4 sustainable fashion creators on how they work with brands, ethical dilemmas and crucial green schemes

Posted by Caroline Edwards in Analysis

1 month ago

Sustainable fashion influencers have an important job when it comes to sharing advice for consumers on how to be more eco-friendly and driving awareness about ethical brands. However, this role can be tricky in an industry that often encourages consumerism and values new, fresh and frequent content, which can pose a dilemma for creators looking to reduce, reuse and recycle.

CORQ spoke to four eco-conscious creators – Sustainably Influenced founder Bianca-Francesca Foley, mindful fashion creator Bahram Yara, author Andrea Cheong and fashion and lifestyle creator Demi Colleen – about navigating this, their brand partnerships, how gifting initiatives and press trips can be improved, and making the fashion industry more sustainable.

These creators are hugely influential in educating and empowering people to make more eco-friendly decisions. Unilever’s study from March 2023 revealed that influencers have the single biggest impact on 78% of people’s sustainable choices – more than TV documentaries, news articles or the government – and of those surveyed, 75% said they would be more likely to adopt sustainable behaviour after watching influencers’ content.

Key takeaways

  • Sustainably Influenced founder Bianca-Francesca Foley, mindful fashion creator Bahram Yara, author Andrea Cheong, and fashion and lifestyle creator Demi Colleen spoke to CORQ about how they navigate brand partnerships, how PRs can make their gifting initiatives and press trips more eco-friendly, and easy actions that brands can take to become greener.
  • Unilever’s study from March 2023 reported that influencers have the biggest impact on 78% of people’s sustainable choices.
  • Creators are keen to work with brands that are genuinely making positive improvements and have similar values and ethics.
  • Beauty brands are worse than fashion retailers when it comes to excessive gifting initiatives. To reduce waste, brands should limit their mailers, ask influencers if they want to receive a product before sending and use recyclable materials.
  • Companies can become more sustainable by introducing refillable products, offering repairs, using plastic-free or compostable packaging, gaining credentials such as B Corp and using Better Cotton fabrics.
  • The European Union is introducing Digital Product Passports for all textile products and in March 2024, France introduced a bill to tax fast fashion retailers.

On TikTok, #SustainableFashion has been tagged in more than 780,000 posts and #Sustainability in more than 425,000. Meanwhile, on Instagram, #SustainableFashion has been tagged in more than 20.3 million posts, #Sustainability in more than 17.8 million and #SlowFashion in more than 17.7 million.

The phrase “sustainable fashion influencer” could be considered an oxymoron, as these creators inherently promote consumerism through paid partnerships. Foley is the founder and editor-in-chief of the eco-conscious platform Sustainably Influenced and told CORQ that being a climate-friendly creator presents a “moral quandary”.

“The best thing to do is to show instances of me wearing the same pieces again and again and reminding people that just because it’s appearing on Instagram once, you can wear it again.” Foley feels bad if she does a fashion partnership and the clothes aren’t her style, so she aims to choose items that will fill the gaps in her wardrobe or that can be given to friends.

How sustainable fashion creators work with brands

Unilever’s report revealed that sustainable influencers’ branded content was viewed as just as “engaging, authentic and informative” as unbranded content. It also noted that 72% of respondents supported creators selling products or services focused on sustainability.

All four creators CORQ spoke to say they are open-minded about the corporations they work with, as long as their values are aligned and the retailers are making positive improvements.

Cheong is the author of Why Don’t I Have Anything To Wear? and founder of the Mindful Monday Method, a five-step guide to help people shop smarter for the good of the planet and their mental health. Cheong said to CORQ: “The misconception is that I will only talk about sustainable brands and that’s not entirely true. I don’t believe [being entirely sustainable] exists.” When collaborating with brands, she won’t say a company is sustainable or be a corporation’s “mouthpiece”.

In comparison, Yara describes himself as a mindful fashion creator and told CORQ he will consider a company’s ethos and how it supports its sustainability claims, including its supply chain traceability, being B Corp certified, offering repairs or having fair pricing that reflects the quality of the raw materials used in its garments. He will also collaborate with brands that are not necessarily known for being eco-conscious if they launch a range that uses eco-friendly or recycled materials.

Dopamine dresser Colleen promotes joyful, imperfect sustainability and told CORQ that if brands are open about their failures or how they are working to improve their planet-friendly goals, this can be beneficial for ads, as seen with her work for Absolut Vodka in 2023 to promote its new paper bottle. She said: “No one wants to highlight the bad things but I think people want the full picture.”

However, if a fast fashion brand launches a “sustainable” collection, this doesn’t mean these creators will be willing to promote it. Yara said: “As long as [fast fashion retailers] keep producing at the volumes that they’re producing, you can’t say that they are sustainable, even if they implement some sustainable-ish practices.” This is because fast fashion brands often greenwash consumers by making misleading claims or introducing poor take-back schemes.

Making gifting and press trips more eco-friendly

Gifting is a key influencer marketing strategy, but it often results in excess waste. Extravagant PR packages – such as Charlotte Tilbury sending partially empty parcels to influencers or Gisou’s recent mini-fridge mailer – can produce a viral moment, but at what cost to the planet?

Cheong and Foley identified beauty brands as the worst culprits of excessive gifting. Cheong said they do this because the activations perform well on social media and provide great exposure, but that these types of packaging are a nuisance to recycle.

Foley said most of the packaging she receives gifts in isn’t home-recyclable, as cardboard with plastic coating or printing on it must be taken to a recycling centre. But it isn’t just about whether the mailer can be recycled – Foley said gifting should be put together with recycled materials or Forest Stewardship Council-certified packaging.

PRs should also ask creators if they want to receive gifting first, rather than freely sending out products. In regards to ethical brands’ gifting strategies, Colleen said this must be limited and infrequent, as brands shouldn’t send out multiple items at once. She said: “Everything has to be limited. It can’t be done in the same model or shadow of fast fashion.”

With gifting requests, sustainable creators will research the brand and the products it is offering. Yara only accepts PR from companies that have products he genuinely uses or needs. Meanwhile, Cheong will go on a corporation’s website and check a few items and look into their composition. “It’s not that I’m trying to catch them out, it’s more that I’m not going to accept one good thing from the brand [if only] one out of 100 [products] is good.”

Discussing press trips and events, Foley encourages businesses to carpool influencers to and from events if they live close to one another. With trips, she wishes that brands would reduce how many gifts they offer creators and only select hotels and venues that have strong environmental credentials.

Actions brands can take to become more sustainable

There’s an abundance of small steps that corporations can take to be more eco-conscious. Creators listed offering refillable products, repairs and plastic-free or compostable packaging, as well as collaborating and innovating with fellow sustainable brands, plus looking into credentials such as B Corp and using Better Cotton textiles as easy ways to be more sustainable.

Yara said that one way fast fashion retailers can improve is by increasing the amount of organic textiles they use. This is costly, so using organic textiles for 30-50% of a range is a good place to start. However, retailers shouldn’t use recycled textiles for the sake of it. Fast fashion brands have incorporated reclaimed textiles into their clothing, such as recycled synthetics, but Yara said this is still greenwashing because these materials are unsustainable. Similarly, Colleen said: “There’s a massive emphasis on using recycled polyester and that’s an amazing thing, but it’s still polyester at the end of the day. We shouldn’t always be patting brands on the back for going that way.”

Transparency is another area with room for improvement. Cheong said companies should be honest about what their products are made of so that consumers can make empowered decisions. Further advice? Improve manufacturing models, don’t cancel orders at the last minute, use tech and data to make more informed stock and trend forecasts, and use pre-order systems. Brands can track their supply chains through Fairly Made (it is used by SMCP Group, which owns Sandro and Maje) or add NFC tags (essentially smart labels) to merchandise so that consumers can see the journey of their clothes.

Legislation and consumer education are crucial for positive change, noted Cheong. By 2030, the European Union will require all textile products to be part of its Digital Product Passport scheme, which will include information about each item’s origin, supply chain, composition and recyclability. Meanwhile, France passed a bill in March 2024 that will ban fast fashion giants such as Shein from advertising and will annually penalise these brands at increments of €10 (£8.6) per item by 2030.

One final piece of advice from Foley? “If you just produce less, that’s the biggest way to be more sustainable. Make less, make it better.”

By Caroline Edwards, CORQ news and features writer. Picture credit: Demi Colleen, Bahram Yara, Andrea Cheong and Bianca-Francesca Foley