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The position of social media in sustainability: An obstacle or a step in reaching the goals?

Introduction

Today social media is not only a tool for communication and entertainment but also a platform where we socialize. More than half of the world now uses social media. (Kemp, 2020) Thanks to our social media activities, which is more than just an entertainment tool, a lot of data is transferred about us and our preferences. Furthermore, it can be argued that this data we are talking about is even more valuable than gold now. Social media gives producers much insight into the behavior of consumers. However, since social media is also a platform that enhances people’s interaction, it also ensures that there is multivocality in many issues. When we look at it, it is possible to say that social media’s impact is very heterogeneous in the world. While, on one hand, we create so much awareness that results in the collapse of governments, but on the other hand, in some countries, we can only see what is meant to be shown to us, and in fact, we are getting away from what is really going on around us. Beginning from this point, I would like to examine the effects of social media on sustainability. Social media, which is such a powerful tool, affects both negatively and positively on the concept of sustainability, which we often talk about today.

Corporate sustainability and social media

When we talk about social media, the first concept I want to associate with it and sustainability is “corporate sustainability”, which can be defined as a corporation’s initiatives to assess and take responsibility for their effects on environmental and social wellbeing (Chen,2020). Companies not only report their projects and activities related to sustainability but also inform consumers by sharing them on social media. At this point, it can be said that sustainability addresses global issues and social media addresses a global audience, simultaneously allowing companies to share their progress in real-time and engage directly with those affected. In this context, there is an increase in the number of consumers who want to make purchases from companies that attach importance to sustainability. According to research, nearly 58% of online consumers trust messages found on company websites (The Nielsen Company, 2011). According to other statistics, 86% of consumers are more likely to trust a company that reports its sustainability results. 82% say they are more likely to purchase a product that clearly demonstrates the results of the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives than one that does not (Cone Communications, 2012). Understandably, the existence of social media is critical for companies to inform consumers about their policies. It is crucial that this information sharing activity ceases to be a mere reporting activity and becomes widespread on innovative websites and social media, in my opinion, Coca Cola’s web page on sustainability provides an excellent example of this. In this matter, Saeed states that: “The consumers’ intention to purchase was subject to their dependency on social media for sustainability-related information. This means that consumers who depend on social media are more likely to purchase sustainable products.” (Saeed, 2019)

In addition to this, what I would like to touch on briefly is that the meaning of sustainability mentioned here should not be perceived only as of the environment, in this context, the companies’ respect for the workers’ right, the balance of women and men in the number of employees, their sensitivity to social issues, their commitment to the right to health are also included in the concept of sustainability. Another aspect of this situation is that companies must tell the truth due to consumer pressure on social media. Moreover, the power of social media also helps companies to be transparent in their operations. Nowadays, it has become common for companies to form a “sustainability dialog” via social media. In this way, it can be said that new solutions are thought of keeping in view the opinion of the social actors, such as NGOs, workers, media, investors, and, most importantly, the consumers. As Valdes stated before “When used effectively and ethically, social media and sustainability have a collective ability to empower a company to drive substantial change through garnered stakeholder support.” (Valdes, 2019)

Social media’s impact on consumption habits

In addition to corporate sustainability, social media’s effect on consumers’ consumption habits should also be discussed. According to a study, 70 percent of active online adult social networkers shop online, 12 percent more likely than the average adult Internet user 53 percent of active adult social networkers follow a brand. The effects of social media are not something business owners can afford to overlook. The Deloitte report noted that consumers who use social media during their shopping process are four times more likely to spend more on purchases than those who do not (Lobaugh, Simpson & Ohri, 2015). At this point, we cannot ignore the influence of the influencers on the market. YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat phenomena are now likely to replace celebrities. Besides the product introduced by the influencers, the luxury lifestyle we observe in their lifestyle is also an attractive motivation for the consumers. It is possible to say that the resulting excess consumption here undermines sustainability.

Water consumption

Clothing consumption can be given as an example. One of the most well-known examples to explain the harm of excessive clothing consumption to the environment is that cotton used in clothing production is a product that consumes high amounts of water. Approximately 2.7 thousand liters of water is spent to produce the cotton required for an average T-shirt. At the same time, there is water that goes through processes such as dyeing and washing. In jeans’ production, 70 tons of water is required per ton of product for washing only (WWF,2013). At this point, companies’ sustainability policies mentioned above may be a factor that balances the damage caused by the increased consumption. For example, Levi recently manufactured 100,000 pairs of jeans with one of its Chinese suppliers using 100 percent recycled water. Now, think of the clothes in your closet that you do not wear. How did you feel when you found out that those have such an impact on the environment?

Energy consumption and social media: Is photo-sharing as innocent as we think?

Speaking of consumption, here I want to open a separate bracket for energy consumption. As Jalali stated, “Online social networks (OSNs) with their huge number of active users consume significant amounts energy both in the data centers and in the transport network”. To simply explain the relationship between energy consumption and data usage, it is possible to think of data centers as the brain of the internet. We can say that the use of electricity in data centers is the same as our brains use calories to work. As we can see in the IEA’s report “Large hyper-scale data centers represent huge electricity demand loads, adding pressure to electricity grids and increasing the challenge of energy transitions” (Kamiya, 2019). In simple terms, it is possible to say that the reflection of this situation on social media is related to “what we share”. Accordingly, it is possible to say that when we send text messages through WhatsApp, we use more data than when we share a picture on Instagram At this point, another question will be, “what is the harm of this energy consumption to the environment?” If we look at to outputs that Nicola Jones pointed out, we see that: “Data centers contribute around 0.3% to overall carbon emissions, whereas the information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem as a whole — under a sweeping definition that encompasses personal digital devices, mobile-phone networks, and televisions — accounts for more than 2% of global emissions”. (Jones, 2018) At this point, let us think about what can be done as a solution. Many companies are currently aware of the situation and have started using renewable energy under the heading of CSR. Many companies, including giants like Google, have committed to using 100% renewable energy. But how do they do that? In most cases, they are buying it off the grid, but some are planning to build solar and wind farms close to their facilities. It is especially crucial for large companies to consider this situation in terms of the use of limited resources and sustainability.

The rising power of social media: awareness-raising

Until now, we have examined the environmental dimension of sustainability in general, while we also looked at the social dimension in terms of affecting human behavior. However, it is indisputable that it has a more significant social impact than the former. The question to be asked here is: does social media have an impact on human rights? Does this impact contribute to a sustainable solution to problems in the social field? The inequality between people (religion, race, gender) is not new, however, it has become an issue that everyone has somehow got an opinion on, sees, and becomes more thoughtful as people learn their rights and develop awareness. Especially the actions taken in social media enable more people to hear the problems in these matters and provide multivocality while producing solutions. To give an example, it is possible to say that in my country (Turkey), especially violence against women, when sometimes even complaints are not enough, people request for help from social media channels such as Twitter, and it gets shared hundreds and thousands of times on other social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook before the state authorities come into action. With the spread of those kinds of issues, not only in social media but even in the case of a violation on the streets, people are now aware of what their rights are and how they should act. Massive actions to be made in the face of incidents can now reach many more people in a much shorter time. Some well-known and current examples are the following,

Demonstrations against racism in America in 2020 and the movement that resonated on social media (#blacklivesmatters), the challenge which people post black & white photo on Instagram, based on the fact that women in Turkey hear another news about the death of another woman every single day and necessity of raising awareness regarding this issue (#challengeaccepted), the movement on Instagram to make people more conscious about health measures during the pandemic period (#stayathome). These mass movements’ importance is to raise awareness of human rights such as the right to life, the right to health, the right to equality, freedom from discrimination, freedom from torture, etc. At this point, although sustainability will be achieved when we ensure that these rights remain zero, not when we reduce the intervention to zero, the importance of the initial steps cannot be denied. In this context, the mass and individual success we have achieved in social media are one of the steps of this sustainability.

Conclusion

Throughout the article, the connection between the rise of social media, which many people spend a lot of time in their daily lives, and the concept of sustainability, which is becoming more and more important day by day, has been examined. It has been argued that social media has effects on different dimensions of sustainable development and these effects can be both positive and negative. Increasing awareness about various problems in the world in terms of social and human rights and trying to bring solutions to it is one of the most significant effects of social media. With this in mind, it is possible to say that social media serves the activist movement to reach numerous people. However, the capability of reaching many people also has a negative aspect causing unnecessary consumption to increase. Because, as can be understood from the above data, social media has a structure that encourages consumption and for the reason of this can be said that today we see the lives of other people more frequently on social media, influencer activities, sponsored posts, and advertisements are always in our pockets. Increasing unnecessary consumption has an entirely opposite effect on the essence of sustainability. The awareness of consumers and the encouragement of companies to sustainability can also be achieved through social media. In this regard, in terms of sustainability, it is possible to confront the fact that social media is sometimes a tool to achieve sustainability, sometimes as a strategy center for companies, sometimes as an incentive platform, and sometimes as an obstacle to achieving sustainability.

In my opinion, it is not possible to eliminate the negative aspects of social media that I mentioned because it is evident that restrictions may be imposed on them. As it has been pointed out in Greenpeace’s Report: “Our energy future and our ability to build the clean energy economy are impacted by choices we make, large and small, every day. A choice to prolong our addiction to dirty energy sources instead of choosing clean sources of energy, and the economic and environmental benefits that come with that choice, will have lasting consequences”. For clothing consumption, an inspection of sponsored content and reducing advertisements, as well as imposing additional responsibilities for raising awareness of influencer activities are critical.  In addition to this negative pain, I would like to point out that social media creates a tremendous difference in the goals that touch the social dimension of sustainable development and this effect is a part of which is more and more talked about.  We will understand what I mean if we keep in mind the women who have managed to save their lives by calling for help in the media, while sometimes even the state is delayed to take action on the examples I have given above. This contribution to the life of a single person should not be underestimated. For this reason, sharing is essential if we consider that the whole world’s population, all humanity, in different places, struggle with more or less the same things. Being aware and always seeking solutions comes first in reaching the goals which the Social media will provide us with the help of the globalization we need.

  • Kemp, S. DIGITAL 2020: JULY GLOBAL STATSHOT. https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-july https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-july-global-statshot (2020).
  • Chen, J. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/corp-social-r https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/corp-social-responsibility.asp (2020).
  • The Nielsen Company. The state of media: The social media report 2011. Http://Blog.Nielsen.Com/Nielsenwire/Social/2011/ 15 (2011).
  • Http://www.conecomm.com/2012corporatesocialreturntrendtracker. Consumers Demand More Than CSR “ Purpose ”. (2012).
  • The Coca-Cola Company. https://www.coca-colacompany.com/sustainable-busin https://www.coca-colacompany.com/sustainable-business.
  • Saeed, M. A., Farooq, A., Kersten, W. & Ben Abdelaziz, S. I. Sustainable product purchase: does information about product sustainability on social media affect purchase behavior? Asian J. Sustain. Soc. Responsib. 4, (2019).
  • Valdes, S. V. How to Promote Your Sustainability Story on Social Media as a B2B Company. https://sustainablebrands.com/read/marketing-and-c (2019).
  • Lobaugh, K., Simpson, J. & Ohri, L. NAVIGATING THE NEW DIGITAL DIVIDE Capitalizing on digital influence in retail. (2015).
  • World Wildlife Fund. The Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt. https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/the-impact-o (2013).
  • Levi Strauss & Co. Recycling Water to Make Your Jeans. https://www.levistrauss.com/2014/02/19/recycling-w (2014).
  • Jalali, F. Energy Consumption of Photo Sharing in Online Social Networks. 14th IEEE/ACM Int. Symp. Clust. Cloud Grid Comput. Chicago, 604–611 (2014) doi:10.1109/CCGrid.2014.68.
  • Kamiya G. Data centres and energy – from global headlines to local headaches? IEA (2019).
  • Jones, N. How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity. Springer Nature (2018).
  • ‘Tsunami of data’ could consume one fifth of global electricity by 2025. The Guardian (2018).
  • Cook, G. & Horn, J. Van. How dirty is your data? Greenpeace Int. (2010).
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