‘Pop culture’ otherwise known as popular culture refers to the mainstream cultural elements of people’s lives at a given point in time. It is often driven by the West and can include any popular and ‘in vogue’ music, fashion, art, television and movies, food habits, physical wellness and even relationships. Pop culture can also be called consumer culture since it reflects people’s and society’s lifestyle choices as a consumer and is often associated with trends of mass consumption. As can be expected, pop culture has changed vividly over the years, starting from the industrial revolution to the introduction of mass media, televising sports, boot-cut jeans, the Rolling Stones, and nightclubs to today’s disruptor of social media. Before social media, pop culture trends were usually trail blazed by an actor, musician, athlete etc., either due to their own personal choices or by their association with brands. However, we now live in the digital age, and pop culture trends are now created and made ‘viral’ by ‘influencers’, particularly social media influencers.
An influencer is a person who creates digital content and has a substantial ‘following’ on social media. In other words, an influencer is a person who is able to influence or persuade mass consumers towards any behavioural or materialistic choices. The ‘influencer trend’ exploded particularly during COVID-19 when everyone was cooped up in their homes with digital media being the only form of available social interaction. Big Tech like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, and the corporates harnessed the power of influencers and their impressionable followers to market and advertise a range of products. These decisions are driven by mob mentality which allows people to believe that these trends symbolise status and affluence in society. They then start endorsing and adopting these cultural trends in their own lives to feel part of mainstream society. Consumers value influencers’ opinions more than traditional advertisements since they perceive influencers to be ‘someone like them’. The potential of influencers to penetrate into consumers’ minds and homes has not been lost on fashion and beauty brands which have been progressively investing more and more in influencer marketing than traditional ‘celebrity’ advertisements.
Influencers driven trends can vary from just copying innocuous dance moves to downright dangerous challenges. Somewhere in this vast spectrum lie influencer driven trends that are a serious source of concern on account of the nature and amount of burden that they are placing on planet Earth.
One of these is the burden which originates from the fashion industry - an industry that relies heavily on influencers for its brand image and marketing. Fast fashion gets its name because the process moves so fast from ideation to prototype, mass production and mass consumption. Fast fashion brands like H&M, Zara, Forever 21, Shein, etc make cheap and fashionable clothing primarily meant to be worn only for a short period of time. This is because fast fashion brands continuously release ‘seasonal’ fashion trends at a price so cheap that consumers can economically afford to use the clothes only for a couple of months before throwing them away. The cost of cutting down retail prices by these fast fashion brands is borne by exploited labourers and the planet. The abysmal working conditions and wages given to the fast fashion company’s factory workers including child labour have been exposed many times. Fast fashion is unsustainable and likely to speed up climate change as the fashion industry generates double the amount of CO2 compared to even the well-acknowledged emissions from the aviation and maritime shipping industries combined. According to UNEP, the fashion industry is the second biggest consumer of water and contributes to 2-8% of global carbon emissions. An average consumer purchases 60% more garments than from 15 years ago; however, each piece of clothing is kept only half as long. In the USA, about 85% of the total clothing produced ends up in landfills. The synthetic fibres used in fast fashion are also responsible for one-third of the microplastics found in the oceans.
Another industry where overproduction and overconsumption have boomed in the last decade (with the marketing dominated by influencers) is the cosmetics and beauty industry. The problems with this industry are twofold; one is the unsustainable and non-essential plastic packaging that typifies these products and the second is the toxic chemicals used in the products which leak into the environment. Annually, around 120 billion units of cosmetic and beauty products are produced globally and most often at the end-of-life stage they are incinerated or end up in landfills. The plastic packaging these come in often contain mixed materials which are difficult to separate and do not have value enough to be recycled. Since the aesthetics of the packaging and branding are a major selling point in the cosmetics industry, companies tend to spend indiscriminately on packaging (including non-essential packaging). Research has shown that 70% of the cosmetic industry’s carbon emissions can be cut down by using reusable packaging. Many beauty products, particularly, exfoliators contain microbeads, usually made of plastic, which end up in oceans causing lethal harm to the marine animals consuming them. The industry also employs a lot of single-use items such as makeup removal wipes and sheet masks which are often non-recyclable and non-compostable, ultimately ending up in landfills. While consumers are gradually becoming aware of the impacts of toxic chemicals in their beauty products, greenwashing by the cosmetic industry by using terms such as ‘organic’, ‘natural’, ‘clean’ and ‘vegan’ makes people live with a false sense of sustainability.
The problematic pop culture trend which is exacerbating these existing problems is ‘influencer marketing’ on social media. The main objective of influencer marketing is to encourage continuous consumption. Fashion and beauty brands ‘give away’ products and samples for free to influencers who then create ‘viral trends’ using these products. The most recent viral trend on social media is the ‘fashion hauls’. This essentially means that influencers shop for clothes or beauty products in large quantities and showcase it on social media for their viewers to be influenced to do the same. While this is very good for the profitability of companies, it is extremely dangerous for the planet. People have stopped consuming for daily use and survival and instead consume to show off on social media. People not only buy from social media but also buy for social media. Fashion and makeup become crucial in constructing the identity of a person. Therefore, consumers, particularly the younger generation, are driven by the need to identify themselves as fashionable rather than ethical or sustainable.
There are other viral Gen Z trends such as creating digital content whose sole purpose is to stimulate people’s Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). People buy material things only to waste them by destroying them aesthetically and ‘satisfyingly’ on video. To further influencers’ engagement on social media, large quantities of food and electronic items are used and wasted in the most unsustainable way.
The current pop culture trend of overconsumption of resources, especially popular among Gen Z, requires continuous and rapid extraction of resources, most of which are derived from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are non-renewable sources of energy and the process of their extraction, use and disposal emit large amounts of greenhouse gases. The ‘use and throw’ culture of this generation has led to ever-increasing production, consumption and disposal of material things. The linearity of this process not only strains the earth by depleting its natural resources but also by improper disposal of waste which allows non-biodegradable and toxic materials to sustain in the environment and subsequently enter our food chain causing adverse health impacts to human, animals including marine life and the ecosystem.
While destructive pop-culture led trends can primarily be attributed to Gen Z, it is also important to note that there are many young activists in this generation who are going against the flow. They are participating in the fight against climate change and against big fossil fuel corporations. There are also some young influencers who choose to promote an environmentally sustainable lifestyle - and that restores our faith in the younger generation. These young activists could play a huge role in reaching out and raising awareness amongst their own generation who lead an unsustainable life of overconsumption of resources, particularly clothing and cosmetic products.
As our young people grow up, faced with pressures and battles unknown until this generation, it is also becoming increasingly clear that if we want young people to choose right and not fall prey to social media trends, robust foundations need to be laid at home and in the school. School curriculum must go beyond the 3 traditional R’s (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) to inculcate the 7Rs - Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Repurpose, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (compost) for sustainable living.