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By Romy Shoam March 9, 2020

Is Clicktivism Really Activism?

Illustrated by Marilou Choquette

If you’re active on Instagram, odds are you’ve heard of the account @plantatreeco. This account gained popularity in the spring of 2019, when they rose to 151,000 followers thanks to their single post claiming that for every follow and repost to one’s story, they would plant 100 trees. Although many were convinced to click, unfortunately, the posts was actually were just a devious marketing scheme for the account posting the fake campaign to gain visibility, and then market their product - cheap jewellery. There is absolutely no proof that @plantatreeco donated any money to plant any trees; there is a complete lack of transparency. In this case, participating in ‘clicktivism’ gave those who liked or reposted a false sense of accomplishment, and brainwashed the public into thinking that this mindless act would actually make a difference. 

‘Clicktivism,’ as defined by the British newspaper The Guardian, is the act of supporting a cause by the click of a mouse. Today, it is the predominant way of raising awareness online. Posting and liking content has evolved from simply sharing one’s personal life into a supposedly legitimate technique for raising awareness and garnering support and money for a cause. ‘Clicktivism’ can be used in a multitude of ways, such as in the sphere of environmental activism as a call to action. Unfortunately, it can also be a deployed as a devious marketing scheme to gain clicks and increase viewership. 

Whenever you click for a cause, then, are you actually having a positive impact on that cause?  Or are you doing something that is at best possibly useless and at worst a money-making ploy? 

Apart from these blatant acts of deception, though, the question remains: is social media a useful medium to incite environmental and other action? I think that it can be - but the process has to be twofold. 

First, it’s true that social media does provide exposure for a cause. Platforms like Instagram that use a visual medium can raise awareness for a certain issue by posting photos and infographics. 

Tentree, a sustainable clothing company, actually led a successful and traceable social media campaign prior to the Plant A Tree Co. scam. On April 22nd, 2019, in celebration of Earth Day, @tentree posted “The World’s Most Sustainable Post” on Instagram. They promised to plant 500,000 if the post was liked at least 5 million times - and it was. Tentree informed users exactly where - Biak Island, Indonesia - and how - through Eden Reforestation Projects - these trees will be planted. Proof of previous similar projects can also be found on their website. Thus, Tentree’s transparency gives users the confidence that their like actually made an impact. 

Sea Legacy, an ocean conservation organization, posts photos and videos of marine life––for example, a Norwegian orca––and captions them with an informative text that may detail if their species is endangered, and if so, how the follower can take action. Sea Legacy uses storytelling to raise awareness and has an online platform that not only eductates its viewers but that also gives them the opportunity to make a tangible change by signing petitions, sharing them, and/or directly donating money. In the case of Norway’s marine life in the Lofoten, Sea Legacy succeeded in influencing its government to inhibit any oil or gas exploration in Lofoten through a petition and campaign shared on Instagram in 2017.

Another educational platform is Lauren Singer’s blog, or @trashisfortossers. Singer lives a zero waste lifestyle - in other words, she generates no non-recyclable or non-compostable waste in any one of her activities or habits - and founded Package Free Shop, a store in Brooklyn, NY that sells plastic-free alternatives to daily necessities. She documents her business ventures and personal life on her Instagram account, and provides tips and inspiration for budding environmentalists and experienced zero-wasters alike. 

As more Instagram accounts pop up around the topics of a low waste life, environmental issues, etc., they become mainstream. More users are exposed to the initiatives, causes, and personal ventures, which may incite them to act similarly. 

However––and this is the critical second step––as a follower, it is easy to not actively engage, and instead just follow. Actually acting on one’s public interests, i.e. as per one’s followed accounts on Instagram, requires much more effort. It necessitates actively holding oneself accountable for one’s daily behaviours, and not feeling like having saved the world by liking a post. 

I’ve personally struggled with this dilemma. After realizing the urgency of the climate crisis, I started exploring how I could make a change as an individual. I followed accounts like @sealegacy and @trashisfortossers, and was inspired. Although Singer advocates for any low-waste changes made by her followers, not only a pursuit of a drastic zero waste life like hers, I felt like I was seeing the destination of a project without having been privy to the journey, one that was surely filled with mishaps and mistakes. 

As a result, I decided to start my own Instagram account with a close friend, Alia Dobson, to explore and share what lacked from accounts like Singer’s : an honest attempt at achieving a low waste life with attainable and affordable tips and tricks. We invite our followers to join in on the journey as well in order to foster a motivated and united community. We’ve called our Instagram account @costumechange.co, as it is focused on fashion and clothing: we call for a ‘costume change’ of our clothes and our minds. 

Besides posting tips, we debunk fashion trends, share inspiring Instagram accounts, feature sustainable brands, post creative DIY alternatives, and share our own ‘confessions’ as to how we are not living the perfect zero waste lifestyle. We are committed to showing that we are just budding environmentalists; we are far from perfecting our green habits. We hope to use clicktivism to our advantage, and to use the power of social media to spread our message and efforts. Setting up this account has also sent us on a journey of discovery, learning and change, and hopefully it can do the same for others as well––so long as they go beyond clicking and take meaningful action. 

It is easy to stay passive, but it is not impossible to become active. I think that Instagram is a fantastic platform to share inspiration, but one must be careful as to not be sucked into the hole of false achievement and patting oneself on the back for liking a post. Environmental change will not be achieved by tapping the heart icon, but instead, by having the heart to make real change in one’s lifestyle. 




About the illustrator

Marilou Choquette is a first year Illustration student. You can view more of her work here.


Romy Shoam is a 2nd year student in Liberal Arts.


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