The Role of Social Media for a Sustainable Consumption

  • Jochen SträhleEmail author
  • Chantal Gräff
Part of the Springer Series in Fashion Business book series (SSFB)


This study focuses on the different roles of social media for the promotion of a sustainable lifestyle, behaviour and consumption, especially with regard to the typically non-ethical fashion industry. Research findings include eight roles of social media influencing a sustainable consumption contrary to prior research naming one to five impacts. Results show that social media educates and engages the young and ethically interested target group besides increasing supply chain transparency and brand or theme awareness. Furthermore, social media provides a platform for organisations’ relationship management and social interaction since users get empowered to share experiences which leads to a higher level of trust.


Social media Sustainability Sustainable consumption Fashion E-WOM 

12.1 Introduction

With the rising global usage of the Internet, social media has become one of the most powerful innovations in the twenty-first century. In social media, users generate content by sharing information in a community. Therefore, social media can be a powerful resource for sustainability communication engaging users in sustainability discussions besides promoting sustainability-related information. It is a consequence of the digital age that information and value exchange has to be taken place online, preferably on social media platforms (Diaz 2015; Johnson 2014; Zolkepli and Kamarulzaman 2015).

Prior research has focused on the different types and the general role of social media besides referring to various marketing tools for sustainable consumption. But the special role of social media for a sustainable consumption has only been mentioned without naming these roles in specific. Especially with regard to the fashion industry, social media’s influences and advantages have hardly been explored. This research will unite and examine all aspects of sustainability marketing and social media communication to detect the exact position of social media in ethical communication. Besides, green organisations’ key-ambitions for using social media as a communication tool will be figured out.

The paper is organised as follows. The first part shows general information about social media and sustainability communication to provide an overview about the topic. Then, the green target group will be introduced because of the importance to address the right users with targeted messages. Afterwards, the special influence of users’ online reviews and recommendations on other users’ actions will be explained. This paper also lists five challenges companies have to succeed to implement targeted customer approach in social media. Thereupon, research results for advantages and key-ambitions of a social media sustainability communication will be developed. The last point of the literature research shows examples of different social media platforms supporting previous findings. At least, the research results will be included, compared and linked in the discussion to present all compiled roles of social media for a sustainable fashion consumption as well as resulting effects in detail.

The purpose of this paper is to show that companies without a social media presence are missing an opportunity to spread their sustainability messages to the society. Social media has the power to influence users’ decisions, shopping behaviour and moreover their whole world view. Therefore, these new online technologies can change the population to think and act in a more sustainable and ethical way.

12.2 General Information About Social Media

12.2.1 Definition

With the rising global usage of the Internet and the introduction of Web 2.0, new technologies started to allow social interaction between individuals, communities and the society with user-generated content (Zolkepli and Kamarulzaman 2015). Based on Internet technology applications, social media tools have been established which has become one of the most powerful innovations in the twenty-first century (Diaz 2015). Social media transforms passive individuals into active users by supporting social interaction (Zolkepli and Kamarulzaman 2015). Today, these interactive platforms are integrated in user’s everyday life due to the possibility to communicate boundless via smartphones (Ka-Yan Ng et al. 2015). The most influencing social media tools like Facebook, actively used by more than one million monthly Internet users, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn position social media as the most frequented online sites on global scale (Zolkepli and Kamarulzaman 2015).

12.2.2 Six Types

Since social media has become an important marketing tool for individuals and companies, it is important to know about the different social media categories. Currently, there are six types of social media, but the most known and simultaneously highly influential social media tools are social networks (Grahl 2015).

Social networks like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest and Google+ connect people with similar interests and backgrounds who upload user-generated information. Normally, social network users create profiles, get the opportunity to found groups and interact in various ways (Grahl 2015). Besides, companies are able to deliver content to specific target groups in these networks (Ka-Yan Ng et al. 2015). At the moment, visual social networks like Instagram or Snapchat are becoming more popular due to the fact that an image has a multiple higher chance to be shared than text information (Diaz 2015; Fig. 12.1).
Fig. 12.1

Examples of social network platforms. Adapted from Tan (2015)

Other social media tools with high influences are forums and especially blogs. Forums and blogs provide a platform for users to post and respond to information and messages. Forums like Yahoo! normally include a high number of users communicating about different topics whereas blogs are often designed by one user and centred about one specific or several connected subjects. Since 2010, the number of blogs, especially in the field of fashion and lifestyle, increased a lot and with that, the popularity and influence of blogs increased (Grahl 2015). Blogs are often told as online journals with content ordered chronologically or by categories (Diaz 2015).

Besides social networks as well as blogs and forums, there are four types of social media mostly known and used in the US, but with the opportunity to get more globally important in future. First, there are bookmarking sites like StumbleUpon. These sites recommend web links to their users which can save, tag and share these links to users with similar interests. Then, in social news like Reddit, users can post news and the community decides by voting which news will be displayed the most prominently. A next social media type is media sharing like YouTube or Flickr. These websites allow people to share pictures and videos as well as the opportunity to create profiles and comment the uploaded media. The last category is microblogging whereat Twitter is the most commonly used site to post short updates (Grahl 2015).

To complete, there are several other tools belonging to social media. For example, wikis like Wikipedia are websites allowing people to add and edit information to a database. Then, podcasts such as Apple iTunes provide audio and videos through subscription services. In addition, rating and review sites like Yelp or music sharing sites like Spotify among to social media (Grahl 2015). Although there are several different types of social media, they can overlap among the services. A good example is Facebook which is a social network with microblogging features because of the status updates (Grahl 2015).

12.2.3 General Role

To realise the role of social media for a sustainable consumption, the general role for individuals, brand communication and the fashion industry has to be clarified.

It is proven that social media has quickly revolutionised the communication and interaction between individuals as well as between companies and costumers. Individuals use social media in multiple ways as they are creators, conversationalists, critics, collectors, joiners and spectators (Ka-Yan Ng et al. 2015). Users can co-create news by sharing and filtering out irrelevant information on their own opinion. This form of bottom-up news production has been established by social media. Another point is that individuals have to multi-task when receiving information and news from different sources simultaneously. On top, many users express their opinions and personal content openly and worldwide. Another character of social media is the interaction and connection of individuals with similar needs, tastes and backgrounds which helps information publishers to deliver content to the right consumers (Pentina and Tarafdar 2014). Users can be engaged in social interactions but there is also the possibility for individuals to share information on platforms like Wikipedia or to offer valuable advice by rating. Thus, these electronic networks enable members to share information and experiences quickly on a global scale (Hajli 2014).

As described before, social media has not only revolutionised the interactivity between individuals but also the ways companies share information. Since the rise of social networks, the marketing and public relation departments have to include these new dynamic communication channels in their marketing plans (Johnson 2014). Nearly, all companies nowadays have adopted social media as an effective method of corporate communication (Reilly and Hynan 2014). But companies have to consider the differences of social media and traditional media communication. While traditional marketing tools publish information to the masses without a direct consumer reaction, social media allows a direct consumer contact, called two-way interaction. This is why digital media replaced many traditional print media over the last decade (Reilly and Hynan 2014). The low cost of social media marketing is another benefit. Carrascosa et al. (2015) talk about negligible costs to set up marketing in social media compared to traditional print media. In addition, individual users become information channels themselves so that the ownership barrier of traditional marketing tools is conquered.

Another point is the “ability to reach consumers worldwide” (Reilly and Hynan 2014, p. 3). Although most of social media users are younger than 30 years old, the majority of adults have at least one profile on a social media site. This explains why Facebook already reaches one million monthly users and measures several millions of interactions, likes and comments daily (Reilly and Hynan 2014). Furthermore, “social media is an ideal environment for building brand communities” (Habibi et al. 2014) which can influence the consumers’ trust in brands. Online forums, reviews, ratings, recommendations and online communities produce electronic word-of-mouth between consumers. Because of the high faith in other users’ recommendations, these social media interactions can support brand trust and reduce the risk for customers (Hajli 2014). But todays customers also expect brands to act like trusted friends and “engage with a new sense of intimacy” (Briggs 2010). Precisely because anonymity gets reduced by social media, authenticity has to be shown in a real company story and the valuation of customers (Briggs 2010).

All in all, social media communities support the customer relationship management of companies by providing opportunities to interact, creating trust and becoming more attractive to consumers (Hajli 2014). But “perhaps the most influential upshot of social media is consumer empowerment; now consumers have a strong voice and firms are not in control of the conversations among consumers” (Fournier and Avery 2011). Consequential, marketers have to note every customer and include their opinions in new products and advertising (Habibi et al. 2014). Especially in the fashion industry, users’ norms, values and preferences communicated in social media are highly influential to trends. Users often share pictures and style-related information expecting feedback on their style choices. Thereby, social media plays an important role in trend building and users’ self-realisation (Wolny and Mueller 2013).

12.3 General Communication of Sustainable Consumption

After analysing the general role of Social Media, it is important to identify the general communication of sustainability, ethical brands and green products to finally include all aspects in the role of social media for a sustainable consumption.

Reilly and Hynan (2014) underlines that an organisation has to use different marketing tools like Corporate Social Responsibility reports, sustainability reports, annual reports, social media or TV ads to communicate corporate sustainability. He adds that “through content, style and tone, corporate communications provide insight regarding the values underlying an organisation’s culture” (Reilly and Hynan 2014, p. 3). Uncontested is the fact that public’s environmental and social awareness has to be educated and increased through a variety of ways and means (Prothero et al. 2011). Finney (2014) also strengths the use of various channels of information with the statement that green consumers are more interested in environmental claims and could be supported in their interest through a comprehensive, coordinated communication process. In addition, he underlines that the availability and access of information sources influence the decision-making process so that “the type of purchase will determine how involved a consumer is and how much time they devote to the analysis of available information” (Oates et al. 2008 as cited in Finney 2014, p. 10).

To give consumers the information they need to make purchase decisions, green products and sustainable corporations have to be marketed successfully (Rex and Baumann 2007). “The media is widely acknowledged to play an important part in gaining public support for sustainability initiatives” (Seip et al. 2006 as cited in Kolandai-Matchett 2009, p. 1) because of media’s capacity to educate and inform a multitude of people within a short space of time. Meanwhile, the success of environmental protection depends on public support. For example, information campaigns could be used to participate consumers in the design and implementation process by asking about their needs and wishes (Kolandai-Matchett 2009).

Furthermore, Rex and Baumann (2007) highlight the challenge to demonstrate environmental product qualities. Green consumers have to be informed about the benefits of ecolabels and green products, but meanwhile, green products have to appeal to customers like non-green products. Moreover, a company has to be clear if they want to inform all consumers about the green dimension or if they want to focus on already green consumers (Rex and Baumann 2007). Whatever consumer group a company focuses on, it is a fact that communication technologies influence the reshaping of beliefs and values surrounding consumption activities (Stanik 2010). Lee et al. (2012) points up the capability to reshape consumers’ values by educating about the goal of green consumption which is to benefit the environment. She is persuaded of the dependence between an increase of consumers’ awareness of environment and a global rising demand for green products. Communicating sustainability with consumers and communities and thereby changing values, companies’ environmental consciousness gets strengthened (Lee et al. 2012). Furthermore, ethical products can support the Corporate Social Responsibility by changing consumers’ values or improving the corporate image. She concludes with the importance of companies’ voluntary promoting of a green consumption society to shape a global greener consciousness (Lee et al. 2012).

During the last years, many companies recognised this importance and especially the rising demand for green products so that many sustainable companies emerged and existing organisations launched sustainable collections. Since then, messages about sustainability are all over lifestyle media and a social change of consumption has started (Lundahl 2014). Lundahl (2014) calls the active involvement of a market actor the “fashionalisation of sustainable consumption” (Lundahl 2014, p. 1).

This fashionalisation led to social innovations with high potential for promoting sustainable consumption (Jaeger-Erben et al. 2015). Jaeger-Erben et al. (2015) allude Do-It-Yourself-Workshops and swapping or sharing communities. These innovations work against the inefficient product usage, the mass consumption. Especially, those social innovations can be supported by new social settings like the Internet or social media (Jaeger-Erben et al. 2015).

12.4 Social Media Communication of Sustainable Consumption

12.4.1 Green Target Group

Organisations have to be aware of the green target group to address the right consumers with targeted content in their social media presence (Reilly and Hynan 2014). In the following, the social media target group living an ethical lifestyle is described and different types of these consumers are extended.

As described before, social media in general speaks to a younger audience; although most of the adults have at least one profile on a social media site by today (Reilly and Hynan 2014). Certainly, new media are a normal part of daily living for most of young people who spend several hours per day on social media platforms. As a result, young adults have a high technical affinity, more and foremost with social media (Vaterlaus et al. 2015). Lucy Atkinson (2013) suggests that those with a high sense of agility for social media are more open to use and enjoy trying new technical phenomenon instead of being scared.

The sustainable target group in social media is mainly a community of younger green consumers who are already interested in sustainability and ethical manufacturing. These green consumers use to be more interested in information about the organisation’s ethical stance (Finney 2014). In social media, consumers self-select into lifestyle groups which helps advertisers to create targeted advertisements based on consumer needs and wishes. Organisations easily reach the green target group searching online sustainability communities or sustainability-related posts (Minton et al. 2012).

But it is indicated that organisations should not address the ‘green consumer’ but understand all consumers at an individual level. In general, companies can distinguish between three different groups of consumers living a sustainable lifestyle. The first group is Selectors who focus on one selected aspect in their lives to consume sustainable. The second group is Translators who are green in some aspects of their lives. If the promoted products or values are of interest for Translators, they can get deeply involved and make material changes in their own and even in other’s lives. But if a green product is not interesting for Translators, they are going to ignore all marketing communication about this product. Only for Exceptors, sustainability plays an important role in all aspects of life. The lifestyle is against mass consumerism and mainstream society. Exceptors are seeking the communication with other Exceptors in networks, but this group of green consumers is really hard to reach through mainstream marketing because of their critical attitude towards the society (McDonald et al. 2012). In conclusion, this typology perfectly shows the dependence between social circles, social media usage and marketing success. But all types have in common, that social media let users be part of a friendship circle, keep updated and informed and get different points of view (Zolkepli and Kamarulzaman 2015).

Zolkepli and Kamarulzaman (2015) describe different motives for individuals to use social media. At first, users follow personal needs—trendiness, enjoyment, entertainment and interactivity. Trendiness is considered as a lifestyle like the wish to be involved in latest trends. Furthermore, enjoyment stands for pleasure and happiness while using social media and is a motivation tool for users to communicate in online discussions and share pictures or experiences. Entertainment satisfies users’ needs for emotional release and gives a way to escape from pressure. The last personal need is interactivity which is operationalised as the exchange of messages in the era of two-way communication. Besides personal needs, individuals follow social needs in social media usage. Both personal and social needs are positively influenced by the innovation characteristics of social media. Social needs describe the intention to be part of a group. This belongingness is important for users to avoid feelings of loneliness, but also pressures users to use certain technology. Another key driver for using social media is the interaction with friends and other users. Being a member of a group of friends and networks, called companionship, is another motivator. Besides, the option to escape reality in social relationships in the virtual world motivates users to engage in social media. At last, innovation is another mediator as innovative technologies get users new experiences (Zolkepli and Kamarulzaman 2015).

Lundahl (2014) adds that consumers like to show their selflessness through promoting their sustainable consumption; and more and foremost that they can afford to spend more money for green products. Because of these outcomes, users see social media as a medium it is worth spending time for. The multitude of spend user time explains the high amount of social network marketing (Ka-Yan Ng et al. 2015).

12.4.2 Special Role of E-WOM

A main reason why organisations use social media to communicate with users is the impact on consumers’ trust. The social interaction between consumers in communities or through recommendations and reviews develop social support for a brand, value or product. Good feedback, high ratings and positive comments therefore influence the level of trust and the reduction of risk. This leads to a higher intention to buy. Therefore, social media has empowered consumers who support business through generating content (Hajli 2014). “Social media provide an unparalleled platform for consumers to publicize their personal evaluations of purchased products and thus facilitate word-of-mouth communication” (Chen et al. 2011, p. 1). Thus, WOM, the abbreviation of word-of-mouth communication, is communicated as the evaluation of products and services between consumers. As WOM is an overall term for experience sharing and information dissemination, E-WOM is the online version of WOM and can be translated with electronic word-of-mouth communication (Ka-Yan Ng et al. 2015).

Wolny and Mueller (2013) suggest that E-WOM is a part of the basic human needs of being helpful and giving advice. Therefore, E-WOM is seen as the human impulse to transmit experiences, and thereby, supporting purchase decisions of others (Wolny and Mueller 2013). Compatible with this proposition, a majority of social media users is inclined to try new products based on other users’ online suggestions. Users with a good experience of E-WOM recommended items are likely to write online reviews as well (Ka-Yan Ng et al. 2015). In addition, customers are more likely to share recommendations to less available products because their experiences will be more unique and more important as for common products (Phang et al. 2013). Phang et al. (2013) add that companies should use social media to encourage a high level of user participation in content generation. Through enabling greater user interactions, the level of activity on social media networks and the dimension of E-WOM can be influenced (Phang et al. 2013).

The electronic word-of-mouth communication can be positive or negative and, in rare cases, neutral (Ka-Yan Ng et al. 2015). The main motivation behind positive word-of-mouth is to share expertise with others (Chen et al. 2011). Ka-Yan Ng et al. (2015) adds that positive WOM includes great new experiences or recommendations a user is willing to share with others. Another incentive behind positive WOM is the social confirmation as well as the self-approval by demonstrating great purchase decisions and through the altruistic sharing of expertise (Chen et al. 2011). “Negative WOM can be broadly defined as undesirable behaviours, such as unpleasant shopping experiences, complaints, or product or service disparagement” (Ka-Yan Ng et al. 2015, p. 53). The motivations behind negative word-of-mouth are sharing dissatisfaction and seeking vengeance (Chen et al. 2011). Paradoxically, Wolny and Mueller (2013) suggest that a few negative comments can positively influence the attitude by improving E-WOM credibility.

Consequentially, social media mediated WOM is an important influence on consumers’ behaviours. Ka-Yan Ng explains that the influence of WOM is higher as radio, newspaper and magazine advertising. Thus, E-WOM affects consumers’ purchase behaviour through the influence between users’ intentions, attitudes and behaviours. This fact can be explained with the high effort and time spent on social media platforms. In addition, the trust in E-WOM, even recommendations of unknown users, is higher than in other advertisements (Ka-Yan Ng et al. 2015). Ka-Yan Ng et al. (2015) also found out that fashion apparel is the most E-WOM influenced product category because fashion products reflect users’ social status besides their values. The high level of social visibility is a reason for the high engagement in sharing information and opinions about fashion products.

To show the whole extent of E-WOM, Ka-Yan Ng et al. (2015) introduces the process of consumer decision-making which is heavily influenced by E-WOM (Ka-Yan Ng et al. 2015). The first step in the process is the recognition of a need or problem which often appears when interacting in social media networks. Then, the first contact point between consumers and organisations is the search for information which is distinguished into internal search, the memory, and external search including word-of-mouth and company information. Furthermore, social media is a rating source providing useful information and comments of users to enable comparison in the evaluation of alternatives. In the stage of purchase decision, E-WOM can persuade users to buy at a certain organisation because of the trust in recommendations. After using the product or service, customers can use social media to share their personal experiences in positive or negative comments in the post-purchase behaviour. This E-WOM, in turn, can influence other users in their purchase decisions (Ka-Yan Ng et al. 2015).

The effect of E-WOM as an extrinsic factor from social media is shown in the following Fig. 12.5. E-WOM influences young consumers’ disposal behaviour in a sustainable context. The green decision maker is said to be aware of the environment, has an attitude towards general recycling and especially textile recycling. These psychological characteristics affect the disposal behaviour which is donating, recycling and give away instead of throw away (Ka-Yan Ng et al. 2015; Fig. 12.2).
Fig. 12.2

The influence of E-WOM on young consumers’ disposal behaviour. Adapted from Ka-Yan Ng et al. (2015)

12.4.3 Challenges

Social media innovations do not only easy the way of communication, they also challenge companies and users with several difficulties. These challenges are specified below. Fast Changes

Before internet technologies took over society and marketing, people and organisations had time to get accustomed with innovations. Nowadays, the challenge for organisations and individuals is the intense pace of innovations because social media services can be developed within days. This speed gives no time to adapt to a new technology before the next innovation appears (Dennett 2015). The best and as well challenging solution is choosing few networks suitable for individual’s or company’s aims. Within this limited number of platforms, the company’s message has to be consistent to show authenticity (Reilly and Hynan 2014). Platform Profiles

The creation of a social media profile is a challenge itself. Companies should clarify that the profile is the official account to prevent misinformation and confusion among users. Then, content should be updated frequently, with a sense of social media etiquette and at its best in a unique company language. Besides, questions of consumers should be answered as soon as possible (Reilly and Hynan 2014). Messages

Especially in promoting environmentally friendly products, marketers should use explicit messages to ensure the understanding among consumers. Therefore, the organisation’s sustainability report should get broke down to easily sharable social media postings which pick up the sustainability highlights. Thus, social media challenges organisations to include information of a 140-page report into 140-symbols status updates. Due to the fact that the inclusion of too much information in fashion advertising can effectuate disinterest or even distraction, organisations should create variety through videos or pictures (Johnson 2014; Yan et al. 2012). In summary, companies should avoid information overloads, boring performances and misinformation (Carrascosa et al. 2015). Cross-Cultural Differences

Cross-cultural issues like value differences and varied consumer behaviour need to be taken into account when addressing different cultures through one social media performance. At first, the social media attitude varies in the daily time spent on social media and the platforms themselves differ among countries. Then, the demand and willingness to pay a premium for green goods vary by the grade of development in countries. Thus, marketers have to choose between multiple profiles for different cultures or one general profile. Another point is the creation of individual advertising plans and the usage of different social media platforms for the different countries to tell the right messages to the right target group (Minton et al. 2012). Negative Comments

The most obvious challenge for companies is the interactivity of social media. Users “are free to comment upon corporate messages—negatively as well as positively” (Reilly and Hynan 2014, p. 10). Negative comments or reviews have a much higher effect on consumers as positive ones. Besides, consumers trust other consumers’ recommendations so that social media can negate brand trust (Habibi et al. 2014). Particularly because of the fast sharing of company missteps, organisations have to attend to comments quickly to counter negative information. A company protocol for social media strategy can support a quick handling in case of adverse user comments (Reilly and Hynan 2014). But any negative opinions can influence product improvements and companies’ attitudes in social media in a positive way (Johnson 2014). In conclusion, the real challenge is to find the right balance between “empowering customers to spread the word about their brand through viral networks whilst still controlling the company’s own core strategic marketing goals” (Wolny and Mueller 2013).

12.4.4 Advantages

The role of social media in a sustainable context is connected with impacts on consumers’ behaviours, decision-making and values (Johnson 2014). “Social Media provides an efficient means for not only sharing sustainability-related information but also engaging stakeholders in sustainability discussions” (Johnson 2014). Johnson (2014) adds that the most important links between social media and sustainability reporting are user engagement and transparency. Thus, companies without a social media presence are missing an opportunity to ensure that the society receives their sustainability messages. It is a consequence of the digital age that information exchange has to be taken place online, preferably on social media platforms (Johnson 2014). Besides, social media is a powerful communication tool as it allows online communities to have access to requested information without having to read a long and complicated sustainability report. In contrast, social media messages are short and easy to understand. Plus, users have the possibility to participate in the organisation’s sustainability performance through discussing and commenting (Johnson 2014).

Due to the fact that the Internet is the primary source for green product information, organisations have to understand the consumer receptiveness to sustainability marketing to address the right values and wishes. Therefore, advertisers can create campaigns letting users feel like doing something for a sustainable future. It is concluded that social media can make consumers a part in changing the society into a more sustainable, green community (Minton et al. 2012).

Besides, the platforms may be used for many other reasons. Of course, companies use targeted social media marketing to increase product demand by developing new products or promoting the brand or special offers. But social media is also a good tool for building customer relationships by answering user questions like career opportunities. In addition, consumers can get educated about the company’s initiatives for a sustainable consumption and other environmental projects or economic issues (Minton et al. 2012; Reilly and Hynan 2014). Another positive part of social media communication is the similar power between all actors on platforms. All participants publish across hierarchies so that decision-makers, experts and end users have independent and similar conversation power (Fraoua et al. 2014). Fraoua et al. (2014) believe that social media are platforms for reproducing the usual public conversations between marketer and consumers as well as between individuals.

Danielle Vermeer (2013) summarises the roles of social media for promoting sustainable fashion in five stages which seem to her to be the most important roles.

At first, she mentions education since social media educates consumers through sharing producers’ stories, manufacturing countries, production facilities and the makers’ working environment. Then, empowerment is named due to the fact that social media empowers consumers to communicate their experiences in reviews and recommendations which influence other users’ purchase decisions. In addition, the third role is the connection between fashion producers and consumers in social media which in turn results in a higher trust level. Furthermore, transparency is mentioned because companies’ supply chains get more transparent through information published on social networks. At least, she adds a new point, the reduction of waste. Through social media, waste can be reduced with the help of crowdsourcing technologies. These tools help fashion companies to limit the production to the items consumers really want (Vermeer 2013).

12.4.5 Key-Ambitions

The detected roles and advantages support companies in implementing their missions and aims. The key-ambition of using social media as a tool to communicate sustainable consumption is the inspiration of people to engage in sustainability discussions, to start thinking and to take actions for a sustainable change in society. Organisations want to spread their sustainability mission to make a statement and to find people following the same principles. Reilly and Hynan (2014) emphasise the aim of green firms to be an inspirational source for people who get engaged in taking small actions. Together, these little individual actions are able to effect a global change (Reilly and Hynan 2014). Other key missions are the involvement of the population to “debate and to fit a new solution encouraging all population to get part of the policies adopted” (Fraoua et al. 2014, p. 1) as well as the dissemination of green information with the aim to fix the importance of sustainability in consumer’s mind (Fraoua et al. 2014). Based on the social media advantage of a two-way information flow, building trust between consumers and organisations is the last big mission to create a sense of social and personal investment of consumers (Barris-O’Neill and Schuitema 2016).

12.5 Social Media Examples Supporting Sustainability

Each social communication medium provides different messages to users (Minton et al. 2012). In the following, different examples of social media platforms with a sustainable or ethical fashion background will be introduced; starting with mobile applications through highly influential blogs and the most common social networking platforms Facebook and Instagram to swapping and sharing communities. Often, media platforms are combined, for example if blogger have social networking profiles or communities include blogs.

12.5.1 Mobile Applications

There are many different types of ethical apps, whereof the following are prime examples.

The Fair TRACE TOOL is an app for iPhone and Android using barcode scanning to support a global supply chain transparency. The app shows users the story of their products’ production, a real name and face of the makers, working conditions and the impact of the purchase. In addition, users can support the Fair Trace Tool campaign which is creating a fund for fair trade start-ups (Sarahana 2012).

Closet Swap is an app for iPhones collecting fashion items on users’ Facebook pictures. Then, friends with the same app can borrow or swap these items so that second-hand usage of fashion apparel is supported and users get deflected of buying new items (Sarahana 2012). Besides the fashion swapping, the app shows vintage and second-hand stores in the user’s surrounding and provides information about the production and consumption of ethical fashion (Fehrenbacher 2012).

Instead is an app for IPhone as well. Via Instead, everyday purchases can be switched into donations. For example, if users are willing to buy a new dress, they are persisted to think about the better money usage in charities. Then, the user can donate right through the phone app (Sarahana 2012).

Free2Work is a free application for iPhones and Android Phones providing information about production circumstances. Users can scan a product’s barcode to get information and ratings of the brand’s usage of forced and child labour (Mustafa 2013; Fig. 12.3).
Fig. 12.3

Structure of the app “Free2Work”. Adapted from Mustafa (2013)

12.5.2 Blogs

Blogs have an immense influence on followers’ behaviours. Bloggers spread their opinions and experiences to a high amount of people who trust on the bloggers’ messages (Vermeer 2013). Besides, bloggers constantly share fashion advices and information about different topics they are wondering about. This is how trends, for example the trend to wear second-hand clothing, are co-created by consumers (Wolny and Mueller 2013).

A good example for the promotion of sustainable fashion apparel consumption through fashion blogs is the ‘Fashion Detox’ challenge. In 2015, over 70 American bloggers have been asked to refrain from buying clothes for 10 weeks and to share their opinions and experiences on their blogs. In the end, the challenge raised the bloggers’ creativity in many ways. The influencer implemented do-it-yourself projects like repairing old clothes or sewing new garments, tried new combinations and wore some old items for the first time. Several bloggers also began to borrow and swap fashion apparel with friends to get the desired look (Ruppert-Stroescu et al. 2015).

In the following, some blogs will be introduced which focus on waste reduction, sustainable social change and education of the society in the context of fashion.

Fashion activists in New York City created the blog Ecouterre to promote ethical fashion. The aim is provocation, education and inspiration of consumers through sharing trends and innovations in the sustainable fashion context (Cadwell and Cadwell 2015).

In the blog Trash is for Tossers, Lauren Singer documents her zero waste journey in New York City. Her aim is to show her followers that a zero waste lifestyle is possible for anyone. For example, she propagates that second hand is the solution besides the question which clothes are really needed (Singer 2016).

Life + Style + Justice was launched by Hanna Theisen in the US featuring social enterprises and their work for a sustainable world. On one side, she shares her experiences in exciting and thoughtful articles and on the other hand, she is hosting events to show other consumers the possibilities of an ethical lifestyle (Cadwell and Cadwell 2015).

Eco Fashion Talk has been established in New York City by Sass Brown, a proponent of heritage craft skills to recycle and reuse and other forms of slow fashion. The blog shows links, information and videos about slow fashion to inspire consumers of an ethical lifestyle (Cadwell and Cadwell 2015; Fig. 12.4).
Fig. 12.4

An example of the blog “Eco Fashion Talk”. Adapted from Brown (2016)

The Good Wardrobe is an online style-sharing community with the aim to push against fast fashion. The blog provides a platform for slow fashion with services that prolong the life of the wardrobe like sewing classes or sharing the know-how to repair old clothes (Yates and Alley 2015).

The Guardian is an award-winning news source and one of the most known blogs worldwide for sustainability questions. In the blog, tough topics around ethical manufacturing and a sustainable lifestyle are discussed in a trending performance (Cadwell and Cadwell 2015; Fig. 12.5).
Fig. 12.5

An example of the blog “The Guardian”. Adapted from Cadwell and Cadwell (2015)

12.5.3 Instagram

Normally, Instagram accounts are connected to sustainable blogs or ethical online shops. Due to the fact that only pictures are shared on Instagram, this medium has a high influence on the company’s lifestyle appearance and can help to get a higher customer reach.

An example for a brand using Instagram as Lifestyle medium and online shop is “Vintage Lover CT”. The brand from Cape Town, capital of South Africa, uses Instagram to post pictures of their second-hand and vintage-inspired collection and names the prices. Interested consumers can comment their wishes or order items via Email. Besides, inspirational pictures of customers in their clothes or atmospheric photos are shared to get a stylish and modern attitude (Emmanuel 2015).

12.5.4 Facebook

Like Instagram, Facebook is used to support the brand image with lifestyle media and short information. There are a lot of Facebook profiles featuring a sustainable society and ethical brands, for example the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, the Sustainable Fashion Initiative, Sustainable Fashion Regulars’ Table or Sustainable Brands. What all of these profiles have in common is the fact that they are the link between users and communities or brands because of the transition to their blogs or homepages (Zolkepli and Kamarulzaman 2015).

12.5.5 Swapping and Sharing Communities

Swapping and sharing communities enable second-hand shopping and wardrobe updates from home (Emmanuel 2015). These communities rate among social innovations promoting transformation towards a more sustainable society besides a sustainable development. The collaborative consumption type “often responds to the negative impacts of mass consumption and the inefficient consumption of products” (Jaeger-Erben et al. 2015, p. 8), the so-called throwaway society. On homepages, items can be adjusted of all users to find people who want to swap their clothes or share items (Jaeger-Erben et al. 2015).

Examples of online Swapping and Sharing communities are the German pages Kleiderkorb and Kleiderkreisel. Both pages enable users to swap, sell or give away their clothes. In addition, Kleiderkorb has a forum for shopping ideas, user questions, homepage information or trends as well as a community page where users can introduce themselves and their profiles and a blog with updates and trend information. Kleiderkreisel has a big community with eleven millions of members worldwide and more than two billions of adjusted items. The advantage of Kleiderkreisel is the mobile App which enables a swapping and sharing anytime and anywhere (Janauskas 2016; Kayabas 2016).

12.6 Discussion

In the age of social media, everything is about the online interaction between individuals or organisations and consumers. This research provides detailed insights in sustainable development through social media. Considering the target group of mainly young users living an ethical lifestyle, findings show eight roles of social media for sustainable fashion consumption. In contrast to previous research which only considered one to five different roles, this paper presents eight roles combining all research findings. In detail, these roles are publicity, transparency, education, engagement, customer relationship management support, social interaction, trust and empowerment.

The first role of social media, publicity, can be seen as the common role of marketing, namely to raise brand awareness, to higher the attention of sustainability themes and to increase product demand. By promoting the brand, special offers, lifestyle or new products, social media supports common marketing aims. Especially, short and easy messages or creative campaigns addressing the right values of the green target group contribute to organisations’ prominence. Since Internet is the primary source for green product information, performing on various social networking platforms can raise the awareness level positively. In conclusion, social media platforms provide opportunities to become more popular and more attractive universally.

Raising the transparency of fashion supply chains is one of the main roles of social media. Especially in the typically non-transparent and unsustainable fashion industry, information published on social networks, in blogs or applications can increase consumers’ interest, knowledge and trust. A sustainable consumption gets more interesting for the society once the advantages of sustainable consumption and the differences between ethical and unethical supply chains are demonstrated or, at best, visualised in videos or pictures. Good examples for social media supporting supply chain transparency are the apps Free2Work and The Fair TRACE TOOL. Both applications use barcode scanning to provide product information about production, working conditions, makers or child labour to support a global supply chain transparency in fashion industry.

Matching with the transparency aspect, sharing producers’ supply chain also supports the education of consumers. Users can get educated about the company’s initiatives for a sustainable consumption and other environmental projects or economic issues. Thus, social media allows online communities to have access to sustainability information without having to read complicated and long company reports. Thereby, social media shows the potential to affect individual’s world view, political knowledge and values. The aim of this education in social media is to fix the importance of sustainable consumption in consumer’s mind, especially in the theme of fast fashion. Moreover, social media has the role to change the society into a more sustainable, green and ethical living community. Examples supporting this society change are the three blogs The Guardian, Ecouterre and Eco Fashion Talk. These blogs share links, information, videos and pictures about sustainable lifestyles, ethical manufacturing, slow fashion, sustainability trends and innovations with the aim of provocation, education and inspiration. Considering the high amount of blogs about sustainable fashion consumption, education is already paying off due to the fact that many bloggers are interested in writing about this theme and readers like to read these blogs with an educational background.

If transparency and education are given, the engagement of the community is the next role of social media. On one hand, organisations want to apply people following the same sustainability principles and engage these in sustainability discussions. On the other hand, social media inspires the community to start thinking and to take small actions that add up to a big change in society. A perfect example for the already proceeded change in society is the app Instead because users can switch everyday purchases into donations for charities right through their phone app. Besides, the blogger Hanna Theisen demonstrates on her blog Life + Style + Justice that engaged individuals can support a sustainable consumption through hosting events like swapping parties.

Another outcome of the society change through education is the increasing requirement of waste reduction. For instance, crowdsourcing technologies support a production based on real consumer needs to counter mass production and overproduction. Or Lauren Singer shows on her blog Trash is for Tossers how to live a zero waste life in New York City, for example by wearing second-hand clothes.

Social media is also a good tool for building customer relationships because organisations can connect with individuals. A quick and satisfying answer of users’ questions like career opportunities, store opening hours or product demands heavily supports a good customer relationship management (CRM). The company feels touchable and personal to consumers for the first time because of the ability of direct contact. Examples for the CRM support are companies’ Facebook profiles which enable consumers and fashion producers or companies to communicate directly.

Social interaction is the first role of Social Media based on E-WOM, the electronic word-of-mouth. Individuals join online communities searching social support and friendship online. Thus, the interconnectivity between individuals has expanded with the aid of social media. A good example for a social media tool that enables social interaction is the online style-sharing community The Good Wardrobe. The community shares knowledge and tips to push against fast fashion with services that prolong the lifetime of clothes. Social media enables a similar power between all users which means that users have the same independent conversation power as decision-makers or experts. On social media platforms, usual public conversations between marketer and individuals or between individuals can be reproduced online. This is why social media empowers consumers who can generate content, offer valuable advice and share experiences to others. Users have the possibility to discuss and comment social media postings of companies which enables consumers to participate in the organisation’s sustainability performance. Examples for consumer empowerment are fashion swapping and sharing communities which promote second-hand usage and recycling. In these communities, users share tips and tricks, describe their experiences or discuss about sustainable companies.

The described empowerment and social interaction in social media has a high impact on consumers’ trust. One source of trust is the social support between users who become familiar with one another. Communities, reviews and recommendations are likely to establish a trust in products, services or companies. Positive comments, high ratings and good feedback influence the level of trust in organisations and reduce the risk for consumers due to the ability of comparison. For instance, Rating platforms are tools to raise the trust in companies because users’ trust in E-WOM, even experiences of unknown people, is usually higher than in other advertisements. These impacts of E-WOM strongly influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. Besides interconnectivity, the two-way information flow between consumers and companies create social and personal investment and with that build a basis of trust. Facebook for example supports the trust of consumers in companies by giving personal feedback.

In conclusion, social media plays an important role in changing the society into a more ethical and sustainable thinking community due to the fact that consumers’ behaviours, purchase decisions, decision-making and values are connected with the impact of social media on users.

The researches’ findings are illustrated in Fig. 12.6.
Fig. 12.6

The roles of social media for a sustainable consumption. Own illustration

The research of this paper is mainly build on latest scientific literature. Due to fast changes in technologies, only resources of the year 2012 and younger are really meaningful for the topic social media. This paper can ease the way of future research in the field of social media and the upcoming trend topic Fashion Sustainability. More and foremost, the paper gives a clear and easy overview about the connection of the topics sustainability and social media.

In addition, this work raises interesting questions. For example, whether social media provides the appropriate platform to introduce sustainability news or is it only a tool for sustainability promotion. Should green companies, the innovators in sustainable consumption, be the first users of new social media technologies as well to show a general fast improvement? In the end, this paper shows that themes around social media and sustainability will never be completely explored due to ever changing technologies and innovations.

12.7 Conclusion

Social media plays a sensitive role in sustainable consumption because it provides a platform for sustainability communication. On one hand, organisations can reach and involve the right target group with creative and understandable content. On the other hand, the sustainability message gets spread through the interconnectivity of users and their exchange of experiences and advices. This research proves the necessity for organisations to be present on appropriate social media platforms to find consumers following the same sustainability ambitions as well as to gain new customers willing to take little steps which help to get to a global sustainable change.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Textiles and DesignReutlingen UniversityReutlingenGermany

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