The online conversation around how to be sustainable is constantly evolving.
Earlier this year, there was a huge backlash against celebrities like Taylor Swift and Kylie Jenner using private jets, with memes calling makeup mogul Jenner a “climate criminal.” And Kourtney Kardashian was recently dragged for collaborating with the fast fashion company Boohoo by becoming their “sustainability ambassador.”
After years of “haul culture” — where people film themselves unboxing consumer items and fast fashion — now TikTok is full of people thrifting vintage clothing at yard and estate sales. Thousands of young people are participating in global weekly climate strikes organized by Gen Z hero Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future.
Franziska Trautmann, a climate activist from New Orleans, says people are desperately searching on social media to learn more small personal tips to encourage sustainability. Her glass recycling organization Glass Half Full has amassed over 250,000 followers on TikTok by creating trendy content about recycling.
Trautmann was among young leaders gathered at the recent One Young World summit in Manchester, UK, for four days of panels and brainstorming about activism, kicked off with a speech by Meghan Markle. BuzzFeed News asked five Gen Z climate activists at the summit about what got them involved in political action and what we can do to help mitigate the effects of climate change in our own daily lives.
Emma Greenwood, 18, student activist, Manchester
“We had the Boxing Day floods in Manchester, where one of our local villages got washed into the river. I was 15 at the time. I could see the damage that was happening, but there was nothing on the news, nothing in politics, and I was angry and I felt powerless. I felt an obligation to get involved and make use of the privilege that I have, as someone born in the UK.
“We’ve seen a big shift over the past few years in terms of the environment and our individual impacts, but also realizing the importance of systematic impact. It’s easy to think that it falls entirely on you as an individual and that it's entirely our responsibility, which, in part it is, but it definitely isn’t. But you can't really do anything because we have limited means and capacities.
“I think when sometimes we feel that responsibility and burden, we just get paralyzed into fear and we do nothing, which is counterproductive. I think finding a collective to be part of or an organization, or a group that could support each other, is good, because the climate crisis is a scary thing. Whether it be a local one, or an international one like Greenpeace or Amnesty International — where you feel like you can make a difference and causing physical and visible change is, I think, all that anybody can really do at the moment. There’s no action too small to make a big difference.”
Franziska Trautmann, New Orleans, Glass Half Full Cofounder
“It’s not a very common thing in Louisiana to fight for the environment. Most of my family works in oil and gas. So I didn’t get into activism until later in high school and college. In Louisiana, there’s no government-run glass recycling in the whole state. My cofounder, who’s from New York City, understood that glass was supposed to be recycled. We decided to start something that we thought would be small and minimal and only affect our small community of college students and friends and it just grew from there.
“I do think shopping secondhand is helpful. But in general, there isn’t enough messaging around not shopping. There’s just not enough people saying we need to stop consuming so much. Because even when you shop secondhand and support somewhere like Goodwill, if something at Goodwill doesn’t sell in four weeks, it gets shipped to another country where it’s then going to pollute that area. Yes, secondhand is better than shopping from a fast fashion brand. But in general, encouraging people to just consume less, I think is the key.
“There are so many different ways to help. I think getting involved in your local community is so important: being around people who care about the same things in your community in your area, and trying to enact change locally. You can find that community globally, like I found on TikTok. There’s an incredible way to just connect with people who think the same as you and grow your ideas into projects and into solutions.”
Raeed Ali, 28, founder of Precious Plastics Fiji, Fiji
“We kept volunteering with WWF cleanup campaigns, but the whole idea of picking up rubbish from one place and then putting it in another place, which was a landfill, really bothered us because it takes about 1,000 years for plastic to degrade in a tent. So we decided to sort of address the root cause of the issue, or maybe come up with a more holistic solution.
“We started a campaign in Fiji called Plastic Pollution Free campaign, so instead of collecting rubbish on the beaches and then sending it to the landfill, we started making different forms of art using the plastic collected from the ocean and displayed it in a public arena during Fijian celebrations.
“My biggest highlight has been a campaign that led to the complete phasing out of single-use plastics in Fiji by 2020. The government also implemented a 20 cents levy on each single-use plastic, just to discourage consumers from using single-use plastics and to encourage behavior change.
“I think something that I have experienced is people say that climate activism does not lead to meaningful change. Which is a big misconception, because my activism has led to a national-level policy change. Activism definitely matters and it also inspires hope. But what's important to realize is that hope is not enough, action is essential.”
Zamzam Ibrahim, 28, former vice president of European Students Union and a cofounder of Students Organising for Sustainability UK, Manchester
“I was involved in the climate education bill, written by young people, that's currently going through Parliament, with the UK climate strikers and an organization called SOS UK, which I cofounded. A lot of the stuff that we do is making sure that the environmental sector is doing work centered around social justice. And a lot of that has been through working not only with young people, but also ensuring that young people have a say in these big environmental organizations. And for me, it stemmed from honestly never seeing myself reflected in or understanding or seeing the climate agenda fit my lived experiences. It came from a place of anger and frustration.
“The climate crisis is a systemic issue, it’s not come about because we’ve been using too many plastic straws. It’s come about because of organizations, and corporations, that haven’t been taxed and haven’t been elected and have — on the backs of people of color, poor communities, and the global South — continued to just pollute, pollute, pollute, pollute and have never been held accountable.
“I think one of the things I like to remind people all the time is that the concept of a carbon footprint was an idea formed by BP. Right? The whole idea that like as individuals, you’re taking responsibility for the actions of the oil company like BP, that was done strategically. It was a very smart thing, because now people talk about like, ‘what about my carbon footprint,’ but the reality is like we have 70% of emissions from just a few companies. Practicing sustainable practices as a whole should be a basic thing that we do anyways, as humans.”
Daniela Fernandez, 28, founder of Sustainable Oceans Alliance, California
“I was a freshman in college at Georgetown University and I ended up attending a meeting at the UN and that's when I realized that I was one of the only young people in that room. We were being surrounded by ambassadors and heads of state and CEOs and I found that young people were simply not represented at the UN level. I just had the idea of what if I could build a platform where I could bring together my generation and younger generations with the current world leaders, and what if we could come together and the output of that be an ocean solution? I spoke to my university and in 2015, we hosted the Sustainable Ocean Summit.
“We now have over 7,000 young leaders in 165 countries. They’re planting mangroves. They are educating the community about the protection of turtles. They're building for-profit solutions to improve recycling. We have actually a database of 222 ocean solutions that we have sourced over the past few years.
“We have to look at our habits, our consumption, our actions, so we can contribute in a positive way towards the improvement of our planet. Everything from lowering your energy consumption to eating more plant-based foods to thinking to understand what your bank is doing with your money. Are you doing an audit of how exactly your bank is investing its money?
“We need to stop giving world leaders the opportunity to extend the timeline because we are really running out of time and want to put more pressure on corporations, on governments, and on ourselves as consumers to act on our climate.
“I think that there’s a really big problem of people feeling overwhelmed and discouraged and simply fearful because of how much negativity there is in the space. We need to talk about the problem in terms of opportunities and hope, because there is hope. If humanity truly takes action today, and we have every person, no matter who they are, utilize their own skills, their own passion, to build some type of solution or to support the solutions that already exist.” ●
Correction: Zamzam Ibrahim is the former vice president of European Students Union. An earlier version of the story misstated her title.