From makeup to books, people are increasingly basing their purchasing habits on what social media stars recommend. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that influencers are swaying people to make more sustainable choices. A study released last week that was conducted by Unilever and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), which surveyed 6,000 people across the US, UK and Canada, found that 78% of consumers found influencers had the most impact on why people switch to sustainable choices. Traditional information outlets, on the other hand, lagged far behind—48% turned to TV documentaries, 37% turned to news articles and 20% turned to government campaigns.
On the surface, these statistics are sobering. Influencers, who lack any oversight or ethical requirements, are the ones responsible for shifting consumer behavior toward more sustainable options.
But this aligns with trends people have noted across the board. Gen Z has largely swapped TV time with social media usage, with one study finding that TV and film came behind video games, music, the internet and social media as young people’s favorite entertainment activities. Not only do 42% of Americans actively avoid reading the news, but 91% of young people get their news from social media. And overall trust in government institutions has reached a low of 27%, with many members of Gen Z believing the government hasn’t done enough to fight climate change.
Meanwhile, influencers are reaching people where they are. That’s not to say that some influencers don’t encourage overconsumption. After all, the so-called, “haul video” featuring heaps of cheap fast-fashion clothes, dominates fashion and beauty influencer spaces.
But there are an increasing number of creators carving out their niche with sustainability-centric content. On Instagram, people like @zerowastecutie and @DiandraMarizet share infographics focused on sustainable living tips and cutting out plastic. On TikTok, sustainability influencers are fighting against the overconsumption that runs rampant on the app. Some, like @climatediva, haul thrifted clothes, while creators like @tarabellerose make educational videos about environmental issues.
None of this suggests that influencer culture writ large has entirely shifted towards eco-friendly practices. It does, however, indicate that influencers have been more successful than any other institution in convincing young people to move beyond just worrying about climate change and instead make specific life changes.
The new paradigm makes sense, considering most influencers are between the ages of 18 and 34. And when coupled with the fact that young people are turning to TikTok rather than Google as their search engine of choice—just searching “zero waste” results in videos detailing budget-friendly ways to reduce waste and starter guides—short clips can go a long way in helping viewers get easy, actionable advice on simple lifestyle changes. A proposal that might not come across as effectively in a long documentary on TV or a news article.
This is all to say that it would be easy to look at Unilever’s findings and bemoan the way influencers have infiltrated how information spreads. But it’s not their fault that they’ve managed to capture people’s attention. If news organizations or government campaigns want to actually reach young people, they could stand to take some tips from TikTok stars.
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