Sustainable Fandom

Sustainability is an important, global problem. It is deeply connected to corporate social responsibility, scarcity of resources, and responsible consumption. These different issues are not just a matter of companies, but also affect consumers. Confronted with these issues, highly-engaged consumers and fans are changing their behavior. From eco-cosplay to sustainable LEGO bricks, many fans care about the environment and are increasingly vocal about this. What does sustainable fandom look like?

Olivia Mears in Gaia cosplay from paper & recycled material (c) Avantgeek Instagram

Circular Fandom
Fans increasingly care about the environment. Cosplayers have started using the hashtag #ecocosplay on Instagram and other social media to create awareness around sustainable costume design. This involves different practices, such using second-hand fashion or outfits to create a new costume, or recycling other materials. Olivia Mears uses products such as napkins and wrappings to create fantastic outfits, like the Poison Ivy dress above, or this amusing Disney’s Belle dress from Taco Bell wrappers.

For others, ecocosplay is more about constructing costumes with durable materials, and being more mindful in what you buy. Sharing can go a long way too. Why not borrow a wig from a friend rather than buying a new one for a cosplay you only wear briefly?

This spirit of reuse and sharing does not only apply to cosplay, but also to commodities or even events. The banners of the fan convention that I help organize have been repurposed into bags by a talented cosplayer. Old convention shirts are auctioned each edition for charity. Plus most of the material that we use for our event are rented or shared.

Being circular is already part of our communities where we trade collectibles, engage in book swapping, create our own custom art, and so on. For different types of fan artists, from cosplayers to illustrators and crafters, what resources they use and reuse is increasingly important. This combines well with fandom’s history as a gift culture, where swapping zines, art, commissions and other things has always been a common practice. Christine Lundberg and Vassilios Zakias even conceptualized fandom as a key example of collaborative consumption.

Perhaps the emphasis on fandom as a gift or sharing economy is why we don’t hear about the potential for circular fandom often. But circular fandom is a slightly different thing than the other two models, since it ties in with how we give shape commodities, waste, and use. It’s about making things responsibility.

model of circular fandom

Responsible Consumption, Trading and Collecting
Our buying behavior is a different but just as important matter as well. Collecting is a big part of the hobby for many fans, but some wonder if they should minimalize or do things differently. In the Medium post How to an Environmentally-friendly Geek, Kristina describes that “in geekdom, collecting emblems of our passion is part of the deal. We must admit that we are responsible for a great deal of clutter, much of it made of plastic, in a practice that is anything but environmentally friendly”.

Other bloggers are concerned about their collections too. In the Reddit thread Funko Pops and Sustainability, a collector asks how other users feel about buying Funko, considering that they are made out of PVC. Most fans respond that they are careful consumers, who do not discard Pops as toys, but preserve them in their packaging and trade them with others.

Obviously this is not just a collector or consumer issue, but also one tied up with brands and corporate social responsibility. Luckily, companies increasingly engage in sustainable innovation. LEGO positions itself as a circular economy of play, and has committed to using sustainable materials by 2030. Fans have received these ambitions very positively. However, other toy companies such as Mattel and Hasbro have made less commitments on these fronts. (This also raises the question for fan scholars if LEGO in the long run might draw new toy fans and consumers, who care about sustainability and the environment).

Responsible consumption also includes travel, tourism and events. When I was in Worldcon in Dublin (2019), travel was a big part of the discussion. Some Scandinavian fans had travelled for days by boat to reach the venue. It was impressive to see the effort they had made, and how they considered the foot print that they were willing to make for a convention. These fans planted the seed for me to be more green in my own fan activities. Do I really need to go to that big convention, or can I choose a local equivalent? Is it possible to go by train or boat rather than fly?

Funko Frozen Fever Elsa Pop! Vinyl Figure 5841

What we can learn from fans
There are a lot of things companies and other consumers can learn from fans though. As I mentioned above, fans collaborate, gift and share. They have done so for many decades. Whether you look at Comiket in Japan or Western fan cultures, there is an ethos of collaboration and co-creation.

Most fans are not wasteful. They are deliberate consumers, tourists and collectors. An object isn’t easily discarded or thrown away. If you don’t it anymore, there are enough venues to sell it and keep it in circulation. A fan convention or a theme park visit is worth saving up for, and a holiday they look forward too and plan around.

What fans need from companies, then, is more insight. The fact that companies are not always transparant about how they make things can be bothersome. Maybe we want to make different choice, but it’s often unclear to us what the stakes are. Funko pops, Disney make-up, Primark shirts – these are things that are readily accessible, affordable, and easy to love. When it comes down to sustainability though, they are dark horses.

I firmly believe there is a market potential here too for more sustainable merchandise, products and services. What does green tourism look like combined with fandom? Can  sustainable fan fashion be produced and what would that market look like? Or what about a sharing app exclusively dedicated to cosplayers? That’s the stuff I dream about, to be honest.

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Cosplay meets climate change (image Pinterest)

What you can do
In terms of sustainable fandom, you could consider the following if you want to make a difference, or if you want to reflect further:

  • Sharing: Can an item be shared? Can you borrow it or lend it from a fellow-fan?
  • Reusing & renewing: Can you reuse, recycle or renewe items in your fan practice? Do you really need new things for a cosplay, or can you upcycle them?
  • Responsible consumption: If you are a maker, how can your fan practices become more sustainable by using different materials? Can you find information on how products are made? Are there things you can do differently in fandom, for instance when travelling?

These little steps can go a long way.

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