It’s nearly everyone’s favorite time of year: Earth Day!
Well, that is if you’re a company looking to take part in some good, old-fashioned greenwashing. Earth Day is every day for those of us committed full-time to the climate crisis. This time of year, however, our inboxes are clogged with shameless promotional emails for products that are likely worsening the climate crisis.
There is a silver lining, though. Earth Day (and Earth Month, more generally) is when sustainability influencers put out some of their most creative content. It’s when their income streams hit a peak and when they’re most likely to get their messaging out there. If you’re an Instagram addict like me, you look forward to the faces on your screen and their digital advocacy. I love seeing the memes, jokes, and videos interpreting the day’s climate news. It’s refreshing—and liberating even. Eco-influencers help me feel seen as someone who’s unable to escape the reality of where the Earth is headed.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re hearing from an eco-influencer herself. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. I talk to Kristy Drutman, founder and host of Brown Girl Green, a digital platform on climate change that’s home to Drutman’s podcast, trainings and workshops, original videos, a green jobs board, and more. She’s known for her optimistic, comedic climate communication—as well as her honesty. Drutman doesn’t shy away from addressing the elephant in the room: paid partnerships and advertisements. We get into the reality of being a digital content creator, the nuance of why ads are necessary, and the power of putting money in the hands of Black and Brown advocates.
How is your Earth Month going so far? It seems like you’ve been quite busy.
Yeah. It’s been very insane. A lot of it has been having to balance partnerships because this is the most important month for a lot of us who do organizing and/or run our own platforms online. This is when we get the most attention for the causes we’re trying to promote or are able to pitch a lot of our projects and resources.
I feel you on the Earth Month stress. I saw that you just modeled in a runway show, which looked amazing. You looked gorgeous. Talk to me about that. How did it happen?
It’s kind of wild. A couple weeks ago, I was featured in the New York Times for a piece about my work on creating climate storytelling that feels more solutions-oriented, rather than focus on eco-doom. That article got circulated pretty widely, so the designer of the dress I was wearing in that runway show, Andrea Diodati, found me. She was like, I really want to feature people who I feel would look really elegant in these pieces but who are also doing advocacy work. So she invited me to be one of the models for her clothing as part of Refashion, an annual sustainable fashion show that’s using reclaimed and upcycled materials to send a message to the fashion industry that design does not have to be limited.
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It’s really clear hearing you talk about this fashion show why this was a partnership and a collaboration you would feel excited about. How do you figure out and decide what brands and partnerships you’ll take on and which ones you won’t?
I have a score card that I developed in 2020. I crowdsourced it, and I have a highlight on my Instagram page that still has those responses. I asked people, What are some things that are important to you all when you see someone like me promoting companies? That’s how I came up with the scorecard I still use today.
And it’s not that formulaic. It really varies. But what matters to me is that, first of all, I can tell the brand is doing something meaningful. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect because I don’t think any brand can ever be 100% perfect. But as long as they have significantly made strides—whether it be with their packaging or their ethos or their supply chain—I view that as a bare minimum.
And then as I go higher up, there are brands that are actually thinking about how they’re engaging consumers. How are they thinking about packaging in a more detailed way? How are they educating consumers about how to change their habits?
I view brands like Tom’s of Maine as more top-tier where they’re not only selling a product, not only engaging community conversation, but they’re also doing extra programming. More bottom-tier brands I would still work with fund me well for my work and are trying to make progress. If I don’t feel good about some aspects of their work, then that needs to be addressed. If a product costs too much money, well, I need to address that in the caption. I’m not going to just ignore that.
Below that are brands I just say no to. Those are the ones owned by a fossil fuel company or a company literally making money off of calling themselves sustainable but haven’t done the work. Companies that are pretty much sticking to the status quo—but calling it green. Those are not worth it.
“Companies are the only ones seeing the value in funding my work. At least they’re seeing my value when I didn’t feel valued by a lot of these mainstream climate and environmental organizations.”
Fascinating. On your Instagram page, you recently shared a disclaimer about the ads you’ll be running during Earth Month. Talk to me about why this sort of transparency is important in the eco-influencer space versus other influencer spaces. I found it refreshing to see you address this.
Yeah. I think it’s really important because I know it’s going through people’s heads already. And I saw that in a lot of the comments. It’s one of those things where it’s not even about Earth Month. It’s year-round. I get criticism all the time about running ads where people are like, Well, you’re just supporting consumerism. Isn’t this counter to what you’re advocating for?
I get that all the time, and Earth Month hyper focuses it because we’re attracting more audiences outside of our community. There’s probably some bigger accounts that may cross promote our work. And then maybe people who don’t follow us already will just be like, Oh my God, all they have is ads. They’re hypocrites. I just don’t think that’s fair, and it’s not nuanced. It doesn’t actually address this emergence of what it means to be an online media creator and how to sustain that work.
How do we make money? How do we pay our bills? I’ve tried to apply for grants. I’ve even considered becoming a nonprofit. And it was almost impossible. I don’t want to work for an environmental nonprofit because when I first started Brown Girl Green, I was working at one. I was very exploited in that job. I was not treated well, and I ended up leaving it. That was the last 9 to 5 job I had.
So, what are my options? Companies are the only ones seeing the value in funding my work. At least they’re seeing my value when I didn’t feel valued by a lot of these mainstream climate and environmental organizations. If those organizations want to come to me now and fund my work, then sure. I would love to do less ads and more projects that are collaborative, but that’s just not the reality.
I make that disclaimer because I don’t think people understand how we make money. And I think we have to be real about that. I need to pay the Brown and Black people I’m employing to work with me. I have the privilege to turn down more brands than other people because I built a space for myself before I became a full-time content creator. I also get paid through speaking events and training. I have other friends who don’t have that option yet.
And I don’t judge, especially content creators of color like me, if they take brands I don’t agree with. I just don’t. At the end of the day, in the meta of it all, I understand that by them doing that ad, they’re able to do five to 10 pieces of free work to educate people. For me, the disclaimer was really important—not just to talk about myself, but also to talk about the nuance that exists that I just don’t think is openly talked about on the internet when it comes to these things. There’s so much judgment, and I’m done with it.
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How do you feel, though, about this reality that companies out there see you as a way to get more customers? That companies really are out to exploit and use influencers like yourself as a marketing tool?
It is this weird commodification of yourself, and I have to constantly separate myself from it. I view it as like my 9 to 5 job in that way where, I guess, I separate myself. Because I’m literally being funded by these ads, and they have no control at all over what I do on a daily basis with Brown Girl Green. It’s that amazing middle ground where they’re funding my work, but I get to do what I want to do. Those of us who are influencers, we do have to be very picky about not promoting greenwashing because we don’t want to be promoting products and companies that don’t align with our values. At the same time, I hope people can understand that that money helps fund advocacy work, and it’s a new avenue that didn’t exist before.
And that doesn’t mean those people are funding the campaigns we’re doing. We have very specific boundaries. I’m lucky that I have a manager, so I have pretty strict contracts around what companies have control over and what they don’t. And again, at the end of the day, I have the choice to say no. I’m not being forced to say anything I don’t want to say. There are some brands that are more stubborn around your messaging, but I don’t attach myself too deeply to it. I’m just giving people options.
That’s why the disclaimer was important. If you don’t like something or you think it’s whack, you don’t have to buy it. You don’t have to engage with that piece of content at all.
What is it like for you when you hear from companies that are very clearly doing harm? Like those companies that are promoting greenwashing.
Oh, my gosh. I can tell you about one literally this morning. I got an email for a green jobs board I launched a few weeks ago.
Yeah. I love it. Thanks so much for creating that.
“That is my bottom line. A fossil fuel company is always a fat no.”
Thank you so much! I got reached out to this morning by a third party. They were like, Hey, we’re really interested in your green jobs board. We want to know how much it costs to be posted. How does it work? I said, OK, what type of company? Are you a nonprofit, for-profit? That’s part of my vetting process. And the woman said the company is funded by oil investors.
I was like, OK, if I put this Oil and Gas Climate Initiative on my platform, not only will I lose respect, but what are we promoting here? I’m sure another job board may promote them, but I have to think about what I represent.
And that is my bottom line. A fossil fuel company is always a fat no. I try to evaluate how I think about the company. How do I think other people would think about it? Is it really greenwashing, or is the company just not perfect yet? Do they have good values? That’s how I weigh it out. It is hard to say something is 100% greenwashed or 100% not.
As time goes on and more of these green and sustainable products emerge, we’re going to have to get a lot more savvy about that.
What would you say to others out there who want to be sustainability influencers or eco-influencers but are worried about how to strike that balance?
It’s about sticking to why you want a platform in the first place. What are your values that live outside of those partnerships? It takes time to create that separation. So you have to understand your values. What are your non-negotiables? Why are you doing this work? You have to be very clear about that—or else you can get so lost in it that you don’t even know who you are anymore.
I’ve seen people who fall into that or they get so caught up in the rat race to where they forget why they started making content in the first place and wind up burnt out. It’s about pacing yourself, getting to know yourself and your values, and having strong boundaries on what you will and won’t put up with when it comes to the people that you decide to work with and bring into your circles.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.