After reality TV star is named Boohoo’s new sustainability ambassador, Iris’s Amy Bryson ponders whether it is mere unsustainable lip service that will backfire on the fast fashion retailer.
The fashion industry is littered with environmentally sustainable brands committed to working towards a greener future. The likes of Patagonia and Reformation have been using recycled and sustainable materials from the get-go, while Rapanui has implemented eco-friendly and socially responsible practices across all aspects of its operations and supply chain.
But truly sustainable brands remain a minority. Fast fashion retailers are an influential force in creating new products and trends and have an equally big impact on the environment. Fast fashion is responsible for up to 10% of the global population’s carbon emissions, which is more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Boohoo is one of the most culpable names in this bracket. Following over $1bn of sales in the first financial quarter of 2021, the brand is plotting an aggressive expansion into the US with the ever-popular Kardashian family launching a ‘Kardashian capsule collection’ at New York fashion week.
But a great many of Boohoo’s products are sourced through cheap labor in developing markets and the retailer has faced intense criticism of the providence of these items and the working conditions of those who craft them. Moreover, in July the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA ) announced that Boohoo was under investigation over ‘greenwashing’ – the practice of using inaccuracy or exaggeration to brand something as sustainable or environmentally sound.
Boohoo says it is partnering with the Kardashians to progress its “sustainability journey”. But is this an example of a retailer making positive, meaningful change, or is it simply more unsustainable lip service?
One isn’t the magic number
Boohoo’s business model revolves around discounts on mass-produced, short runs of clothing, catering to consumers who constantly chase the latest short-lived trends.
As such, its priority has always been purchasing consumers’ favorite products at the lowest price and focusing 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, one study suggests that less than two in five fast fashion customers are loyal to their retailer. Free returns and low-cost goods are a strong way to drive short-term loyalty , but they are ineffective methods for creating a sustainable catalog of products. Even if Kardashian’s range turns out to be as sustainable as Stella McCartney, her collection makes up less than 0.1% of the clothes available on Boohoo.
This is, in itself, some sort of dark meta-irony. While the more fickle fashion consumers may be placated, conscious consumers that understand the sustainability issues facing the fashion industry are unlikely to be swayed.
One fashion line is simply a drop in the ocean. Truly sustainable operations stem from wholesale changes made across the board, which is what H&M has started to work towards. The retailer has made a wholesale switch to recyclable materials and sustainable production methods, taking a wholesale wider view of animal rights and labor conditions. However, it still has a fair way to go.
H&M’s commitment to only using sustainable materials by 2030 means that its collection appears more authentic. It also means the ‘Conscious’ line sits more comfortably in its long-term operations, whereas Boohoo’s range seems more designed for marketing than for inducing effective sustainable reform.
So, how can Boohoo (and other fast fashion retailers) change their ways for good?
The question of coexistence
The clothing industry is at a crossroads. ‘Conscious’ consumers are waking up to the need for change. In fact, recent research shows that 50% of UK shoppers will move away from retailers that greenwash their environmental pledges.
Fast fashion is, by its very definition, not sustainable. Sustainability is about creating businesses that are in balance with nature and society, operating in a way that, at worst, doesn’t deplete the natural resources available and, at best, regenerates them .
Boohoo’s sustainability goals are little more than a token of acknowledgment to the environmental and social issues being created by the company. Of course, a partnership with a Kardashian will grab attention and the products in this range 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 carbon reduction, water or waste means that Boohoo isn’t making a real effort to change its ways. Concrete objectives set on scientific evidence – alongside measurement, reporting and targeting protocols – are essential if the industry is to move away from outdated, unsustainable methods.
Brands should be encouraging consumers to wear clothes for longer than the current status quo – something that is completely at odds with a fast fashion retailer’s philosophy. And this is why, in its current state, it is impossible for Boohoo to coexist with the sustainable fashion industry.
Make green your favorite color
Boohoo’s Kardashian-endorsed range will likely be a soaring success for the brand. But only in the very short term.
Conscious consumers are no longer the exception – they are the rule. Awareness around the environment’s declining condition is growing and it won’t be long before more consumers begin to vote with their wallets. Brands such as Boohoo will quickly realize that irrespective of how trendy their clothing is, they will still find themselves out in the cold.
Amy Bryson is the chief marketing officer at Iris. For more on the Evolution of E-commerce, check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive.