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Activism

Meet Ethical Unicorn, the Instagram activist making waves about climate change

Francesca Willow, better known as Ethical Unicorn, uses her Instagram platform to educate and inform people about climate change. Her work has had real-life impact.

The proposed four-day work week, the connection between modern slavery and the climate crisis, and how fungi can save the world. These are just a few of the recent topics covered by blogger and social media influencer, Francesca Willow, one of the leading figures in the ever-growing online climate change community.  

In a typical Instagram post to her 23,000 followers, Willow — better known as Ethical Unicorn on social media — documents her climate campaigning and shares ethical alternatives for sustainable living. There’s no shortage of posts with dance videos either, including informational captions around justice and culture — whimsically combining viral trends with vital social messaging. 

The 28-year-old has also leveraged her platform to enact real world change, including her efforts in the #StopCambo campaign, and her involvement in protests at theScottish Ballet during COP26, which successfully led to the ballet company reviewing its oil sponsorship.    

Image courtesy of Francesca Willow

Willow’s enthusiasm for sustainability and the climate change movement began during her master’s degree in intersectional justice issues, which included discussions around ableism, critical race theory and climate change. Willow’s friends started getting into the zero-waste movement and, according to Willow, “as time went on, all this theory had a place in practice.” 

It all started with her blogsite, Ethical Unicorn, in 2016, Willow told the Big Issue. “I first started a website with topics around ethically-made, zero-waste and cruelty-free [products]. It was much more lifestyle-focused, such as, ‘Did you know you could use a bamboo toothbrush?’ ‘Did you know you can get a solid shampoo?’ ‘Here’s me trying out solid deodorants’… really basic stuff.” 

But as time went on, and more people engaged with Willow’s content, she found that the deeper knowledge on these subjects she had picked up through a degree in intersectional justice could be immersed into her content.  

“I started realising I could use all these things that I’ve studied and write in more depth, because I’d written about them in an academic context,” Willow recalled. “From there, the website shifted quite significantly. Because now it’s more about sustainable living and social justice, and a lot of the things I’m talking about are big, nuanced topics.” 

According to Willow, the most popular posts on Ethical Unicorn include “looking at the ethics of Amazon, looking at why trickledown economics doesn’t work, and why universal basic income is a good idea.”

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Willow has been a key player in the background of large social and climate justice campaigns in recent years, informing an online plethora of climate-concerned individuals.  

She says she gravitates towards campaigns with “great organisers and a clear goal… you can see each step towards the thing being achieved and there’s more of a tangible sense of what success will look like.”  

For that very reason, Willow is involved in #StopCambo, a campaign dedicated to ending all new oil and gas extraction, and especially at the Cambo oilfield in the North Sea.

Example of Oil drilling (Pixabay)

Siccar Point Energy, which owns Cambo, says that in its first phase alone the oil field west of Shetland is due to extract up to 170 million barrels of oil.  

“This would create emissions equivalent to the annual carbon pollution of 18 coal-fired power stations,” said Willow. 

“Stop Cambo came together to campaign against governmental approval,” Willow explained, as Cambo relies on government support before it can go ahead.  

She continued, “If Cambo isn’t approved, it will set a precedent to other North Sea oil and gas projects awaiting approval.” 

Currently the UK government has another 18 new projects in the pipeline with the potential to extract more than 1.7 billion barrels of oil. 

Willow also has a personal attachment to Cambo. “Even though I’m not Scottish — I’m from Newcastle, just below the border — I am very invested in what happens in the North Sea. I don’t know if that’s just due to geographic proximity, or why I feel that kind of passion towards it.” 

She was one of the team that confronted the CEO of Shell about the Cambo oilfield at October’s TED Countdown conference in Edinburgh. She also helps organise protests with campaigners BP or not BP?, who perform “rebellious theatrical activities” to bring attention to cultural spaces sponsored by giant oil companies.  

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After Shell pulled out of the Cambo venture, Siccar Point said it decided to “pause while they evaluate next steps”.   

The Shell victory is “a major success,” said Willow. “Every large win is a combination of all these small wins” and a testament to the power of activism.   

But the pause has alleviated pressure on the government to take action against oil drilling, she warned: “It enables the government to not take a stand, which is very convenient for them.”

On January 12, Andrew Bowie, a Scottish Conservative MP for West Aberdeen, tweeted that it was “great to meet Graeme Sword of Siccar Point Energy regarding developing the Cambo oilfield and future investment in the North Sea – crucial to transition, energy security and the continued economic success of the North East of Scotland.” 

Willow countered: “Those resources could be put towards figuring out what a just transition looks like by working with effective communities and working with workers and unions. Instead, this guy’s going to meet Siccar Point Energy, which is disappointing but not surprising.” 

She added: “There are people who say we can’t change. Just because what we know is what we have lived in, doesn’t mean we can’t dream bigger, to not at least try is a crisis of imagination. Hope is an active thing.”   

But increasingly among her generation, hope is one thing too often in short supply. In an international survey reported in September by the BBC, three-quarters of young people said they thought the future was frightening. It’s a fear that Willow empathises with. 

“Eco-anxiety and climate grief are very real emotions,” Willow said. “One might be faced with information that can feel so overwhelming, it can be easier to pretend it’s not happening.”  

But she believes that though these emotions are “valid” it is important to “redirect that energy into action.”   

“No change is won overnight. We live in a world where large players like to tell us we’re powerless. But any human right has been won through people power,” said Willow.

Women’s right to vote, Gandhi’s salt march, Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and the right to have a weekend were all campaigns that changed the course of history, she pointed out.

“It wasn’t like it was nothing, nothing, nothing, and now women can vote,” said Willow. “You push political will by changing public opinion as we’ve seen in government U-turns in recent years, [such as] the school meals with Marcus Rashford.”

So, what small steps can anyone take to contribute to climate activism? For those who want change in their daily lives, Willow suggests changing small things that have a large effect, such as your “bank account, energy provider and pension.” 

Finding more ethical and environmental alternatives to high street providers may be a “one-off faff, but they have long-term impact [because] you’re taking your money out of destructive industries,” she said.  

As for the climate crisis, Willow points out that, “for every person locking themselves onto the road or climbing a building or doing these grandiose things, there are so many roles going on behind the scenes including people doing social media, getting banners printed and giving teas and coffees to the activists. There are so many different roles that we need.” 

Willow also suggests getting involved in specific campaigns, such as #StopCambo. “Everyone is welcome to join,” she said.  

Willow is optimistic about the future, if people play their part. “We have the examples, we have the knowledge, we have the wisdom, we just need the political will to listen.”    

Get involved in #StopCambo and follow Francesca Willow / Ethical Unicorn’s journey at @EthicalUnicorn.

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