After the reality TV star was named Boohoo’s new sustainability ambassador, Iris’ Amy Bryson wonders if it’s just bad words that will backfire on the fast fashion retailer.
The fashion industry is full of eco-friendly brands committed to working towards a greener future. Companies like Patagonia and Reformation use recycled and sustainable materials from the outset, while Rapanui has implemented green 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 significant impact on the environment. Fast fashion is responsible for up to 10% of the world’s population’s carbon emissions, more than international flights and shipping combined.
Boohoo is one of the most guilty names in this bracket. After more than $1 billion in sales in the first fiscal quarter of 2021, the brand is preparing an aggressive expansion in the United States with the ever-popular Kardashian family launching a “Kardashian capsule collection” at New York Fashion Week. .
But many of Boohoo’s products come from cheap labor in developing markets and the retailer has come under heavy criticism over the welfare of these items and the working conditions of those who make them. Additionally, in July, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced that Boohoo was being investigated for “green laundering” – the practice of using inaccuracy or exaggeration to qualify something as sustainable or environmentally friendly.
Boohoo says he’s partnering with the Kardashians to further his “sustainability journey.” But is this an example of a retailer making positive and meaningful change, or is this just more unsustainable talk?
One is not the magic number
Boohoo’s business model revolves around mass-produced apparel discounts in small runs, aimed at consumers who are constantly on the lookout for the latest ephemeral trends.
As such, his priority has always been to source consumer 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 consists of retaining 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-priced products are an effective way to build loyalty in the short term, but they’re ineffective methods for building a lasting product catalog. Even though Kardashian’s range proves to be as enduring as Stella McCartney, her collection represents less than 0.1% of the clothing available on Boohoo.
It is, in itself, a kind of dark meta-irony. While the most fickle fashion consumers may be appeased, conscious consumers who understand the sustainability issues facing the fashion industry are unlikely to be swayed.
A fashion line is just a drop in the ocean. Truly sustainable operations stem from wholesale changes at all levels, which H&M has started to work towards. The retailer opted for recyclable materials and sustainable production methods, taking a broader view of animal rights and working conditions. However, he still has a long way to go.
H&M’s commitment to using only sustainable materials by 2030 means its collection feels more authentic. It also means that the ‘Conscious’ line is more comfortable in its long-term operations, while Boohoo’s range seems more geared towards marketing than inducing effective sustainable reform.
So how can Boohoo (and other fast fashion retailers) change their habits for good?
The question of cohabitation
The clothing industry is at a crossroads. “Conscious” consumers become aware of the need for change. In fact, recent research shows that 50% of UK shoppers will walk away from retailers that green their environmental commitments.
Fast fashion is, by its very definition, not sustainable. Sustainability is about creating businesses in balance with nature and society, operating in a way that at worst does not deplete available natural resources and at best regenerates them.
Boohoo’s Sustainable Development Goals are nothing more than a sign of recognition of the environmental and social issues created by the company. Sure, a partnership with a Kardashian will draw attention, and the products in this line may well be sustainable, but the overall impact of this collaboration blurs the lines of what a “sustainable brand” really is.
The lack of standardized reporting and science-based targets for carbon, water or waste reduction means Boohoo is not making a real effort to change its habits. Concrete targets based on scientific evidence – alongside measurement, reporting and targeting protocols – are essential if the industry is to move away from outdated and unsustainable methods.
Brands should encourage consumers to wear clothes longer than the current status quo, which is completely at odds with the philosophy of a fast fashion retailer. And that’s why, in its current state, it’s impossible for Boohoo to coexist with the sustainable fashion industry.
Make green your favorite color
Boohoo’s Kardashian-endorsed range is likely to be a smash hit for the brand. But only in the very short term.
Conscious consumers are no longer the exception, they are the rule. Awareness around the declining state of the environment is growing and it won’t be long before more consumers start voting with their wallets. Brands such as Boohoo will soon realize that no matter how trendy their clothes are, they will always find themselves out in the cold.
Amy Bryson is Director of Marketing at Iris. For more on the evolution of e-commerce, check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive.