Among the expertly angled selfies, #sponsored posts and and plugs for Fenty Beauty on Stephanie Shepherd's Instagram is a pastel purple graphic overlayed with a trendy, '70s-inspired font: "Laundry is 35% of microplastic pollution."
In the caption, Shepherd — "Steph Shep" to friends and 1.5 million followers, some of whom may know her as the former executive assistant of Kim Kardashian West — explains that washing fabrics like polyester and nylon releases microplastics ("bad stuff") into the ocean. But, she says, there are ways to make laundry day less of an environmental burden, like using a Guppyfriend Washing Bag or a Cora Ball to capture said microplastics.
I bought the Cora Ball. I was eco-influenced by Steph Shep.
Since stepping down from her position as the Chief Operating Officer of Kardashian West Brands in 2018, the fashion and beauty influencer has turned her attention to the environment. Shepherd is the co-founder of climate education platform Future Earth, an advisor to nonprofit organization Khana and a plastic-free columnist at Poosh. She is a climate 'activist' of the Kardashian generation — that is, if eco-influencing equals activism.
Does it? Is it possible to be both an "activist" and a "luxury tastemaker," as Shepherd describes herself in her official bio? Can encouraging followers to buy the Cora Ball justify encouraging them to buy single-use under-eye masks, or a lip plumper in a plastic tube or leggings made out of the aforementioned microplastic-shedding nylon?
Maybe not, but that's kind of Steph Shep's brand.
"It can be really difficult and is something I think about daily," Shepherd tells Fashionista of balancing her work as an influencer and her work as an environmentalist. "There's a quote I love to reference: 'We don't need a handful of people doing this perfectly, we need millions of people doing this imperfectly.'"
She isn't after the zero-wasters committed to the cause. She's after the majority, and meets them where they're at: social media.
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"I always wanted to share the information I would find that could help others learn more about the world around us, but it often read as corporate or too science — nothing approachable for people to view and understand with ease," Shepherd says. "So I thought, why not create an educational platform specifically targeting and aesthetically appealing to our friends?"
That thought turned into Future Earth, the Instagram account Shepherd launched last year with city planner and MIT alum Max Moinian. (Sample post: a global warming heat map captioned, "It's going to be hot as f*ck by 2050.")
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"We definitely try to target millennials and Gen Z, and really anyone on social media who is a consumer," the founder shares.
It's a wide net to cast, almost a counterintuitive one: We can't consume our way out of climate change. "That being said, we each play a role in the consumer culture that can be unavoidable," the Future Earth founder levels — and what better way to educate consumers than by infiltrating the content they're already consuming?
In a recent trend report for Elle.com, Shepherd declared tiny sunglasses out, and reusable glass straws in. A 2018 profile of her beauty routine on Into the Gloss featured no fewer than 18 skin-care products, 18 makeup products and five body care products — but in her latest for Harper's Bazaar, she declares herself a converted minimalist, "a two-product girl." These small, almost sneaky plugs for sustainability are strategic. The goal? To inspire mass amounts of imperfect action.
I recently caught up with Shepherd to discuss her post-Kardashian climate work, conscious consumerism and activism beyond Instagram. Ahead, the highlights from our conversation.
"Steph Shep" has almost become synonymous with "the Kardashians." How did you first start working for Kim, and what prompted you to step down from such a prominent position — COO of Kardashian West Brands — and branch out on your own?
I started working for Kim right when I turned 23. I learned firsthand everything from starting and running a business to the production of a TV show to building apps and the underworkings of social media marketing. The experience was invaluable, and at the end of about four and a half years, it was simply time to graduate.
What did you learn from working with Kim about being an influencer, and how does that inform how you approach being a public figure now?
Well, I have one of the best mentors in the world in that regard. I have learned that grace and resilience are essential. And at the end of the day, you just have to stay true to who you are and confidently humble.
Was there one specific moment that you realized you had influence on your own?
I think when people come up to me on the street and tell me they love what I am doing with Future Earth, it really hits! I wasn't sure how people would respond, but I love that people are interested in more than just the makeup and skin-care products I use. I feel very fortunate that I've been able to create a platform that allows me to share my passions and spread awareness about social and environmental issues facing the world today.
When did the environment start becoming a larger priority for you? Was there a specific article you read or a statistic you heard that flipped the switch?
Since my childhood. I remember participating in school activities for Earth Day and learning about science and biodiversity. More recently, Former Vice President Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," lit a fire in me. After that film, my passion for environmental conservation was reinforced. I realized that I wanted and needed to do my part to help.
How do you reconcile the tension that exists in being an influencer — promoting clothing and beauty products and, on some level, consumerism — and being a sustainability advocate?
As I've become more aware and committed to various social and environmental causes, I've learned about harmful chemicals found in beauty and skin-care products, wasteful packaging and other business practices that need to change.
I work hard to support brands with missions that align with my ethics. But rather than saying no to a brand that doesn't fully align, I find that when I have the opportunity to speak with the brand and build a relationship, I can leverage my influence to share information and concerns I have and hopefully that can create change.
When I collaborated with JBrand Jeans and designed the #LittleBlueJean, the denim was made using an eco wash process that utilized 90% less water, on average. [Editor's note: A representative for J Brand tells Fashionista, "The 90% refers to 90% less than J Brand's historical average."] With the #LittleBlueJean, I was able to be a part of one of JBrand's first designs using an eco wash. It was a great way to bridge the gap between fashion and conscious consumerism.
You talk a lot about "conscious consumerism," which has always struck me as a bit of an oxymoron. How do you define conscious consumerism?
On a micro level, consumers are responsible for their actions, and everyone has an environmental footprint. But there is power in our choices, and we can choose to make decisions that align with our ideals.
Being a conscious consumer to me means actively considering the impact of my purchases on my health, my community and the environment. I aim to support brands that align with my standards, adopt sustainable business practices and consider public health and their environmental footprint.
How do you approach the subject of sustainability and eco-consciousness with your peers and members of your own community — influencers and celebrities who have more, uh, excessive lifestyles?
The greatest challenge with this is to not shut people out who may have different lifestyles or outlooks on life but to help be a catalyst for change. It's something as simple as creating a means for conversation. While I do my best to lead by example and demonstrate eco-consciousness in my own choices, I also acknowledge that people will always have their own opinion and I respect that.
Having the patience to understand and listen to someone who may not agree with the Green New Deal or a zero-waste lifestyle, for example, is just as important to me as speaking out. If we don't hear all sides of an argument we can't properly act or find solutions to the problem.
I'm curious if you have a set of standards that help you determine the companies you'll work with now, whether that's sustainable materials, or no fast fashion or carbon neutrality.
Sustainability is always something I take into consideration when I am partnering with brands. However, at the moment, our world is in a transition period. There are initiatives in the works for companies I work with that haven't come to fruition yet, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop working with them. I get to have an inside look into how these major corporations are beginning to make the internal changes necessary to do their part to transition to a more eco-conscious environment. It gives me hope, but change takes time.
This new wave of "cancel culture" online where people immediately dismiss others based off of one seemingly contradictory action alone is not helpful to anyone. There is so much happening behind the scenes. I still get in my gas-fueled car with my reusable water bottle in tow.
How did Future Earth first come about, and what was your vision for it?
Max and I have mutual friends. When they started seeing the work I was doing with the Climate Reality Project, a friend reached out and connected us. I ran the idea by Max, and she was more than excited to bring the idea to life. She is brilliant, extraordinarily academic and a master at graphic design. When you pair that with what I know about social media marketing and outreach, it makes us a really good team.
The tone that Future Earth takes is really unique to the space. What's your strategy for speaking to millennials and Gen Z?
The team at Future Earth came to a common consensus that there can be a lack of well-delivered and engaging information out there that spans a lot of topics when it comes to consumerism and the environment. We understand the importance of delivery and relatability when it comes to the way we post or share information on Future Earth.
We need to talk about and share information that will not only hit home with people but will be easy for all people to understand, which is something we felt a lot of climate activist groups neglected. The hard thing about explaining climate change is that the effects sometimes aren't super tangible. Some people can have a hard time grasping what 500 tonnes of CO2 actually is, or the gravity of a glacier melting. But when you talk about the impacts of fast fashion through images of clothing factories or relate climate change to someone's health, that can get people listening.
There's often a lot of shame associated with environmental activism. Future Earth takes the opposite approach. Your posts are always informative, sometimes funny, never shame-y. Is that a conscious choice?
Yes, absolutely. We don't support doomsday activism nor do we believe it is effective. We actually think it can do the opposite and deter people because it can make tackling environmental issues, like climate change, seem unbelievably daunting and terrifying.
We want to foster a united community for people to come together for climate change education — where no one feels shame if they don't know something. We are all learning and working toward a common goal: to enact change for a healthier future. Just because climate change is a serious problem doesn't mean we can't treat it with hope.
Are there any plans to expand the Future Earth platform beyond social media? How do you get people to go beyond clicking "like" or "share" and affect real change?
Yes! We have already put our organization to work in Los Angeles. We had our first event in November and partnered with the environmental nonprofit TreePeople. We were able to bring together a group of people to plant trees in the Santa Monica Mountains.
We have more plans for 2020 to engage the Future Earth community and enact large-scale initiatives as well. We want to hold smaller discussions about climate change in local communities, and host panels, educational presentations and more giveback events.
Since creating Future Earth, we've found that people want to get involved in climate change initiatives, but they may not know where to start.
We are working on creating a community that is welcoming, adequately educated and approachable, so people want to join the cause. That is the basis for the change we want to see happen. We want to somewhat redefine the face of the environmentalist to be an everyday person, so everyone knows they have a place in the movement.
Future Earth recently got involved with World War Zero. What does that mean for the brand?
World War Zero is a new coalition established by former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry. It is one of the newer initiatives I have joined forces with alongside many remarkable world leaders and activists, military leaders, Hollywood figures and more. Despite our different backgrounds, we have united over a common goal: Engage and educate people on today's critical environmental issues to enact change and create a healthier planet for future generations.
Our message focuses on innovation, technology, job creation, national security and much more and the coalition aims to implement large-scale public education, content and community-by-community efforts to promote climate change awareness as a public priority.
I'm hopeful about the change we will be able to bring forth using our knowledge and social platforms for something bigger than ourselves. In the coming months, the coalition will be hosting a number of events and town halls throughout the country. You can find out more about how to get involved with World War Zero on their website.
Finally, what are some easy and impactful ways readers can make their current fashion and beauty routines more sustainable?
First, resell your clothes and buy secondhand. And second, educate yourself on ingredients and on fabrics that are bad for you and the planet.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.