Can Influencers Flip Climate Change’s Unglamorous View?

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Climate change doesn’t always make headlines the way other news does.

As with public health issues like COVID-19 and abortion, Americans are often more concerned with the celebrity — be it the Heard-Depp trial, Elon Musk or President Joe Biden — topics that all tracked higher on May consumer survey data from NewsWhip and Axios.

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The Environmental Media Association’s Impact Summit, which will be held June 2 and 3 in West Hollywood is one spangled with stars (be it chef Wolfgang Puck or HGTV’s Carter Oosterhouse), entrepreneurs, environmentalists, academics and more in hopes that climate will prevail in the mainstream media coverage. Industry namesakes like Eco-Age founder Livia Firth; sustainability activist and model Amber Valletta; Eddie Bauer’s creative director Christopher Bevans, and Walmart Inc.’s senior vice president of sustainability, Jane Ewing, are among the speakers.

Gen Z environmentalists — who have cultivated authentic-often-radical approaches to climate activism on social media — are also finding ways to broaden their mission and participate in industry-billed events despite the notorious burnout for the influencer economy.

Isaias Hernandez, environmentalist and creator of Queer Brown Vegan, who will be participating in the event’s “Generation Change: Ethical Climate Storytelling in New Mediums” panel, spoke of the ways he’s tasked with raising climate awareness.

“There are ways in which sustainable influencers have been able to opt outside of these types of influencer models by working alongside the brand to create curated events, attend conferences on behalf of the brand, or set up a Q&A interview with their business leaders to educate them on the sustainability field,” Hernandez said.

He contends consumerism has the potential to steal a lot of the focus (as with corporate sponsors).

“The current model is still heavily influenced on the consumerism part and that needs to [be] essentially changed to build real, actual sustainable partnerships that are actually focused on respecting the content creators’ brand imagery,” Hernandez said. “I feel that it is a constant struggle to find ways out of sponcon [sponsored content] but the reality is that there are no existing systems outside of it that are rapidly available for influencers. We can only hope for the best as we continue to have these active conversations.”

Maya Penn, environmental activist, animator and founder of eco-fashion brand Maya’s Ideas, began her environmental activism work at just eight years old in 2008 and has seen much transform in the wake of the digitization of activism.

Penn and Hernandez are among a wave of creators including Wawa Gatheru, founder of Black Girl Environmentalist; Kristy Drutman, founder of Green Jobs Board, and climate activists Summer Dean and Leah Thomas, who founded Intersectional Environmentalist taking the stage.

“When I launched my own sustainable fashion brand, I watched the rise of activists being sought out for sponsored content,” Penn said. “The well-being and financial security of grassroots activists and educators is absolutely not top-of-mind for those in positions of power, often unless it’s directly to their benefit. This especially rings true for the Black, brown and indigenous voices and creators in the space who historically have struggled with getting access to grant and funding opportunities to fully support their important work, or even equal compensation from brands they collaborate with.”

As with Hernandez, Penn emphasized a need for a broader pool of opportunities to help content creators and activists further activate public awareness.

“Even while pushing the world’s most crucial movements forward, activists are still human,” she said.

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