The number one age-old rule of thumb of sustainability is only buying (and using!) what you need. Of course, sometimes we definitely don’t need something, but we want it. Everyone needs a treat sometimes. What happens, however, when we start getting treats all the time? As you might expect, the environmental impact of those treats can add up. Enter: influencer marketing. We’re talking free clothes, cosmetics, trips — heck, you name it, they get it – in exchange for publicity for those products through social media. It may all look good, but how good is all this free stuff for the planet, and what do influencers actually do with it?
What’s an influencer?
If you scroll on TikTok or Instagram, you’re bound to come across influencers – the people whose job it is to influence you by showing you the clothes they wear, the products they use, the places they go, and the food they eat. Influencers sit at the intersection of what is aspirational and what is relatable – they perform identities that lean into celebrity status by reflecting themselves as a consumable brand. And, they monetize their followers – those who consume their content – by both implicitly and explicitly advertising products that their followers hopefully purchase. And, in exchange, influencers might get a piece of the pie, and/or the products and services they’re touting for free.
What are those ‘unboxing’ videos all about?
Some of the most notable influencer content pieces are those “unboxing” videos in which influencers open up boxes of goodies that they’ve received from PR groups. A quick Youtube search of “unboxing video” will unearth millions of videos of influencers, sitting in front of piles and piles of cardboard boxes, opening package after package. It’s like the typical Christmas movie under-the-tree scene, but with a heck-of-a-lot more stuff. Brands and PR agencies carefully curate packages containing products they sell and/or represent, and send them to influencers that align with their aesthetic or mission – or maybe the influencer might just have a huge audience that the agency is hoping to target. Now, let’s not discredit ALL influencers – many set boundaries around which brands and products they’ll work with based on their personal values.
Back to the conundrum…the influencer receives these items for free – and sometimes doesn’t even ask for them – and in exchange, posts or talks about them on their social media platform…or doesn’t if they don’t feel they’re a good fit after they’ve received the free goods. Viewers and followers attentively watch, and (fingers crossed!) purchase more of these products and items because their favorite social media star “bought” them, too. One study on the impact of Instagram and Youtube influencers found that there are identifiable impacts on followers: followers are more willing to purchase products reviewed and endorsed, seeing the influencer as a credible source. Needless to say, the influencer marketing approach is effective.
Why do people want to be influencers?
Unboxing as a genre might seem bizarre. Why spend time watching other people open boxes of stuff? Ellen DeGeneres in 2015 shared this sentiment asking, “I have two questions. Number one, why? Number two, seriously, WHY?” Right on, Ellen. Well, first, there’s the sheer excitement of receiving stuff and the fact that people love to watch these kinds of videos. When you get the tinglies from online media consumption, it’s actually called affective haptics. It’s a real thing! Not to mention, it’s also lucrative. According to the 2020 Influencer Marketing Outlook report, influencers can charge anywhere from $10 to over $10,000 per Instagram post depending on the size of their following.
What does influencer marketing have to do with the planet?
Disclaimer: We couldn’t find any peer-reviewed articles that talk about the scale of influencer marketing. This is likely because it’s hard to track how many individuals – with tiny, tiny followings to extensive fan bases – are receiving gifts. So, we did some calculations ourselves, and while anecdotal, it helps us to understand the sheer magnitude of how many products are being sent out and consumed.
In a Medium article, one influencer with roughly 120,000 followers described receiving over 30 packages per month, each containing multiple products. If each package contained two items, this would total over 720 products per year. Let’s say, for the sake of illustration, all of those products are t-shirts.
An LCA (aka life cycle assessment) of a conventional cotton t-shirt looked at all the possible areas for impact -- both planetary and human. In terms of water use, the production of the t-shirt required 7,103 liters of water. That means that for 720 t-shirts, roughly 5,114,160 liters of water are required – or the amount of water one person would drink in more than 7,000 years.
This LCA also considered the raw materials used, the impacts of fabric and garment production, transportation of the item, how it's used, and how it's disposed of. They also considered the possibilities of child/forced/migrant labor, wages, health and safety risks, gender discrimination, land rights violations, and corruption across the supply chain. We’re not going to pull all of that information in here, but there are a lot of impacts to think about when considering just one product – not to mention hundreds or even millions.
And, so far, we’re just talking about the products themselves here. There are environmental impacts associated with packaging and shipping, too. While an influencer may not be actually receiving 720 conventional cotton t-shirts, they are definitely receiving a lot of stuff. Luckily, t-shirts don’t expire. Other products, like skincare and makeup, do. Imagine scrambling to use all of these products – especially if you had perfectly good versions already. Sounds… unlikely. And wasteful.
And it’s not all about the influencers, either. A lot of the onus also lies on brands to use different, less wasteful marketing methods. If the brands didn’t send the products, there wouldn’t be (free) unboxing hauls.
All in all, influencing is a business and it’s hard to adopt more sustainable practices when the business model itself is based on the consumption of things that people don’t necessarily need. Unboxing videos and influencer marketing pushes are a reflection of our consumerist, material culture, where goods and services are exchanged for money.
Disclaimer: We like to think that we can help you make more informed choices when it comes to that buying and using part, but before that, it’s all up to you to decide what you “need.” Here at Finch, we’re never going to stand in the way of you making that purchase and we sure as heck won’t shame you for it!