Pinning for the Future: Promoting Sustainability on Pinterest

One of the latest trends in social media is also becoming one of the greenest.  Pinterest is an online network of virtual pinboards. It allows users to collect and share their favorite images from around the web.  Unlike other image sharing sites like Tumblr and Imgur, Pinterest tends toward images with a direct, material connection to users’ offline lives.  That is to say, the vast majority of images on the site are grounded in the material world, in the stuff of everyday life.  Such idealistic materialism even appears in the company’s mission statement: “Our goal is to connect everyone in the world through the ‘things’ they find interesting. We think that a favorite book, toy, or recipe can reveal a common link between two people.”  Is it possible for the site to be so overtly materialistic and simultaneously promote sustainable living?

Pinterest encourages its users, or rather its users encourage one another, not just to share ideas in an insulated online space but also to turn those ideas into action in the physical world.  This desire to translate online sharing into real-world exchange has led some users to organize “pin-ups” to meet one another in person. But in addition to being wildly popular and encouraging a focus on material objects, Pinterest also tends to encourage more sustainable environmental practices: reuses for disposable objects, do-it-yourself projects, gardening tips, and guides to local food consumption are all common.  While the site’s materialism is often consumption oriented, such consumerism is counterbalanced by frequent calls to upcycle existing items, to build new things from scratch, and to get the most out of the material goods we already own.

Pinterest users are virtually unlimited in terms of what types of content they are able to post.  Nevertheless, users frequently devote entire pinboards to environmental issues.  Searching the site, one can easily find a wide range of creative and unconventional (re)uses for everyday items that might otherwise be sent to a landfill.  From cans to car tires and wine crates to coffee cups, seemingly everything has a secondary use and seemingly every secondary use has been posted to Pinterest.

It is worth pointing out that the site first gained popularity with relatively affluent white women and was particularly popular among young Mormon mothers as a means of planning and sharing the domestic lives of their children. The site’s popularity with young mothers combined with its propensity for encouraging creative reuse of consumer goods is particularly heartening as it means the site is not only spreading ideas about the importance of reusing and upcycling everyday items amongst its user, but also to a younger generation who will be raised on such ideals.  The shift from consumer-oriented domestic planning to creative re-use and do-it-yourself projects as a primary means of decorating one’s home space may reflect the economic need of individuals more than an ideological desire to live in a more environmentally sustainable way, but in either event the net effect is the same: Pinterest concurrently encourages and documents the greening of the American household.

Sustainable or Greenwashed?

Pinterest seems to be unique in its (so far) largely grassroots development and in the way that it focuses on the relationships between web images and the physical objects they represent.  Is it, however, a new and more involved form of social media that truly is being harnessed to promote environmentally sustainable practices on a micro level or is it simply another more individualized instance of greenwashing?

Though the term has typically been applied to advertisements that attempt to convince consumers that certain products are more environmentally friendly than they actually are, a certain kind of greenwashing might be taking place via social media. Re-pinning a picture of a recycled milk jug might feel more environmentally friendly than, say, posting images of LOLcats.  Without actually taking the time to produce and use such a recycled product, however, there is no practical difference besides, of course, for the feeling of making a difference.  This feeling of making a difference without actually contributing anything significant could be seen as just another form of slacktivism, the act of reposting an article to an online social networking site in lieu of participating in a given movement in a more active way.

Is Pinterest a force for promoting awareness of simple steps we can all take to develop more environmentally sustainable lifestyles? Or does it simply facilitate the latest, greatest, greenest form of slacktivism online? The answer depends entirely on how often users choose to put their shared ideas into practice, just like it would with information shared through traditional media.  The difference, and potential danger, lies only in the potential for new media like Pinterest to feel more interactive in and of themselves.  It is Pinterest’s unique focus on everyday material objects and the connections we make with them that might help us become more aware of the constantly collapsing rift between our online and offline worlds and, ultimately, take steps to promote the social and environmental sustainability of both.