“Hi my name is Nick and I am not zero waste but I try my best to be an environmentalist.”
Almost everyone: “Hi Nick! Thank you for doing your best for the environment and inspiring others to make eco-conscious steps of their own.”
Sustainability Shamers on Instagram: “Screw you! How dare you profit off of the guise of wanting to protect the planet. I am passing a motion to cancel you forever. All those in favor say, ‘microplastics’!”
Ok, ok… this may be a slight exaggeration but it’s not far off from the truth and it is important to examine how we environmentalists treat each other on social media. The short answer? Like compost.
Too often Instagram comment dialogue devolves into a judgmental pissing contest and for some reason the sustainability community (and social justice ecosystem as a whole) is particularly harsh on their peers… even when those peers are still learning and making positive changes for themselves and their audience.
I myself have come under fire numerous times:
“Why are you driving an electric car? Didn’t you know that they’re not actually better for the environment and lithium batteries are not conflict free?”
“Why are you supporting a company that uses salvaged leather? You’re promoting the meat industry and animal cruelty.”
“How dare you work with Whole Foods?!? Jeff Bezos is the devil and they treat their employees terribly.”
Some of these comments were justified, and later I did my own research to learn more about them, but that doesn’t change the fact that these communication methods are unproductive. I’m all for holding people accountable for their actions if they are promoting things that are bad for the environment and violate human rights. You can’t go preaching about the ills of fast fashion and do a paid partnership with H&M the next day, but there is a vast and vague middle ground where people are learning, experimenting and participating in behaviors that aren’t 100% perfect.
It’s all about delivery.
If you come into a conversation immediately bashing someone, they’re probably going to get defensive and shut down. If your goal truly is to have a positive impact and share your knowledge, then you have to do it with respect and patience.
The moral of the story? Unless you are Henry David Thoreau (or @robjgreenfield), grow 100% of your own food, have never made an online purchase, and biked to your local library to use their public computers to leave your snarky comment because you don’t own an iPhone, you are not perfect either. Your carbon footprint is not zero. You are flawed just like the rest of us and just because we can’t fit eight years worth of trash inside a mason jar, doesn’t mean we aren’t doing a good job (major props to low waste legend @trashisfortossers for actually doing this).
So the next time you’ve got your fingers on the keyboard ready to roast someone in order to boost your own ego and feeling of self-righteousness… just don’t.
Instead, remember these five tips for getting your point across:
Don’t present a problem without proposing a solution
If you’re going to point out a problem, don’t do it with the intent of proving someone wrong. Instead, take a solutions-oriented approach and look to educate. Share resources and data that can help someone learn.
Offer to have an actual conversation
There has never been a productive debate “in the comments”. EVER. If you really care about changing someone’s mind, why not offer to have a real conversation? Hop on a zoom call and make a new friend that cares about the same things you do.
Don't make assumptions
Before leaving a negative comment, remember that social media doesn’t tell the whole story. Context is everything, and I can’t tell you how many times I see people calling others out without knowing all the details. If you're not sure about something, ask a question before speaking your mind.
There’s another living, breathing human being with a heck of a lot of emotions on the other end of that screen. I’ve seen sustainability shaming cross the line into cyberbullying, and we all know how dangerous that can be. Just because someone isn’t living up to your expectations, doesn’t give you the right to treat them poorly.
Meet them where they are
You don’t know where someone is on their journey. You don’t know their story. You don’t know what motivates them. Give them an opportunity to learn and change before passing judgement.
BTW - Here are some amazing environmentalist activists / educators that deal with these kinds of interactions better than anyone. They’re true warriors of the cause, and they handle the haters with grace and the education to back it up.
@queerbrownvegan - Isaias is an environmental justice educator at heart and isn’t afraid to share his stance, even if it means challenging the status quo. This takes major courage, and I’m always impressed by how he handles negative feedback #ThankYouForBoostingMyAlgorithm
@greengirlleah - The founder of @intersectionalenvironmentalist is as well-spoken as it gets in the field of environmental activism and race. She is constantly battling bigotry and racism on her account, and never hesitates to openly call it out and explain why it is wrong.
@pattiegonia - The queer drag queen of the outdoor community, Pattie is unapologetically herself. Despite her already prolific standing in the LGBTQ community, she often talks about being a better ally to other marginalized groups and is always encouraging others to learn alongside her.
@stevieyaaaay - Stevie is a ray of sunshine with a bad ass sustainability track record. She holds brands accountable for a lack of transparency in their production methods and does it with a smile. She also walks the walk when it comes to her own lotion company, and is never shy about sharing the behind the scenes sustainability details with her audience.