As social media creators push overconsumption, some question whether 'eco' influencing is possible

Influencers are embracing overconsumption in an effort to draw new viewers, even if it means alienating those who care about the environment.

Three screenshots from TikTok videos show a shower wall with shelves full of products; a woman with shelves of beauty products; and a woman with dozens of unopened boxes.
@selfcarebeautyyy via TikTok, @glamzilla via TikTok, @maiphammy via Instagram

In a recent TikTok video with over 21 million views, a woman showed off what looked more like the inside of a Bath & Body Works than an average person’s shower. With dozens of jars of body scrubs and bottles of soap, shampoo and conditioner, the sheer volume of products almost distracts from the woman’s in-shower lamp and iPhone cradle mounted to the shower wall. Text displayed over the video reads, “Preparing for THE 3 hour shower.”

“Feeling like I’m in Heaven,” she captioned the clip.

The video is an example of the kind of overconsumption that TikTok has been promoting for years, evidenced by the ever-changing microtrends and “aesthetics” that dominate the app and influence shopping trends.

But according to experts, there’s a relationship between creators, public relations companies and brands that makes it nearly impossible for influencing to be an environmentally friendly business. Even the concept of “deinfluencing,” which went viral in early 2023 as the answer to sustainability concerns, isn’t a plausible solution given how antithetical it is to the job.

It all begs the question, can someone be a social media influencer and refrain from promoting overconsumption to their followers? As influencing becomes a more popular job option, with many Gen Z-ers wanting to pursue it as a career, is it possible to do it ethically?

“[Overconsumption is] a new approach to an age-old desire for eyes on their content,” Ashlee Piper, a sustainability expert and author, told Yahoo News. “I think, overwhelmingly, what we’re seeing is people who are desperate to differentiate themselves and attract followers on social media. ... And unfortunately, the way to do that in an oversaturated market is to be as kooky as possible.”

The TikTok video of the jam-packed shower demonstrates how such attempts to stand out by being “kooky” can also have environmental consequences. Recommending a three-hour shower in itself is a waste of water, not to mention having dozens of the same opened plastic bottles of soap.

Piper argues that these videos’ popularity stems from a cultural backlash to earlier minimalist movements — the “sad beige” home decor, the Marie Kondo mentality and even makeup looks like “clean girl.” After years of minimalism being trendy, it’s more eye-catching for a creator to have over-the-top decor or a messy countertop of products.

But attempts to outdo other creators with visual maximalism may be going too far.

“We need to start over,” an X user wrote after sharing the three-hour shower video.

“The whole ocean ecosystem collapsed from the amount of micro plastics in this one video,” another person joked in response. Others pointed out that several of the products had probably already expired — shampoo and conditioner have shelf lives of up to a year after being opened; some makeup lasts only a few months.

Maximalist videos stand out on social platforms — and convince users to shop

Samantha Zink, the founder of a talent management company, said that some social media users may view the kind of maximalist lifestyle promoted in these videos as more attainable, noting that it’s easier to spend more and buy impulsively than it is to train yourself to be more selective. At the same time, Zink said, such content can also trigger “competitive consumption,” where people start spending more to compete with what others are spending.

“I get pr and what [it] is for, but ... there is no way one person can use/need all of these things,” one person vented in a post on Reddit. “Here is your daily reminder that you don’t need most of the things influencers have. more likely than not, they received them for free. don’t go broke trying to keep up with the joneses.”

Organizational accounts — referred to as “cleanfluencers” — also encourage overconsumption by showing creators moving products from their original plastic packaging into new, more aesthetically pleasing plastic containers.

For beauty-centric accounts, there are “Get Ready With Me” (GRWM) videos showcasing various products working together in a twice-daily routine. The message here, Piper argues, goes beyond displaying cute beauty lineups and encourages viewers to stock up on multiple versions of the same items to cosplay this type of lifestyle.

“There’s so much excess that we’re not even focused on what we actually need,” Piper said.

The role of PR boxes

There’s a cyclical relationship between PR companies, brands and influencers. All of them need each other to make money, and all of them want to stand out to audiences in their oversaturated markets.

“That’s why the influencers are receiving so much gifting — because they are trying to build relationships with brands,” Zink said.

Influencers Danielle Bernstein (@weworewhat) and Mai Pham (@maipahmmy) via Instagram Stories.
Influencers Danielle Bernstein (@weworewhat) and Mai Pham (@maiphammy) via Instagram Stories.

PR gifting isn’t limited to just in-house products anymore. There are over-the-top brand-funded, multiday trips and flashy, vaguely related gifts, like when a fashion brand sent influencers $900 espresso machines in celebration of its new pajama line.

“The PR packages are becoming more and more bananas — they’re just huge,” Piper said. “They have the entire product line in them and they’re full of disposable packaging.”

This is causing tension between influencers, brands and audiences. Even if an influencer does not identify as sustainably focused, audiences, especially younger ones, now expect creators and brands to align with their values. This contradicts the maximalist tactics that creators are using to stand out and become a go-to guide for their audiences.

“The overconsumption is insane,” a Reddit user wrote about creator Mai Pham’s YouTube video where she organizes her beauty products. “I get that her make up/beauty products were sent via PR but I honestly think companies should be held accountable for this.”

In terms of solutions, Piper doesn’t think it’s possible to be a fully sustainable influencer — unless the person has another source of income — or a fully sustainable company trying to advertise and sell products. Overconsumption is part of the package and will continue to be as companies and creators fight for attention.