in their local communities, climate solutions will continue to be enshrouded in greenwashed PR.


All in all, the complexity of greenwashing, especially on social media needs to be examined for its nuances and emerging landscape. And hopefully folks can give more grace and patience for online creators posed with the responsibility of navigating a very unclear landscape as global standards for measuring “greenwashing” continue to be developed. Ultimately, greenwashing is going to continue to be an issue towards making true progress, driven by greed, profit, and false solutions. It is up to all of us collectively to think critically, make call outs when we see something that seems suspicious, and have active conversations about what this transparency, accountability, and action needs to look like from all institutions and actors moving forward.


Note from Gorgeous Nothings: This interview has been edited for clarity and condensing. The interview originally took place via telephone in 2022.

Kristy Drutman

— otherwise known as “Browngirl Green” — is a speaker, consultant, media producer, and environmental educator passionate about working at the intersections between media, diversity, and environmentalism. Kristy is also the Co-Founder of the Green Jobs Board, a climate tech start-up bridging the equity and inclusion gap within the green economy through conversations, resources, and pathways to bring more diverse talent into the environmental field.

Learn more about Kristy Drutman

Words by Kristy Drutman

Words by Kristy Drutman

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