After the reality TV star was named Boohoo’s new sustainability ambassador, Iris’ Amy Bryson wonders if it’s just unsustainable lip service that will backfire on the fast fashion retailer.
The fashion industry is littered with eco-conscious brands committed to a greener future. Companies like Patagonia and Reformation have used recycled and sustainable materials from the start, while Rapanui has adopted environmentally friendly and socially responsible practices in all aspects of its operations and supply chain.
But truly sustainable brands remain in the minority. Fast fashion retailers are an influential force in creating new products and trends, and have an equally large impact on the environment. Fast fashion is responsible for up to 10% of the world’s population’s CO2 emissions, which is more than international flights and shipping combined.
Boohoo is one of the most culpable names in this category. After revenue of over $1 billion in the first fiscal quarter of 2021, the brand plans aggressive expansion into the United States, with the well-loved Kardashian family unveiling a “Kardashian Capsule Collection” at New York Fashion Week.
But many of Boohoo’s products are sourced from cheap labor in emerging markets, and the retailer has faced harsh criticism for the supply of those items and the labor conditions of those who make them. Additionally, in July, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced that Boohoo was under investigation for “greenwashing” – the practice of branding something as sustainable or environmentally friendly through inaccuracy or exaggeration.
Boohoo says it’s partnering with the Kardashians to further its “sustainability journey.” But is this an example of a retailer making positive, meaningful change, or is it just unsustainable lip service?
One is not the magic number
Boohoo’s business model revolves around discounts on mass-produced, small-lot clothing and caters to consumers who are constantly chasing the latest ephemeral trends.
Therefore, its priority has always been to buy consumers’ favorite products at the lowest price and focus on customer convenience. And it can only keep up with the curve by maintaining a large catalog of products.
This strategy is to maintain loyalty from a typically disloyal base. For example, according to one study, less than two out of five fast fashion customers are loyal to their retailer. Free returns and low-cost merchandise are powerful tools to drive short-term loyalty, but they’re not effective ways to create a sustainable product catalog. While Kardashian’s range proves to be as sustainable as Stella McCartney, her collection accounts for less than 0.1% of the clothing available on Boohoo.
That in itself is a kind of dark meta-irony. While the more fickle fashion consumers can be placated, conscious consumers who understand the sustainability issues facing the fashion industry are unlikely to be swayed.
A clothing line is just a drop in the bucket. Truly sustainable operations stem from major changes made across the board, and that’s what H&M has been working toward. The retailer has switched to recyclable materials and sustainable production methods in wholesale, while taking a broader view of animal rights and labor conditions. However, there is still quite a way to go.
H&M’s commitment to using only sustainable materials by 2030 makes the collection appear more authentic. It also means that the “Conscious” line is more comfortable in its long-term operation, while Boohoo’s range seems designed for marketing rather than launching effective sustainable reforms.
So how can Boohoo (and other fast fashion retailers) change their ways forever?
The question of coexistence
The apparel industry is at a crossroads. Conscious consumers recognize the need for change. In fact, recent research shows that 50% of UK shoppers will move away from retailers who greenwash their environmental pledges.
By definition, fast fashion is not sustainable. Sustainability is about creating companies that are in balance with nature and society and operate in a way that does not deplete the available natural resources at worst and regenerates them at best.
Boohoo’s sustainability goals are little more than a token of acknowledgment of the environmental and social issues created by the company. Of course, partnering with a Kardashian will draw attention, and the products in this line may well be sustainable, but the overarching impact of this collaboration muddies the waters of what a “sustainable brand” really is.
The lack of standardized reporting and science-based targets for reducing carbon, water or waste means Boohoo is making no real effort to change the way it operates. Concrete targets backed by science – alongside measurement, reporting and target protocols – are essential if the industry is to move away from outdated, unsustainable methods.
Brands should encourage consumers to wear clothes longer than the current status quo – something totally at odds with a fast fashion retailer’s philosophy. And that’s why Boohoo in its current state is impossible to co-exist with the sustainable fashion industry.
Make green your favorite color
Boohoo’s Kardashian endorsed range is likely to be a huge hit for the brand. But only for a very short time.
Conscious consumers are no longer the exception – they are the rule. Awareness of the deteriorating state of the environment is growing and it won’t be long before more consumers start voting with their wallets. Brands like Boohoo will quickly realize that no matter how trendy their clothes are, they’re still out in the cold.
Amy Bryson is Chief Marketing Officer at Iris. For more on the evolution of e-commerce, check out The Drum’s latest deep dive.