Responsible Influencing

By Laura Cope
There is a huge wave of change moving across the ocean of social media, one which we hope (and pray, literally) will continue rolling on to the extent that it effects real societal change. We’re not talking about the increase of zero waste living accounts, environmental activist accounts or even eco product accounts, who have a vested interest in creating a more sustainability-aware online community. This change is happening in the mainstream: social media users and influencers who are concerned with the daily bits and bobs we have come to expect from platforms like Instagram and twitter. They specialize in images and commentary on fashion, food, products, fun in the sun, but now they are considering the wider impact of their posts – the harm that encouraging unsustainable actions can do, to their planet and reputation. 
 
Let’s take throwaway coffee cups. Travel back down the pages of social media influencers just 9 or 10 scrolls and you are likely to see some well-manicured and heavily smiling shots of single use, branded coffee cups, held up like a holy chalice announcing location, income bracket, design aesthetic preferences – if you drink this coffee from this café in this cup you will be cool and successful, and perhaps even desirable, like me. The usual. 
 
Now head back up to the top of the page? Do you see it? Influencers sitting outside cafes (or inside, because summer?) with those same beautiful fingernails curved around a ceramic cup. With sweet espresso glowing golden brown, in a glass. No plastic straws lolling from the top of a green goddess smoothies; smoothie moustaches are a badge of honour. Even ice-creams have been given a makeover and now appear as luscious and naked swirls, perfectly picture-perfect atop a waffle cone, rather than plonked into a tub with a spoon or paddle poking out the top.
 
Single use is on its way out. And we know his because packaging companies are doing all they can to slow the inevitable departure: designers from the world of art and fashion are being employed to glamourise throwaway cups as if they were collector’s items – limited edition canvases. But their attempts to lure us back into the throwaway fold are falling short. Awareness about marketing is a hard switch to flick, but when it is done, going back is harder. 
 
Millions of people, young and old, took to the streets in 2019. Australia is burning. The amazon is burning. Images report this. Turtles with unwanted straws, rivers and oceans of single use waste, animal life and sea life compromised by cups and bottles and containers. Anyone active on social media has witnessed these images. To then share a delightful Saturday vibe featuring the same villains, even if they are designed by the same person who thought up your sunglasses or shoes, is not going to sit comfortably with the message of positivity, health and joy that influencers portray. 
 
Go back to Instagram. Check the comments when single use coffee cups, water bottles, straws are visible: 
 
Shame about the single use. Don’t you know that those cups can only be commercially composted or they go to landfill? 295 million coffee cups used each year in Aotearoa, can’t you make time for a real cup? Why not get a Keep Cup? I love your account but single use is sooo 2010. 
 
The gram is self-policing. 
 
And so responsible influencing is emerging, being pushed from behind by the stick of shame and led from in front by the carrot of applause. It has the potential to be one of the most effective tools for creating social change. It has the potential to normalise reuse and vilify single use in a matter of months, moments, minutes. Every second, someone else is NOT seeing single use – what is normal is being eroded. It is not be upheld and further entrenched by social media users. Every post of a reusable cup, a meal had to stay, a mug from home being cuddled by a woman on a park bench with the caption, ‘my favourite mug’, nudges throwaway culture further along the line to its final exit. These everyday people with an eye for a camera angle and rapidly moving thumbs are becoming a true force for good. They are allowing our fragile egos to latch on to an act of easily accessible activism, and to feel good about ourselves, so we, in turn, share, and so if goes. The balance shifts. It is without organisation of preplanning. It is an organic, and therefore all the more powerful, movement of humans perpetuating positive change. 
 
Humans learn by emulation. We feel safe when we are all swimming in the same course. Recently, in the last 30 or 40 years, the direction of the tide has not been in the best interests for life on earth. The focus has been on the individual, on glamour, affluence, the superficial fripperies that we have been fed to believe indicate success and happiness. We have been swept along in a rush of consumption and branding. It has been the currency of social media. But now, authenticity, responsibility, compassion is moving in to fill the void that consumerism inevitably brings. We were segregated as individuals, when the race to have more, spend more and show brand allegiances pitted us against each other. Now we begin to unite as the repercussions of not taking responsibility for our actions becomes too evident to ignore. The responsible influencer is here, and with their acolytes of 1k, 5k, 10k, 50k, 700k, they are becoming a wonderful entity. Such is the web, the net, that an account with 100 followers can touch more than 1000 minds in an evening. They don’t need the hashtag flags of the zero-waster (#choosetoreuse #useyourowncup #bethechange #noexcuseforsingleuse): all they need do is not push that little red heart of affirmation on an image showing a takeaway cup. All they need do is make time to stay and smell the coffee. 
 
And for the final word, this is @wellingnoms, 24.7k followers: 
 
Reusable Noms: Hey ๐Ÿ‘‹๐ŸผHere‘s a @keepcup with my coffee in it. I try my best to not use single use items. I know I’m not perfect, I could definitely do more to reduce my carbon footprint and sometimes in certain situations it is hard to avoid using a single use item but I do try avoid sharing content with single use items on the gram - it’s not something I want to share or promote. It may seem like a small, trivial thing but at the end of the day I am in control of the content I create and share and I want to make sure that I walk the talk and stay accountable with myself - but I can always do better and do more. Today is the @schoolstrike4climatenz Strike 4 Climate, happening all over Aotearoa. It’s a chance for people of all ages to walk their talk. To stand up and say, we have one planet, let’s take care of it. If you’re going, I’ll see you there. If you can’t - then I challenge you to challenge yourself. Change one thing. One habit like not using single use coffee cups, walking to work, reusable containers and bags, saying no to straws, not buying bottled water, having meat free or plant based days, eating local produce, buying sustainable goods or anything else you can do to reduce your carbon footprint ๐Ÿ’š