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Can Instagram fashionistas help save the planet?

Miriam Webber
September 17, 2018

Fast fashion churns environmental destruction as fast as seasonal trends. So how does sustainability become trendy? As anything does in 2018: on Instagram, one fashion blogger tells DW.

Fashion blogger Mia Marjanovic sits in front of a green bush with pink flowers
Image: heylilahey.com

It's a precarious walk down the glossy fashion runway. But the balancing act becomes truly perilous when one glimpses the mounds of landfill upon which the mainstream fashion industry is so delicately perched.

Driven by the cultural phenomenon of fast fashion, big brands churn out seasonal trends at low prices and a speed that makes it one of the most environmentally unsound industries in the world.

The flipside of glamour

A recent report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that more than half of fast fashion is disposed of in under a year, while the average lifespan of a garment — meaning the number of times it is worn before being tossed aside to make way for new pieces — has dropped by 36 percent compared to 15 years ago.

Landfill represents just one corner of the industry's environmental footprint, which also includes exorbitant greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and resource waste.

The gravity of the problem calls brands and consumers alike to radically change their ways. But while reform has been in the works for years, keeping short attention spans focused on ethical consumption hasn't proved easy.

So how does environmentalism become trendy? As anything does in 2018: on Instagram.

Read more: Fashion's eco-sins: In search of sustainable clothing

Fashion bloggers with a conscience

A growing number of social media influencers and bloggers are carving out a niche in the content arena of sustainable fashion, using their online presence to promote ethical approaches to style.

Fashion blogger Mia Marjanovic in black pants and a black and white stripped top
Mia Marjanovic is a Berlin-based sustainable fashion bloggerImage: heylilahey.com

The sustainable fashion blogging scene is much more crowded today than it was five years ago, Berlin-based blogger Mia Marjanovic told DW.

"At the end of 2013 it was not such a big topic, and not so trendy," she says.

Marjanovic's 18,000-plus Instagram followers today suggest times have changed.

Marjanovic started to rethink her own shopping habits in 2013, when she tried a six-month shopping ban, charting her progress on her blog, Hey Lila Hey. "I think that was the turning point to question my consumerism, to question: 'Why do I think shopping makes me happy if it doesn't?'" she says.

The green trendsetter says consumers are bombarded with messages from the media and advertisers, driving an insatiable need to consume. 

"You think — maybe unconsciously — it will fill an emotional void by consuming so much, but it actually doesn't, in my opinion."

A sustainable approach to sustainable style

Finding success as a blogger requires astute strategizing, and successfully merging the quintessential role of the glamorous social media personality with environmental activism adds a degree of difficulty.

Upcycled Couture

Big challenges like her first half-year shopping moratorium, and grand commitments to boycott certain habits, generate the most attention but are difficult to maintain in everyday life, Marjanovic says.

"That creates more buzz and more attention, but to have attention in the long run you have to steadily talk about these topics and I think that's what I did," she says.

"I don't reach the big masses yet. So that's always my question: How can I reach the bigger masses?"

What is sustainable fashion?

"It's a very broad word, a vague word as well, sustainable fashion — because there's not a clear definition for it," Marjanovic says.

Sustainable fashion refers to an environmentally conscious approach to style, one that largely involves cutting consumption, she explains.

When considering new purchases, Marjanovic poses the questions: Do I need it? Can I borrow it? Can I buy it second-hand?

"For all of these steps I wouldn't need to buy anything new, and consume anything new, that would maybe end up in landfill," she says.

The final option is to source an item from brands that "do it better" — those that use sustainable materials and practices, and fair and ethical working conditions.

Wolves in green clothing

Marjanovic says the fashion world is evolving, with an increasing number of bloggers talking about sustainability. But she is also wary of the "greenwashing" she says takes place parallel to these conversations.

Fashion blogger Mia Marjanovic twirls in a black skirt and white t-shit under a garden arch
Mia says the industry needs to step away from 'fast fashion' business modelImage: heylilahey.com

Greenwashing is when a brand makes a big deal of promoting a sustainable product or initiative, but doesn't really take the message to heart and continues unsustainable practices. 

"They just want to be perceived as if they're doing better," Marjanovic says.

"But if they only have one campaign or one product that is a bit more sustainable, and the rest of the collections are still fast fashion, the whole business model is still built on fast fashion — nothing else."

At that makes real change in fashion business a challenge, because research suggests consumers can be very susceptible to this tactic.

Consumers are likely to have what researchers call "unethical amnesia," meaning they are better at remembering information about ethical practices and more likely to forget information about unethical practices, according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Still, Marjanovic believes the fashion industry is starting to turn in a positive direction.

"When I compare... 2013 and now it's really nice," she says. "There are so many people I can exchange with and interact with, think about new ideas."