Instagram grows a conscience: The influencers posting for causes

Political opinions aren't unheard of on Instagram and YouTube, but more and more influencers are using their platforms to provide meaningful messages. — Christin Klose/dpa

Instagram's recipe of beauty, success and advertising has served it well for years, but more and more influencers are becoming reluctant to take cash to post about any and all products.

Influencers tend to lead glamorous lives, sleeping in fancy hotels, nabbing front-row seats at fashion shows and eating in hip restaurants, all for a mention on their Instagram page or YouTube channel.

While many turned their social media channels into businesses that reach tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, more and more influencers are using that reach to try and change the world.

Many no longer want to be seen solely as representing a brand but want to champion the idea behind it. "What's changing are the themes people are focusing on, and that influencers are increasingly becoming more specialised, says Marlis Jahnke, who published a book called Influencer Marketing.

She says nowadays, influencers are asking themselves whether they want to focus on sustainable clothing or on zero waste, for example.

There are plenty of issues to choose from and influencers are championing causes from sustainability to environmental awareness, feminism, veganism or living a life that is plastic free.

All tend to be critical of mass consumerism. This isn't new, Jahnke says. She has been following this change for the past two years as sites about veganism and sustainability attract more and more clicks on platforms like Instagram and YouTube.

Larger social movements such as the Fridays for Future are also shaping this shift, she says.

In Germany, a YouTuber called Rezo posted a film criticizing the governing party of Chancellor Angela Merkel last year, arguing for an end to mainstream parties. It attracted millions of views – leading people to realise that they could use their influence to really change things, Jahnke says.

Elsewhere, countless influencers whose posts would normally focus on matters of fashion, food or tech have become increasingly political in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.

In May, YouTube's most followed tech vlogger, Marques Brownlee, was among many in the tech influencer scene to pause his relatively apolitical daily posts to join the chorus calling for an end to racist police brutality.

Environmental and anti-capitalist movements are likewise motivating a change of posts for influencers. "I want to stop mass consumerism and show my followers that there are other lifestyles that are sustainable and fulfilled," says Laura Mitulla, 26, a blogger from Berlin who runs a site called The Ognc and is embracing minimalism. Some 23,000 people following her on Instagram, watching as she documents her attempts to reduce her consumption as far as she can.

She was raised on a 30-square-metre boat where she lived with her parents with a minimum of objects. Her parents then sold the vessel when she was a teenager and bought a house in Berlin. "Back then I was a regular consumer like anyone else, and enjoyed going shopping," she says. That did not make her happy, however, and three years ago, she decided to turn her back on "crazy consumerism."

"People shold start by using what they already have," she says. When you need something new, try and borrow it, trade it for something you have or buy it second hand. "Buying things new is the last option I consider. And if I do, they're preferably made in a way that's fair and with minimum ecological impact."

German model, actress and blogger Marie Nasemann also focuses on fashion that's produced sustainably. She was one of the contestants on television show Germany's Next Top Model and selling fashion was part of her job as a model.

For her the turning point came when the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013, killing more than 1,000 people. Nowadays, she says she still struggles to accept the idea that "people all over the world are still working under inhumane conditions so that we can always buy something new to wear."

The trouble was that with her industry and profession, she was part of a system that demanded exactly that. She decided then to back fashion made under fair conditions for the producers.

Nowadays, she has almost 150,000 followers on Instagram and has been also writing a blog for the past three and a half years about backing sustainable fashion, called "Faiknallt".

The Instagram pages that Nasemann and Mitulla run do feature advertising though, as do their blogs. It works the same way as across the industry: Companies send influencers a product that they test and photograph, and write about, ideally urging their followers to buy it.

"Corporate collaboration is not a bad thing per se," says Mitulla. She wants to help her followers by presenting products that really are sustainable, ecologically friendly or plastic-free. She draws the line at displaying discount codes – as she doesn't want to encourage people to buy things they don't need.

"A professional Instagram channel requires a lot of time and work," says Nasemann. "So it makes sense and I think it's all right to earn money through the platform." She is also eager to keep share information about fair consumption with her followers. "I always think, people will consume anyway. I just want to make sure that people are aware when they shop and that if they're buying something, it is a product that is more sensible and produced under fair conditions."

Jahnke happily supports women who have found this sense of purpose, saying she does not think there's a clash between sustainability and advertising, and that there are brands out there that are sustainable. She also wished influencers would point out brands that are truly sustainable to help her decide where best to shop, she says.

Influencers can only succeed as brand ambassadors if they are perceived to be authentic, Mitulla says. "My followers know that I wrote the post and took the photos," she says, adding that she personally stands up for the products, putting her face to them.

Jahnke agrees that credibility and authenticity are key when it comes to being successful, saying an influencer has to live what they show. "That's the only way to reach a wide audience." But passion alone isn't enough to succeed. You need to be professional and persevere - which can be a struggle, she says. if you go on holiday, you need to keep feeding your Instagram page, she says. "It's very, very important to keep it regularly updated."

These days, Mitulla spends around 15 hours a week on her social media channels, after reducing the time she spends on them over the past few months. Her Instagram channel is a curse and a blessing, she wrote recently.

It's a blessing because it has helped her find so many inspiring people, she says. On the other hand, though, "for a long time, I didn't realise how thinking about what other people thought was robbing me of my own everyday experiences." Her credo now is to enjoy the moments that are out there, she says.

Nasemann, meanwhile, has a team who supports her and has worked with sustainability experts such as Norian Schneider who helps her check how far brands are sustainable.

Shneider says "no" a lot when it comes to queries to collaborate or advertise with companies, says Nasemann. "Many companies are trying to jump on the green bandwagon right now, and position themselves as sustainable for marketing reasons." Unfortunately, all too often, there's very little behind that, she says. – dpa

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