Written by María Dabrowski
Let’s make the environmental movement focused on science and preservation instead of the perfect Instagram photo, and let’s welcome everyone to make a real, true change.
At a dinner party the other day I was asked, in front of a group, what I was good at. After a while, I said, “well, I’m good at knowing a lot about sea turtles.” People seemed interested and began asking me how many species there are, have I ever seen one, what’s my favourite “thing” about sea turtles. And then someone asked “well, are you one of those VSCO-turtle-girls?” I said, “a what?”
A VSCO-turtle-girl is, for those like me who had no clue, a girl who edits her photos on the popular editing app VSCO, buys scrunchies and metal straws, maybe dons a “Save the Turtles” shirt and racks up thousands of followers and likes on Instagram.
The question was mainly, I think (read: I hope), asked in jest, but for someone who spends at least an hour on carefully-researched Instagram posts that on a good day hit 50 likes, it gave me a lot to think about.
I think this “VSCO-girl” aspiration is a reflection of a changing environmental movement. It’s no longer enough to be passionate, driven, and inspired to conserve and protect for the sake of conserving and protecting. Conservation and the eco-movement is being undermined by people and companies who tout consumerism of the latest (and often most expensive) gadgets, without which people will feel they aren’t doing all they can to “make a change.” Similarly, those who haven’t yet gone on an Instagram-worthy Caribbean “eco”-tourism trip are made to feel as though, because they’re not in a position to afford a stay at an eco-resort, they can’t really afford to make a positive impact on the environment around them. This is simply wrong, and a very damaging side-effect of the age of VSCO-turtle-girls.
In an era where many people are, for better outcomes or worse, jumping on the bandwagon to “save the planet,” confessing a love for conservation can make people like me seem like another groupie who finds it fashionable to “#savetheturtles.” Of course I have a metal straw – but I’m writing this in second-hand clothes and my posts that feature ocean or garden photos are meant to educate, not to virtue signal.
I understand this sounds a little spiteful – so let me make two things clear. First – social media can be a beautiful tool. If you have thousands of followers and have posted about straws, I am not disparaging you – thank you for using your platform to start conversations. I challenge you to keep this up – beyond straws, talk about ghost nets and by-catch, and how sustainable fisheries are really hard to find and harder to afford. Talk about second-hand clothing and how companies have taken to green-washing to make people continue to buy unnecessary items.
Second – consumerism is a tricky subject. I bought a Save the Reef shirt the other day, and I kind of love it. It was my first “unnecessary” purchase in a while (it helps that I’m broke), but I’ve had great conversations arise when I wear it. I’m challenging everyone to think about 1: reducing consumption and 2: being a mindful and deliberate consumer. You don’t need 80 different sea turtle bracelets to make a difference. In fact, volunteering for a beach clean-up, or helping businesses around you find more sustainable business practices are much more effective.
I suppose, at the end of this train of thought, I want this to be the takeaway: environmentalism and conservation are not the latest fashion statements. Fashion necessarily goes “out of fashion.” For those of us deeply and determinedly working to actually #savetheturtles, the VSCO-turtle-girl can subvert what we do and who we are, turning the conversation to “wow, she’s so enviable and gets so many likes” instead of “wow, how can I truly make a difference for our planet?”