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The 'de-influencing' trend tackles overconsumption and its harm on the environment

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Even if you don't spend a lot of time on social media, you probably know what an influencer is. They partner with brands from Amazon to Louis Vuitton to promote goods and services to their followers, convincing them to buy everything from $40 insulated Stanley mugs to slimy snail mucin moisturizer. Yeah. But in the last few years, a new trend has emerged - deinfluencers who urge their followers not to buy all the stuff the internet has to offer because overconsumption doesn't just have a negative effect on our wallets. It's also the planet and the climate.

So can convincing people to buy less actually help with climate change? And just how effective are deinfluencers at convincing us that less is better? I put those questions to Solitaire Townsend. She's a sustainability expert and co-founder of the change agency Futerra - also author of the book "The Solutionists: How Businesses Can Fix The Future." I started our conversation by asking her to define being a sustainability expert.

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SOLITAIRE TOWNSEND: It's actually quite difficult being a sustainability expert because people expect you to sort of be the high priestess of all of this, and they apologize about their recycling when you go to their houses and sort of point out all the ways they're not sustainability perfect. So I've got a master's degree in environmental science. I've spent the last 20 years working with big brands and governments and communities on how we can live in a more sustainable way. But one thing is, I'm not perfect on this, and I know that nobody else is perfect on this. And so my business and my book is all about how this bunch of really imperfect people can try to make a bit of a better world.

DETROW: Yeah. So many things on social media are just sped up and more intense versions of what's happening in real life, right? And certainly the consumption on social media is that because you can see somebody try to sell you something and it's just one or two clicks away, it's on its way to your house. You know, I have bought a lot of things I don't need on Instagram that seem really practical in the moment. But this also coincides with things happening in the real world. And given your work of sustainability, how did you respond to this moment when deinfluencing became the hot thing on TikTok and other social media platforms - people making content trying to get people to buy less things?

TOWNSEND: So really exciting - and also only one part of the story. So you're absolutely right, Scott. Deinfluencing - big conversation - let's do less. Let's do less. Let's do less. But there's actually a whole lot of things we need to do more of. So one of the things which we started doing was reaching out to a lot of these fantastic creators and saying, if you want to talk a little bit less about what to buy, can we talk a little bit more about how to live?

DETROW: Yeah.

TOWNSEND: Can we talk about sustainable lifestyles? And so what's happening now is that folks are beginning to do both. It's got a little bit more nuanced. It's got a little bit more interesting in terms of going, this isn't just about deinfluencing. This is about using your influence in the right way.

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DETROW: And what are some ways that what's going on in deinfluencing ties into big questions about climate and how to live more sustainably for the climate?

TOWNSEND: So for many of us, like, you know, we've known for a really long time that, you know, we've got to do our recycling. Maybe we've got to be a bit more careful with energy, about how we travel, about how we eat. But the science, right up until recently, wasn't backing that. And then just in the last couple of years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, these are the - all scientists from all over the world. They're sort of the gurus of what's actually happening out there on climate. They included a chapter in the most recent report on sociocultural and behavior change.

In short, that means that what all of us people, what all of us consumers, what all of us normal folks can do is we can make a real difference on climate change. And they identified a whole set of behaviors which, if done at scale, if most of us did them, would save 5% of demand-side carbon. Now that doesn't sound like very much, 5%, until you realize that the entire airline industry is only 2.5%. So this is now huge. We've all got a role. And in that report, they mentioned influencers. They actually talked about the role of influencers and media in helping all of us to try to make some of these changes.

DETROW: And I understand Futerra has done research on the effect that influencers and content creators can have here. Can you tell us what specifically you found?

TOWNSEND: Absolutely. So working with various other partners, we were like, well, let's actually ask some creators what they think about some of this. And vast majority of social media creators, like these folks you watch online who are talking about shopping, who are talking about makeup, who are talking about food, who are talking about their kids, 76% of them really want to talk about sustainability more in their content. And over 96% of them say that when they do talk about this, that they get really positive engagement, that most of us who are following them really want them to help us with this. They want us to show them what to do. We want them to model these behaviors.

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DETROW: You know, when you look at a lot of steps that people can take when it comes to climate, there's a criticism that they're steps that are a lot easier to take if you're more well-off, right? It's expensive to put solar panels on your house. It's expensive to buy an electric car. What do you make of that criticism when it comes to the area that we're talking about here, people offering you more sustainable products on the internet or are arguing about ways that you can change your online shopping habits on TikTok to be more sustainable?

TOWNSEND: I think there's a bit of a danger that lots of people are trying to sell us ways to save ourselves from sort of - out of sustainability. You can't buy your way out of sustainability alone. Like, of course we need to change our purchasing habits. But one of the things which we saw within the deinfluencing trend was people saying, hey, yeah, consumption is bad; buy this product instead. And there's - you know, there's a bit of an irony within that.

So we've got to be really careful of the fact that actually sustainability doesn't just become an additional consumption trend where we're buying everything which we were already buying, and now we're buying more sustainable products on top. What you want to do is you want to try to swap things out. So find a sustainable version of what you've already got - swaps rather than additional purchases because I don't want folks to lose money trying to be sustainable. You shouldn't have to do that, not least because so many of the things which we need to do for sustainability - insulation, changing how we travel, changing our diet - they should actually save you money instead of being additional purchases.

DETROW: Do you see any downsides here when we're talking about this deinfluencing trend?

TOWNSEND: I think the downside I see is trend.

DETROW: Trend.

TOWNSEND: You know, this is a long-term change that we need to make to how our systems work and how we behave, but this is most definitely not a trend. And I think that's one of the things which we've got to be really careful on in social media is that this is a long-term support, and that's one of the things the creators can really, really do - is to do this consistently over time until it's part of their lifestyles and helping it to be part of ours, which - you know, we all know that habits can take a long time to change. They don't change in a trend.

DETROW: Yeah.

TOWNSEND: I actually want to see deinfluencing becoming sustainable living.

DETROW: That's Solitaire Townsend, the co-founder of Futerra. Thank you so much.

TOWNSEND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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