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.