Social media and sustainability

Can social media promote sustainability? Or does it just feed our human tendency of always wanting more and constantly comparing ourselves to others?


Social media makes me anxious sometimes, and I am probably not alone in that. Scrolling through the endless trail of images on my Instagram feed can be overwhelming. It can leave me feeling fatigued, demotivated, jealous, left behind and unsatisfied.

But social media can also make me feel inspired, motivated, encouraged, acknowledged and connected in a meaningful way to a community like-minded people. My online presence is altogether a huge paradox. In person I like being private. Online I post pictures of myself, my making and my clothes – and write about it.

Connection or compulsion?

Do you check your social media first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and at every slow point during the day? It is said that getting likes on Instagram gives you a little high.

It is just basic human psychology, really. You want to be noticed, acknowledged, accepted and part of your tribe – whatever your tribe is. You are human after all, and humans are social beings.

And speaking of tribes, marketers know that. The marketing guru Seth Godin talks about a shift in marketing away from the era of mass-marketing and pushy TV commercials towards an era of connection through social media where finding the “right” people, your tribe, is what counts.


Intentional and unintentional marketing

Social media is full of sewers, knitters, makers, wardrobe minimalists, and sustainability fashionistas connecting to their online tribe. And by its very nature social media blurs the line between the personal and the commercial.

Kate of the Time to Sew blog wrote a piece on how social media triggers our fear of missing out, which again can lead to over-consuming. As she points out, just seeing what people make and what fabric and pattern they use, can feel like unintentional advertising.

Instagram, for instance, displays a constant flow of personalized, curated visual information. You curate your own feed with all that inspires you, or in other words, all that tickles your desire. By design, Instagram feeds you with more of the same, and targets paid marketing based on the preferences you display in who you follow and “like”.

The comparison trap

The down side of social media is that feeding on a diet of personalized, curated visual information sets yourself in a vulnerable position. You are constantly in danger of comparing yourself to other people’s best images of themselves. Inspiration can flip to envy and lead down a slippery slope of discontent.

Feeling discontent and left out, one easy fix is to fill up. It can be consuming content or consuming stuff. It is an instant gratification solution to the deeper need of creativity, visual and tactile pleasure, meaningful connections – or whatever needs all those social media updates trigger in you.

Consuming instead of creating

The Love to Sew podcast episode on the financials of sewing touched on that feeling of not keeping up with the pace of the online sewing community. Someone had commented that buying can be a way of feeling connected and participating in the community, when you don’t actually have time to sew. Buying patterns, fabric or yarn, or whatever it may be, can feel like bridging the gap between where you are (no making time) and where you want to be (more making time).

Do we, however unintentionally, trigger unsustainable behaviour in each other through social media?

If you end up consuming instead of creating, you might be mindlessly clogging up your life with things and ideas you don’t have the time to pursue. Or you might feel discontent and left out of the conversation just because you are not making/doing/being all the things you see others are.

That is unsustainable, both environmentally and emotionally.


Is social media bad for you and the planet?

There are mixed findings in the research on social media and its effects on mental health. It is also hard to determine whether “obsessing over likes and comments causes mental illness, rather than the other way round,” as commented this Economist article.

I don’t believe social media is inherently bad, but nor is it inherently good. How social media leaves you feeling, probably has a lot to do with the feelings and vulnerabilities you had tapping in to it. But that doesn’t mean it is your own fault if social media makes you feel bad.

You are bound to have vulnerabilities and dissatisfactions in your life. That is not exactly your fault, it is just life. Wanting more, wanting to buy more, is totally normal human behaviour.

So, flipping the question, how can social media promote sustainability, both emotionally and environmentally?

The positive power of social influence

There is a great TED-talk about shifting the global warming discourse from doom to positive action, by the Norwegian researcher and climate change advocate Per Espen Stokenes. Social influence and support are among the things he mentions as crucial to creating change. Seeing what your friends and peers do, make you want to do it too.

In other words, instead of talking about the comparison trap, we could think of comparison as a friendly nudge, like someone holding your hand and leading the way.

Social media is a bit like ordinary social settings, but amplified. It is faster, louder and reaches further. There is danger in that, of course, but also hope.

The online sewing and making community, for instance, is really (even surprisingly) positive. I mean, the sheer bravery of all the people who have shared a photo of themselves in their self-made swimwear is encouraging in itself. Furthermore, it shows how beauty and confidence comes in every size, shape and colour. It is also very powerful to hear others share their feelings about their own bodies, and being honest, vulnerable and positive doing so.

The conversation around Slow Fashion October has opened up interesting and difficult issues around sustainability, clothing and making. The recent "make your stash” hashtag encourages people to sew from their stashes instead of buying new materials. Mending wizard Katrina Rodabaugh regularly shares thoughtful posts about mending and sustainability. And Claire Wellesley-Smith shows how beautiful and mindful slow stitching can be.

Social media can be an encouraging, positive and inclusive space. And there is room for being vulnerable, raising tough questions and talking about important topics, too.

We are all influenced by others. It is perhaps easy to forget that we in turn are also influencers. Use your power to influence well. And give yourself permission to step away and shield yourself if you need to. We are all just humans here.


Desire to buy: How to stay mindful in a shopping culture

January, the month of new beginnings and high goals, is coming to a close. Have you started the year with a resolution to buy less, buy more mindfully or not buy at all? How do you stick to your resolutions while the sales are on to tempt you?


Be rational about it

Often, the advice for being more mindful about your wardrobe purchases is to ask yourself some timely questions before buying anything new, like:

Sound advice. But how far does rational reflection take you once desire has kicked in?


Awareness is not enough

In a recent episode of the sustainable fashion podcast Magnifeco, designer and fashion theorist Otto von Busch talked of the difficulty in bringing about a sustainable fashion. As he says on the podcast: awareness is not enough.

Drawing a parallell to food, von Busch points out that even when we are aware that sugar is bad for us, the craving for the snickers bar is still real, and in fact extremely hard to hold back.

He suggests the same emotional responses are present in how we relate to fashion. For, in a visual culture, continually re-inventing ourselves through fashion and social media is a way to feel acknowledged and loved. And we all want that.

How do we then deal with an unsustainable cultural desire for fashion?

Von Busch suggests we need to build other social reward mechanisms. We need to train building our self-worth in other ways than through the feedback loop of social media likes.


Emotional needs

It is a fact that a lot of marketing tries to get straight at your deepest emotional needs. The Maslow theory, with the well-known hierarchy of human needs, is much used in marketing. That is why, for instance, cars are often marketed for their safety, rather than for their luxury interiors or design. It appeals to your need for safety and security, the second most basic human need, according to the Maslow theory.

Fashion, I imagine, is often marketed to trigger your need for belonging, love and esteem. And in the case of fast-fashion, to the urgency of keeping up.



Social media escalates that sense of urgency. FOMO, the fear of missing out, feeds on you continuously checking in on social media to see what others are doing. Apparently, you can’t help but compare yourself to others, according to this article siting a study from 2016.

Do we all need to unhook from social media?

There is a lot to be said for avoiding temptation. What you don’t know can’t hurt you. On the other hand you probably neither can, nor want to, completely shield yourself from the influence of the world around you.


Feeling cool - sexy - worthy - loved - good enough

If von Busch is right, the desire to shop is not just about the clothes, or the other stuff, you buy. It is an expression of your humanness. We are all social beings and we all want – need – to feel good enough.

The weird thing is how that translates into buying things.

Thought experiment 1: Your feeling good list

Take a moment to list twenty things that make you feel good and give you joy.

Are there things on your list that do not involve buying stuff? No? Then keep going.

Your list is a gentle reminder that there are other, more fulfilling things for you to do besides shopping. Armed with it, hopefully you will build resilience against that familiar pull to buy new things in response to an emotional need.

Thought experiment 2: Pop the lifestyle bubble

I heard a speaker at a conference once, say that no-one sells products anymore. It is all about selling a service and a lifestyle.

Well, what if you pop that lifestyle bubble before the purchase?

Imagine you want to buy something, like really want to buy it now. What if you stop for a moment and consider two related, but very different questions:

  1. What does the thing represent to you?
  2. What is the actual object you will take home with you, once you have paid?

Okay, here are two things on my wish list: a pair of trekking trousers from Fjällreven and a wax-canvas shoulder bag from Ruralkind.

Each of these things represent a whole lot more to me than the actual object itself. I look at the trekking trousers, for instance, and I see this healthy, wholesome, energy-filled life with authentic close-to-nature experiences and happy family adventures.

But, it is just a pair of trekking trousers.

With or without them, I will still be same old me, no more miraculously happy or outdoorsy than I am now. Okay, fine. But actually, I still need a pair of trousers for outdoor activities.

Yet, the British-made wax-canvas bag: it is just a shoulder bag.

Aah, well. I don’t really need another shoulder bag. What I need is the feeling of being cool, creative and interesting, living a hands-on, craftsmanship-type lifestyle. Another bag, however well-made and beautiful, won’t really fix that.

Of course, I can still buy the bag. (Or I could in theory if I had that kind of money.) But then at least I would know why I was buying it and why it probably wouldn’t change my life.

Bursting the lifestyle bubble before the purchase, makes it easier to see your real reasons for wanting to buy that thing.


Acknowledging our humanity

Now, don’t get me wrong. It is okay to buy new things. It is also okay to make mistakes. We all buy things for the wrong reasons sometimes. At least I do.

Feeling content with what you have is difficult. Not because something is wrong with you, but because you are human and have human needs, both material and emotional. If we want to address an unsustainable shopping culture, perhaps the first step is to acknowledge our humanity?

The triple bottom line and the textile conundrum

Can social responsibility be a drive for growth and profit?

That was the question that sparked the collaborative design initiative Trippel. Triple, as in the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. Starting up in 2014, each season takes on different complex social issues, challenging the private sector, public sector and NGOs alike to collaborate and think creatively towards creating positive change.

This time round, the focus was on the textile industry. The brief was presented at the kick-off event Framtanker at the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture last autumn, and it was as simple as it was hard:

How can we create a more sustainable textile industry? Starting now.

Sustainability made doable

Last week, some of the projects that came out of the collaborative initiative were presented at the seminar Trippel Tekstilfloken.

Moods of Norway and Evolve by Oda Midtlyng Kempe (one of the founders of the clothes label Sølv) presented a pre-sales business model to make production with Norwegian wool both a financially viable and engaging option for customers.

Filippa K emphasised the importance of a well-curated, high-quality wardrobe and presented their model for leasing clothes. They envisioned a sustainability focused clothes hall where sustainable production, repair, reuse and recycle initiatives could come together.

Helly Hansen suggested a subscription for kindergarten kids’ outdoor clothing to reduce unnecessary single-item washing and make everyday life a little easier for busy parents.

The Varner group and Dressmann presented a subscription based underwear package for men, with the aim of increasing the recycling rate of worn and torn textiles while building consciousness in a customer segment less focused sustainability concerns.

Mud Jeans showed how sustainability and circular economy is integrated through their whole business model. They offer jeans for lease and send the jeans to customers in the reusable packaging RePack. They collect and recycle old jeans, use recycled and sustainably grown cotton in their new jeans and ensure transparency and fair working conditions throughout their production.

Cool stuff. However, what especially struck me was this:

Why is the good an alternative and not the default?

"Why is it," asked Mike Dongelmans of Mud Jeans, "that conventionally grown food is just called 'food' while organic food always has this additional tag 'organic'. Shouldn’t it be the other way round? After all, it’s the conventionally grown food, not organic food, that is added chemicals."

"And shouldn’t it be the same with clothing? What if fair and sustainably produced clothing were just called 'clothing' and the rest were called 'unfair clothing' or 'unethical clothing'?"

Fair point. Sustainability shouldn’t be the optional alternative, but the default.

The Oslo Manifesto

As an interesting upshot from the Trippel initiative, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture has become a driving force for change. They embraced the challenge and took upon themselves the job of transforming the 17 visionary UN Sustainable Development Goals into the ultimate design brief.

The Oslo Manifesto urges designers and architects to play their role in creating a more sustainable future by seriously considering how the sustainability goals are incorporated in every project they do:

“The designers, architects, and creative professionals of the world have been handed a special and enormous responsibility, given to them by the 193 heads of state. They must imagine and bring to life the design elements of a new, sustainable world — quickly.”


Honest and humble

Øystein Hagen, designer at Æra and one of the initiators behind the Trippel concept, summed up this season’s textile challenge saying: It’s hard. These are extremely intricate and complex issues. And people are afraid of speaking up about the good they are doing for fear of being shot down for what they’re not.

So, we need to work together. It’s a work in progress and it won’t be perfect right from the start.

I think back to what Vincent Stanley of Pategonia said at the kick-off event: Let's be careful in our claims. Yes, talk about the successes and efforts towards sustainability, but also be honest about what remains to be figured out.

Onwards, then!