Sustainability | December 1, 2023
Thinking Outside the Unboxing: Fashion Influencers, Consumption, and Sustainability
The purpose of this paper is to determine the interaction between fashion, consumption, and sustainability in the context of social media influencers, by addressing the question of how fashion influencers can move toward promoting sustainability instead of consumption. A review of literature on the topics of fashion, influencers, and sustainability revealed that factors such as credibility and parasocial relationships strongly impact how an influencer’s content affects the audience. The researcher concluded that it is possible for fashion influencers to move toward promoting more sustainable practices with intentional thought and planning. It is recommended that both sustainable fashion influencers and sustainable brands ensure that their values are aligned before partnership in order to maintain the trust of the audience.
Thinking Outside the Unboxing: Fashion Influencers, Consumption, and Sustainability
Social media has changed how people consume fashion content. Instead of browsing in a physical store or reading magazines to see what is in style, they browse the internet. On social media, they are able to follow accounts from people they trust and admire for style inspiration, tips, and product recommendations. The rise of influencer marketing has corresponded with a growing appetite for content, and influencers often turn to fast fashion with its “new collections in short release periods, at low prices” (Ferreira de Araújo et al., 2022, p. 619) to satiate the need for new post ideas.
One popular type of post on social media is the unboxing video. In these videos, the influencer opens a package on video, seeing their purchase in person for the first time and recording their reaction. While other types of influencers also post these kinds of videos, fashion influencers have embraced this format. It is a quick and easy way to create content without any planning or preparation needed other than placing an order online. Follow-up content can include styling each item, fresh outfit of the day posts, and posts about “fails”—items that did not fit or were otherwise not quite right. Influencers may have received these products for free in exchange for promoting the brand, and they often also have a promotional code that their followers can use to get a discount while also giving the influencer a commission. This is just one example of how fashion influencers promote consumption with their social media content, feeding into the cycle of fast fashion—a resource-intensive industry that produces an estimated 1.3 Gt/year of greenhouse gases globally (Peters et al., 2021, p. 2, 8).
The purpose of this paper is to determine the ways in which fashion influencers promote consumption and sustainability in their content.
Back when the internet was less about advertising and more about connecting—before blogs were monetized and social media introduced ads and algorithms—content creators built followings and audiences who trusted them. Eventually, corporations saw that trust and realized they could use it. In the same way that celebrity endorsements lead to more sales, so does a partnership with an influencer, to greater effect (Huang & Copeland, 2020, p. 2). In influencer marketing, companies can specifically target audiences by partnering with influencers. There is greater trust between influencers and their audiences than between celebrities and their fans because social media content creators are perceived more like peers by their audiences (Balaban et al., 2020, p. 6). Influencer marketing is now a valid income stream, and content creators have learned how to make it work. Paid content earns them money, and more content often equals more money.
Influencers who focus on fashion need to regularly produce original content to build rapport with their followers that they can leverage to acquire brand deals. They post content such as unboxing videos, outfit styling posts, and shopping vlogs, all of which require the consumption of more fashion items. Online audiences expect content that is “new and unconventional” (Jegham & Bouzaabia, 2022, pp. 1005), and would likely unfollow a fashion influencer who wore the same things regularly without anything fresh to compete for their attention. The need for distinctive content drives influencers to support low-cost shopping options, accept brand deals without making sure a company is ethical, and otherwise promote fast fashion and impulse shopping to their followers. While other social media platforms are also popular, Instagram is the platform with “the biggest impact on impulse purchasing in the fashion industry” (Jegham & Bouzaabia, 2022, p. 1003). It is easier for an influencer to create content by promoting companies such as Amazon, Shein, or AliXpress where their followers can easily click and buy inexpensive clothing, rather than carefully hand-picking the brands to support, or creating thoughtful content based on styling the clothing followers may already have. There is also pressure to keep ahead of microtrends, and restyling outfits or thrift shopping may not always fit the newest aesthetic.
There is a slow-moving trend toward promoting more sustainable fashion practices as awareness grows around the ethical and environmental impacts of fast fashion (Jacobson & Harrison, p. 150), but influencers with sustainable values face obstacles in monetizing this angle. Most notably, there is resistance toward sustainable messaging based on cost. As fast fashion producers race to the bottom to produce clothing for the lowest costs, undercutting each other’s prices on the way regardless of the ethical and environmental impact, slow fashion faces pushback on their pricing since consumers are used to looking for the lowest price rather than considering a product’s value, quality, and sustainability. These “financial factors exert a strong influence on fashion consumption” making any transition toward sustainable fashion “complex and difficult” (Ferreira de Araújo et al., 2022, p. 6.20). Consequently, it is easier for fashion influencers to keep to the status quo, promoting fast fashion and excess consumption.
How can fashion influencers promote sustainability instead of consumption, even if their account is not specifically focused on sustainable ideals?
Definitions of Terms
Consumption. The act of buying and using things (Collins, n.d.).
Content Creator. A person who makes images, videos, text-based or other creative media and posts it online, particularly on social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, et cetera (Author, 2023, personal communication).
Influencer. Content creators across one or several social media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, or personal blogs…who post on social media in exchange for compensations (Balaban et al., 2020, p. 6).
Instagram. A social networking application that allows users to upload and edit photos, along with hashtags and text. It also integrates many social elements, including the establishment of friendships, reply, sharing, liking and collection (Huang & Copeland, 2020, p. 3).
Fast Fashion. Fashion production that tends to be produced at high speed, sold at a cheap price point, pushes consumerism, and involves lower quality and cheaper materials (Jacobson & Harrison, 2022, p. 152).
Opinion Leaders. Individuals who influence the decisions and opinions of others… [and are] perceived by others as individuals with expertise and knowledge (Jegham & Bouzaabia, 2022, p. 1003).
Parasocial Relationship. “The illusion of face-to-face relationship” between a performer and a spectator that is “one-sided, nondialectical, controlled by the performer, and not susceptible of mutual development” (Horton & Wohl, 2006, p. 2).
In the context of social media, parasocial relationships consist of the sense of knowledge, connection, and affinity that a social media follower feels toward social media content creators due to the frequency of posts and glimpses of the creator’s personal life. Such relationships are still unequal but less one-sided than Horton and Wohl’s (2006) definition because content creators actively work to build trust with their audiences in order to leverage that influence (Author, 2023, personal communication).
Slow Fashion. See “Sustainable Fashion”
Sustainability. Meeting “the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future” (Brundtland, 1987, p. 39).
Sustainable Fashion. Clothing production that practices human and environmental rights, protects workers and provides fair compensation, values the circular economy, and reduces the negative impact of consumption in order to create a positive social impact…often used interchangeably with “slow fashion” (Jacobson & Harrison, 2022, p. 152).
Sustainable Fashion Influencer. Influential content creators who showcase sustainable fashion on social media (Jacobson & Harrison, 2022, p. 152).
This multi-disciplinary selection of sources illuminates the factors that contribute to the persuasiveness of influencers both inside and outside the sphere of fashion, discusses the difficulties inherent in building a social media following around sustainable fashion, and provides recommended next steps for influencers, brand managers, and marketers.
Factors of Influence
Influencers have power because of trust. They gain that trust “in the context of online blogging, vlogging, or social network sites (e.g. Instagram, Twitter, YouTube) and…develop strong and deep relationships with their followers” (Balaban et al., 2020, p. 6). Balaban et al. (2020) posit several hypotheses related to the trustworthiness of influencers and how that trust motivates young people to follow them. They theorize that the perception of an influencer as a provider of high-quality information leads to both high trustworthiness and a “more positive attitude towards following the influencers” (p. 9), also noting that these effects can be moderated by the frequency of social media use (p. 10). Their research intended to answer questions about how “social media influencers [can] build strong communities of followers based on the perceived content they create” and whether perceptions of authenticity or similarity influence users to follow (p. 8).
The researchers gathered their data using an online survey in Romania, narrowing down their sample to those participants who have Instagram and YouTube accounts and were between the ages of sixteen and thirty-seven (Balaban et al., 2020, p. 10). The results were analyzed quantitatively using various models to address the research questions (p. 11-12).
The data supported the hypotheses, underlining the importance of the “perceived quality of information,” in a social media user’s decision to follow an influencer. It is also important that people view the influencer’s content as relevant to them personally, and a majority of participants reported that they feel influencers are like peers, with a high or very high degree of similarity. These both “lead to high trustworthiness of the influencers and thus, to the effectiveness of the content creator” (Balaban et al., 2020, p. 14).
Balaban et al. (2020) conclude that in order for influencers to grow their audiences and build strong communities, they need to “create perceived quality content” (p. 15). Additionally, the curation of trust and rapport with that community will help in their role as communicators and will “contribute to the development of a long-term relationship with the audience” (p. 15). They recommend that influencers “choose to concentrate more on long-term objectives of building a network of trust among their followers instead of the short-term efficacy of influencer marketing campaigns” (p. 16).
While Balaban et al. (2020) proposed hypotheses centred on trustworthiness, Jegham and Bouzaabia (2022) explored trust—under the term “source credibility (p. 1011)—along with several other factors that influence an Instagram follower’s intent to purchase something marketed by a fashion influencer. They focused on the effects that content (the posts on a social media account) and source (the influencer as a person) have on an influencer’s opinion leadership in their research questions (p. 1002). In this study, they were intent on bridging the gap left by previous studies, which only looked at the influences of the content factor and source factor separately (p. 1012), as they believed that the two elements of an Instagram account—the content itself, and the content creator—can only be effectively looked at collectively (p. 1003). The main hypotheses focused on the positive effect of an influencer’s perceived credibility, psychological closeness, originality of content, and quality of content on opinion leadership (pp. 1005-1006). They define opinion leaders as people who are able to “influence the decisions and opinions of others” (p. 1003), noting that the rise of Instagram as a popular platform has allowed many content creators to have such influence (p. 1002).
A survey was designed based on one Instagram fashion influencer’s account, and that influencer shared the survey with her followers, asking them to participate. In using a research design that counted on the cooperation of the content creator and leveraged her relationship with her followers, the researchers made use of the very phenomenon they were studying (Jegham & Bouzaabia, 2022, p. 1007). Two hundred and eighty participants responded to the survey, most between the ages of 18 and 30 (p. 1008), and the responses were analyzed using both qualitative and quantitative methods (p. 1005).
The researchers found that there is a positive relationship between opinion leadership and several of the source and content factors they studied. The influencer’s perceived credibility had the strongest correlation, followed by the perceived psychological closeness between the influencer and her audience, then the perceived content originality (Jegham & Bouzaabia, 2022, p. 1011). All three factors supported the influencer’s role as an opinion leader because her audience believes that they can trust her, that they have a parasocial relationship with her, and that she provides content that they will not get elsewhere—all of which reinforce her “followers’ intention to follow [her] recommendations” (p. 1012).
As a result of their findings, Jegham and Bouzaabia (2022) suggest that “opinion leaders using social networks should work on their credibility [and the] originality of their posts, and try to be as close as possible to their followers to succeed in gaining their trust and consequently influence[ing] their behavior whatever the category of product they recommend” (p. 1012).
Similarly, Huang and Copeland (2020) also explored multiple factors that allow influencers to affect the decisions of their audience. Working from a marketing research standpoint, they investigated how the credibility, parasocial interaction (PSI), physical appearance, and confidence of influencers affect the purchase intention of their followers with the purpose of better understanding how young people (Gen Z) relate to influencers (p. 2). They hypothesized that these four factors will have “a significant and positive relationship” with purchase intention (p. 4-7).
The researchers surveyed 304 participants recruited from an introductory fashion course at an American university. This resulted in a sample with an age range between 18 and 24 years old, the majority of whom were female (Huang & Copeland, 2020, p. 9). While they did not specifically state their methodology, it appears they used quantitative analysis to draw their conclusions. The survey was administered online and asked participants to choose between four photos depicting fashion influencer posts found using the hashtag #OOTD (which stands for “outfit of the day” (p. 1)), then answer the survey’s Likert-scale questions in relation to that photo in addition to questions regarding their demographics and Instagram use (p. 7-8).
A surprising result from the study indicated that hashtags were less important to Gen Z consumers, as few of the participants indicated that they follow hashtags. Instead, they preferred to follow influencers individually. The researchers surmised that hashtag use could be more relevant to earlier generations who needed ways to organize the swiftly evolving nascent social media world (Huang & Copeland, 2020, p. 10). More in line with their hypotheses, Huang and Copeland (2020) found that “credibility, PSI and self-confidence are all positively correlated with purchase intention…[while] physical attractiveness did not hold as much weight as credibility and was not a significant influence in participants’ considerations and judgements of an Instagram influencer post” (p. 10).
The researchers recommend that marketers should be cognizant of the values of the influencers they work with. Ensuring that brand’s values line up with the influencer’s will build their own credibility with potential consumers by leveraging the trust and relationship that the influencer has already cultivated (Huang & Copeland, 2020, p. 10).
Difficulties with Sustainable Fashion Messaging
Jacobson and Harrison (2022) investigated the interplay between social media influencers whose focus is sustainable fashion, and their strategies of monetization (p. 152). They hypothesized that an influencer’s “success is dependent on the support [from] and connection to their followers” (p. 151).
The researchers gathered data via twenty interviews with sustainable fashion influencers using a semi-structured format (Jacobson & Harrison, 2022, p. 152). They specifically looked for influencers with more than one thousand followers and who posted at least once per week with evidence of engagement from their community of followers. These participants were from Canada and the United States and were over the age of 18 (pp. 157-158).
During their qualitative analysis of the interviews, the researchers applied the theories of symbolic interactionism and performativity theory in analyzing “the performative practices of sustainable fashion social media influencers and [understanding] their monetization strategies” (Jacobson & Harrison, 2022, p. 157). Each interview was transcribed and carefully checked for accuracy before beginning the coding process to identify themes (p. 159).
Jacobson and Harrison (2022) found that not all sustainable fashion influencers take the same approach. They classified their participants into three categories: those who focus on posting about their lifestyle that includes sustainability and fashion (p. 160), those who focus on educating their followers about sustainability and its benefits through their fashion posts (p. 161), and those who share their thrifting fashion finds and may not directly talk about sustainability (p. 162). This distinction shows that each type of influencer must take different things into consideration when building their platform and monetizing their work, and their “passion for fashion and commitment to sustainability exist as two independent dimensions” (p. 163).
The researchers conclude that each influencer must consider how they will balance their ethics with their desire for compensation and calibrate their content accordingly (Jacobson & Harrison, 2022, p. 163). Because some of the principles of sustainability involve reducing consumption instead of purchasing new products, it can be difficult to monetize a platform based on sustainable fashion. It is recommended that advertisers and marketing agencies take this disconnect into consideration when working with influencers “to promote the awareness of sustainable fashion brands and the purchase of sustainable goods” (p. 170).
While Jacobson and Harrison highlighted the disconnect between the messaging of sustainability and the desire to be paid for content creation, Ferreira de Araújo et al. (2022) tried to take an accurate snapshot of how the message of sustainability in fashion—slow fashion—was being implemented by the public. They studied fashion consumption with the objective of analyzing how fast fashion and slow fashion are reflected in current practices given the changes in attitudes and social behaviour toward more sustainable concepts (p. 615). With a qualitative and exploratory approach using interviews to collect data, the researchers applied theories relating to “practice-based studies (PBS)” (p. 617) to explore the fashion consumption practices of women born between 1995 and 2000. This population was chosen due to their online interconnectivity, and the way women in that age range often express identity and individuality through their clothing choices (p. 622).
In implementing the PBS methods gathered from their literature review, the researchers defined practices as “individual actions, which are rooted in habits and routines…involving elements that are connected, such as behavior, knowledge, mental and bodily activities, as well as motivation and emotions” (Ferreira de Araújo et al., 2022, p. 617), and postulated that “most practices require or involve consumption” (p. 618).
The six semi-structured interviews were completed by telephone to comply with the World Health Organization’s recommendations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, then the responses were classified and coded in order to draw inferences (Ferreira de Araújo et al., 2022, p. 622). The researchers found that while their participants were aware of and valued sustainable clothing production such as buying from local or handmade sources, their strongest motivating factor in fashion consumption was affordable pricing. They indicated their interest in lower-cost sustainable practices such as shopping at thrift stores or renting special event clothing rather than buying something they would rarely wear (pp.624-627). All six study participants tended to shop at large retailers most of the time and cited convenience, affordability, and the ability to find items in the fit and style they were looking for as factors affecting their decisions on where to shop. Despite this reality, they expressed being “willing to pay more for products that represent and defend the environment, animals and better working conditions in production” (p. 629).
The researchers concluded that “fast fashion so far is the concrete and hegemonic practice of fashion consumption,” while slow fashion has been accepted as a concept but is not yet exercised as a regular practice among the sample. They recommend that future studies include a wider range of ages and genders in order to ascertain whether these conclusions apply in a broader context (Ferreira de Araújo et al., 2022, p. 629).
Thinking Outside the Unboxing
The preceding analysis of literature on fashion, influencers, and sustainability revealed several consistent elements that affect the interaction between those three variables and relate to the promotion of consumption versus sustainability by fashion influencers. Insights, conclusions, and recommendations about how fashion influencers can promote sustainability instead of consumption are discussed in the following sections.
The Influence of Credibility
Social media is all about impression management. Its users carefully manage the type of information they post to portray the type of person they want others to think they are (Jacobson & Harrison, 2022, p. 156). For some, this means not posting anything, and simply consuming the content that others put out. For others interested in building a following as a social media influencer, this means curating an image that “aids in constructing a self-identity that fits their followers’ expectations” to the extent to which this performance of identity lines up with an influencer’s values (Jacobson & Harrison, 2022, p. 157). However, this authenticity and the perception of credibility is an important part of the way influencers connect with their audiences as “a key step in delivering persuasive messages” (Jegham & Bouzaabia, 2022, p. 1011). The credibility of influencers and the information provided in their posts is directly related to their followers’ willingness to act on their recommendations (Huang & Copeland, 2022, p. 10).
The Influence of Relationship
Several of the studies reviewed pointed out the importance of the relationship between influencers and their audiences. Jacobson and Harrison (2022) note that social media influencers “are not celebrities or close friends, but something in between, which is where their value lies” (p. 155). This in-between relationship is most often parasocial as the audience feels more connection to the influencer than the other way around. Jegham and Bouzaabia (2022) refer to this connection as “psychological closeness” and note that this occurs when there is a perception of friendship, intimacy, and identification, which will often influence a follower to purchase a product promoted by the person they are following (p. 1005). This parasocial interaction appeals to advertisers wanting to “leverage influencer marketing” (Jacobson & Harrison, 2022, p. 151). Huang and Copeland (2020) found that for influencers, fostering a relationship with followers is essential as it “encourages this generation [Gen Z] to care about what happens to the influencer” (Huang & Copeland, 2020, p. 10).
The Influence of Sustainable Messaging
The reach of sustainable fashion influencers is tied to their personal ethics and values. As communicators and opinion leaders, they are perfectly placed to be agents of change as they educate their followers about sustainable practices. In contrast to Jegham and Bouzaabia’s (2022) finding that “followers would follow opinion leaders’ recommendations regardless of the perceived congruence between the influencer and the product” (p. 1012), influencers with a values-based platform do need to be cognizant of the brands they align with and each company’s ethical impact.
In embracing their role as opinion leaders, sustainable fashion influencers can sway their followers using different kinds of influence. These include “minority influence,” which is when a smaller population segment influences a larger segment; “informational social influence,” which is providing information in an attempt at persuasion; and “normative social influence,” which is seeking acceptance by conforming to the norms and expectations of society (Jacobson & Harrison, 2022, pp. 154-155). As the sustainable fashion industry continues its rapid growth, there will be more opportunities for influencers to monetize their platforms without compromising their values (p. 151), and with greater awareness, sustainable practices may eventually become society’s norm.
This research makes it clear that it is possible for fashion influencers to move away from fast fashion and follow the trend in societal consciousness toward more sustainable options (Jacobson & Harrison, 2022, p. 150). With a little thought and intention, influencers can “manage, control and distribute attractive and different content” (Jegham & Bouzaabia, 2022, p. 1006) while also educating their audience on sustainable practices. Influencers who understand the importance of sustainability in fashion can “influence their followers’ practices towards more sustainable practices, and advertisers have an opportunity to partner with this influential group” (Jacobson & Harrison, 2022, p. 156).
The types of fashion-centred posts that promote consumption, such as unboxing or clothing haul videos can still be part of the influencer’s repertoire, but with more sustainable brand partners instead of fast fashion. A company that is proud of its sustainable practices will make that information easy to find, enabling the influencer to vet companies to find ones with aligned values. Another option that addresses the higher cost of ethically sourced new clothing is to embrace second-hand shopping, at thrift and consignment stores. Ferreira de Araújo et al. (2022) found that their study participants regularly shopped at thrift stores and appreciated the sustainability of the practice but were sometimes unable to find the sizes and styles they needed (p. 624.). With sustainable fashion influencers sharing tips for thrift shopping, such consumers may have more success with their search.
These options may require more thought and planning than simply jumping on the content trends along with everyone else, but this will also help influencers to stand out from the crowd. Jegham and Bouzaabia (2022) suggest an active online presence, saying, “The more Instagram influencers are perceived as opinion leaders in a fashion context, the more their followers will follow their recommendations and purchase the fashion items they suggest” (p. 1006). As influencers interested in sustainable fashion, it is important to value that leadership role.
In moving toward more sustainable fashion content, influencers should be clear on their values and take the time to research potential brand partnerships. This applies not only to sustainability ideals but also to other ethical and value-based ideologies. Maintaining congruence between these values and any potential brand partnerships will positively impact the influencer’s trustworthiness and credibility. The perception of credibility is an important asset for online content creators as the literature has shown (Huang & Copeland, 2022, p. 10; Jegham & Bouzaabia, 2022, p. 1011). This will also foster the development of the relationship between influencers and their audiences, growing their reach and the potential to share their values.
Similarly, brand managers and marketers who want to promote the sustainable values of their company should carefully vet the influencers they work with instead of waiting for consumers to point out a disconnect between the brand’s values and the influencer’s. This kind of incongruence can undermine the brand’s credibility in the eyes of potential consumers, so placing “more attention on the selection of influencers who are perceived as more trustworthy” instead of “concentrating on engagement metrics” (Balaban et al., 2020, p. 16) will protect the brand’s reputation. Jegham and Bouzaabia (2022) agree, stating that brand managers should “be careful when choosing opinion leaders with whom they will collaborate to promote their products online and who will positively impact the users’ purchasing decisions. Specifically, when choosing Instagram influencers for fashion brand marketing campaigns, managers should prioritize the influencer credibility, since it turns out that what is decisive for the millennial consumer when making decisions is first of all the influencer credibility” (p. 1013). Consumers of social media can encourage the move toward sustainability in the fashion industry by following and supporting accounts and companies that promote sustainable fashion and practices, using their likes, follows, and dollars to craft a world where creativity in fashion and expression does not come at the cost of the future.