Saving the Planet, One Straw at a Time: The Risks of Performative Activism
Elena is a student at Sciences Po Paris BA in Economics and Political Sciences. Focussing upon the issue of reusable straws, she highlights the problems that arise from ‘performative’ environmental activism.
Having avoided Instagram for the last five years, I only recently reactivated my account. Worn out by the never-ending lockdown measures, and unable to think of another cake to bake, I returned to the infamous social media platform, pleased to renew the daily ritual of endless scrolling. As I continued to explore a world that had become almost foreign to me, I was struck by the considerable number of posts promoting eco-friendly behaviour, matched by aesthetically pleasing pictures and captioned by green leaf emojis. One particular fad stood out: the straw craze. Influencers, actresses, models, and even the “cool” girls from high school all seemed to be the proud owners of new silicone, glass, metal or even bamboo straws. In my five-year absence, straws had been converted into an emblem of virtue, but at what cost?
Straws of all kinds, except plastic, of course, seemed to have become the ultimate symbol of environmental consciousness. The ubiquity of this semiotic environmentalism, however, did not inspire hope within me for the future of our planet; instead, I felt conflicted. The roots of my mixed emotions lay in the fact that most people do not need straws to enjoy their iced coffee or their fruit smoothies, so rather than using reusable eco-friendly straws, it would be more sustainable to just use no straw at all. Reflecting on this example, I came to realize how eco-friendly straws are representative of a wider trend of using a sustainable discourse to boost someone’s public image, and this convinced me of the inefficacy of social media activism as a solution to our current problems.
If using a reusable straw and posting pictures of it on social media is enough for a person to be considered a model of sustainability, we risk forgetting how much more difficult the fight for the environment is, and how such a fight requires much more radical - and much more challenging - changes to our lifestyle.
The prominence of the environmental debate, which has become widespread in most of our societies, does not solely concern individuals using social media platforms. Companies are also adopting a sustainable online discourse, which is often only superficially conscientious. Similarly to the previous example of reusable straws, other goods have been promoted as sustainable, when in fact they are not. Particularly, the use of ecological advertising to promote clothing fast-fashion brands, a strategy that has been called greenwashing, has been criticised by activists as a practice that promotes unsustainable purchasing patterns in the guise of sustainable behaviour. An example of this is the criticism received by the clothing-brand H&M in the aftermath of the launching of its Conscious line: while the pieces from this line were made from more sustainable materials and with more sustainable methods, the fast-fashion nature of the company was not addressed nor were the greenhouse gas emissions generated by its supply chain reduced.
While the new Conscious line allowed H&M to improve its image and portray itself as a sustainable choice for consumers, the brand did not make any significant effort to advance the environmental cause, ultimately promoting unsustainable behaviour. In fact, it would be more sustainable to reduce individual purchases and shop second-hand, rather than buy pieces from fast-fashion brands, even if they are supposedly eco-friendly. In this way, superficial change is worse than insufficient; it hinders the cause more than it helps.
The practice of greenwashing, as well as posting reusable straws for Instagram clout, can both be described as forms of performative activism, characterised by people showing they care about a cause more than they actually do, and carried out by influencers for whom social consciousness has become a way to increase their image and gain social capital. Performative activism has emerged as the rapid rise of social media use occurred over the last decade almost all over the world. Actions are now not mere reflections of personal belief, but social indications of public virtue. This has always been a part of human society, but, in the age of digitalised globalisation, it has become second nature to many. While this can have some positive consequences, such as the fact that it allows people to share their beliefs and promote their choices with a much wider audience, the fact that social activism has become a determinant of someone’s public image entails several risks.
First and foremost, the main risk of performative activism is that of promoting a superficial awareness of the issues addressed. While raising awareness about the environmental crisis through social media, especially if done by influencers and celebrities with thousands of followers, can make a lot of people more conscious about their consumption patterns, such awareness risks being superficial. To go back to my leading example, there is a risk that social media posts lead to the idea that drinking your iced coffee from a reusable straw, and posting about it, is enough. But these actions are not enough. To bring about change, much more substantial and decisive lifestyle alterations are needed, along with robust political decisions.
Another risk generated by performative activism carried out on social media is that of promoting conscious actions. While there is nothing wrong with showing off sustainable actions, and increasing one’s social image through it, it is likely that such actions will just remain trends rather than long-lasting changes. Social media manager Mercedes Bleth, when discussing her purchase of a metal straw, stated: “It has a badge of honor to it, ya know? The - I’m doing something good for the planet and I want to show it off - type of ‘cool’ incentive.” The use of the metal straw in this case is laced with irony as 150 times the volume of carbon is emitted when producing this kind of straw than a plastic one. Perhaps we should ask ourselves how many plastic straws we would be using in any case and whether the use of a metal straw is, then, truly a sustainable choice.
The example of Italy shows how successful it can be to raise awareness about environmental issues within a population, but also the importance of raising this awareness in a thorough and informed way.
Considering the risks entailed by social media activism, alternative ways to raise awareness should be embraced. In Italy, where I am from, schools have played a crucial role, as places where environmental awareness has been spread among the younger generations. The Italian Ministry of Education has promoted environmental education in the country’s schools, through several projects for students of all ages. This was possibly one of the reasons behind the fact that in the last decade, Italy has experienced one of the most significant improvements in waste sorting and recycling rates among European countries, as data from the European Environmental Agency shows. In 2008, Italy was lagging behind other European countries with regards to environmentally-friendly behaviours adopted by the population, as shown by a survey carried out by the European Commission which highlights that only 25% of the Italian respondents had reduced their consumption of disposable items for environmental reasons. Recently, however, Italians have shown a major mindset change, significant new sensitivity to environmental issues, and an increased awareness of the importance of individual actions to safeguard the environment. This can be seen not only in the increasing rates of waste sorting and recycling, but also in the fact that now 97% of Italians claim to be aware of the importance of reducing their plastic usage. The example of Italy shows how successful it can be to raise awareness about environmental issues within a population, but also the importance of raising this awareness in a thorough and informed way.
If using a reusable straw and posting pictures of it on social media is enough for a person to be considered a model of sustainability, we risk forgetting how much more difficult the fight for the environment is, and how such a fight requires much more radical - and much more challenging - changes to our lifestyle. Ultimately, such a fight requires us to drastically reduce our consumption, fighting our shopping urges and perhaps rethinking our economic model to one not based on constant growth.