The social-media fusillades rained down almost immediately after the fashion e-tailer announced Kardashian Barker’s appointment as its newest ambassador, “with a focus on sustainability,” on Tuesday.
“When Boohoo first approached me with this idea that was all about sustainability and style, I was concerned about the effects of the fast fashion industry on our planet,” the reality TV star and Poosh founder said in a statement. “Boohoo responded with excitement and a desire to incorporate more sustainable practices into our line. It’s been an enlightening experience speaking directly with industry experts. I’m grateful for the opportunity to use my platform to drive conversations that lead to ongoing change and use my voice to share actionable tips with consumers on how we can play our own part.”
The job includes two capsule collections, which Kardashian Barker helped create “in tandem with a journey of investigation into opportunities for creating a more sustainable fashion future,” said Boohoo, whose parent company also owns Karen Millen, MissPap, PrettyLittleThing and Nasty Gal.
The first, a 45-piece extravaganza launching alongside New York Fashion Week, will include recycled polyester-backed faux leather, recycled sequins, traceable cotton and a couple of vintage biker jackets. The cheapest item will come in at $6. Nothing will cost more than a Benjamin Franklin.
But critics quickly seized upon the glaring disconnect between the Kardashians’ well-documented excesses, including their jet-setting and water-budget-exceeding ways, and the low-impact conceit behind the collaboration. Others pointed out that Boohoo was basically a fossil-fuel brand, since its clothes are dripping with petrochemicals. “We have reached peak greenwashing,” one Twitter user declared. “This is insulting to an entire community working tirelessly to educate/change/provide alternative solutions/invest in climate positive solutions,” another said.
“This campaign is all about raising awareness and getting people to think about the challenges of the fashion industry and how we might all do our bit to solve them,” a Boohoo spokesperson told Sourcing Journal in response. “We chose to work with Kourtney because she has an enormous reach that will help us to engage with more people on these important issues. Kourtney has expressed similar concerns to our customers who are keen to make more informed choices but find information on these subjects confusing. All too often, sustainability experts talk to a narrow section of people and our aim is get a conversation started with the public at large.”
The experts themselves are less sure. It’s Boohoo, after all, that is being examined for potentially misleading consumers by marketing its clothing as eco-friendlier than they actually are, they say. It’s also Boohoo that has built its entire business model on exploited labor, they add.
“While most people would be more likely to elect the private-jet owning, drought-order defying celebrity as Queen of Overconsumption, Boohoo has made the head-scratching choice of appointing her their sustainability ambassador,” George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, a corporate watchdog group, told Sourcing Journal. “All while under investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority in the U.K. for greenwashing. You’ve got to laugh, really.”
The Kardashians, he said, are the “polar opposite of sustainable.”
“Having them represent your sustainability efforts renders them completely meaningless and may backfire by revealing the brand’s lack of understanding about what sustainability in fashion truly entails,” Harding-Rolls added. “The announcement comes with little in the way of detail about how this new collection will be sustainable, how the brand is addressing working conditions, their over-reliance on fossil-fuel derived fibers, overconsumption, durability, waste—the list goes on.”
Rachel Kibbe, CEO of Circular Services Group, a fashion consultancy with a focus on end-of-life solutions, called Boohoo’s announcement “buzzword city and a sustainability consultant’s nightmare.” Its reference to “traceable” cotton, for one, doesn’t shed light on what is being traced. Nearly all of the other materials—the faux leather, the recycled polyester—are also fossil-fuel-based, “which takes advantage of consumers who are rightfully confused.” The sequins, whether recycled or not, are also a bad idea: if they don’t end up in our water systems and in the bellies of fish, then they’ll sit in a landfill, where they won’t decompose for hundreds of years.
“We have been misled over our lifetimes to believe that recycled means both eco-friendly and recyclable,” Kibbe told Sourcing Journal. “We now know that for recycling to work, and to actually be climate beneficial, there are many variables to take under consideration. For instance, when we see ‘recycled polyester’ we must ask: recycled out of what? If the textiles are manufactured from plastic waste and plastic bottles, we know that this use diverts these materials from bottle recycling systems where they could have the potential to be recycled over and over, whereas textiles can’t yet at scale. Not to mention the microfibers that polyesters shed into our water systems, equally upstream in the production process, as they do downstream in the garment washing process.”
She returned to the sequins.
“Are these sequins re-recyclable? I can tell you that they aren’t,” Kibbe said. “Same with the recycled polyester backing for the faux leather. Let’s just call this what it is: pleather. It’s not durable, it’s fossil fuel-based, it’s not made to last or get better with age, it’s not biodegradable or compostable, or recyclable. Pleather is what we wear until it splits or cracks, or wear a few times and then it goes out of fashion.”
Sustainability claims have become fashion’s latest battlefield. Earlier this summer, the Norwegian Consumer Authority ruled that Norrøna was “breaking the law” when it marketed its outdoor wear as environmentally friendly based on Higg Materials Sustainability Index data. In New York, H&M is fighting a class-action lawsuit accusing the Swedish retailer of deceiving consumers through the use of “false and misleading” environmental scorecards and advertising. Boohoo, as mentioned earlier, is the subject of a greenwashing probe, as are Asos and Asda.
A couple of months ago, New Zealand regulators ruled that a TV spot showing one of Kathmandu’s biodegradable down jackets breaking down on a trash heap risked being misinterpreted by the public despite the outdoor brand’s small-print disclaimer that biodegradability will only occur in biologically active landfills without oxygen—and that people would have to ask their city council if such facilities are available. The voiceover, which declared, “It’s Kathmandu’s first BioDown jacket. Made for out there. Biodegrades in here,” was another potential source of confusion.
“Rule 2(b) of the Advertising Standards Code says that advertisements must not mislead or be likely to mislead, deceive or confuse customers, abuse their trust or exploit their lack of knowledge,” the Advertising Standards Authority wrote. “It is clear that Kathmandu wishes to lead consumers to believe that their jacket will biodegrade in a standard landfill, while contradicting this in the fine print at the end of the article. The company is profiting from a claim (it can be reasonably inferred they are claiming it will biodegrade in a regular landfill) which is false.”
Kathmandu said it “categorically” disagreed with the authority’s decision but that it wished to settle the complaint and will not use the spot again in New Zealand.
“Testing has shown that the jacket will biodegrade in conditions found in Class A landfills which make up almost 50 percent of New Zealand landfills,” a Kathmandu spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “[But] the advertisement had finished its planned air time at the time the complaint was received, therefore investment of time and cost to contest the complaint was considered not worthwhile.”
Still, the case shows that the process of verifying green claims can be fraught. Brands need to focus on what happens in practice, not whether something is technically biodegradable or recyclable so as to comply with the “spirit as well as the letter of regulation,” said Rachel Weller, ESG consultant at Sancroft.
One thing’s for sure, she said: Scrutiny over corporate sustainability claims—and efforts to combat greenwashing and “greenwishing”—are only going to accelerate, particularly with false green claims becoming a focus of the European Union’s Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles. Nebulous environmental claims such as “green” or “good for the environment” will only be allowed if underpinned by verifiable standards. With the European Commission also firming up minimum criteria for different types of environmental claims, brands can only expect to be more deeply interrogated.
“This is a growing trend we are seeing in sustainability across all sectors,” Weller told Sourcing Journal. “Over time, we expect business’ sustainability claims will be treated in a similar way to their financial reporting.”
Companies, she said, have recognized that sustainability sells and sways the decisions of consumers and investors alike. Now, those in the corridors of power are finally catching on.
“In the past, guidance was more limited as to what sustainability information businesses need to disclose, as well as common language and definitions,” Weller said. “This is changing—especially at the EU level, we are seeing greater scrutiny of sustainability disclosure, with regulation seeking to increase the comparability, quality, accuracy and accountability of sustainability disclosure and data and the need for third-party assurance to verify the accuracy of information.”
With businesses less able to control their sustainability narrative, they will need to more rigorously ensure that what they say is accurate and in line with new criteria and rules, she added.
“Even with the best intentions, businesses run the risk of greenwashing or greenwishing,” Weller said. “It will be important for businesses to understand how expectations and rules are changing in the markets they operate in and to ensure there are adequate controls in place to avoid misleading stakeholders, intentionally or accidentally.”
A key part of avoiding greenwashing is “understanding how consumers will interpret claims, not just how the fashion industry would ideally like them to interpret the claims,” Harding-Rolls said. Consumers, for instance, are likely to read claims of recyclability or biodegradability as meaning products can be disposed of in a conventional manner yet still end up being less harmful. In reality, however, they need special end-of-life treatments that are either not widely available or sufficiently well developed.
“A level of honesty about the challenges in making any product sustainable is required from brands, and token sustainability attributes of a small part of the product should not be used to make claims for the whole,” he said. “For example, a small percentage of the product’s materials being organic or recycled, while the rest is virgin material, should be clearly communicated and caveated. Another useful lens through which to view greenwashing is to remember that every single product or service results in some sort of footprint or negative impact, and so claiming that they are ‘better’ in any way without a meaningful comparison—particularly in the dodgy territory around biodegradable plastics—is likely to land brands in hot water.”
But battling greenwashing is only a beginning, Harding-Rolls added.
“What we’re seeing in the early stages mostly involves push-back against misleading marketing, and not actually about making products more sustainable,” he said. “For that, we require robust legislation and enforced minimum sustainability requirements for all sectors, not just fashion. We also should be having candid, and overdue, conversations about overproduction and degrowth, and stop kidding ourselves that tackling the climate crisis is something we can shop our way out of.”