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The controversy & complexity of celebrity-driven conscious collections

The controversy & complexity of celebrity-driven conscious collections

Boohoo Kourtney Kardashian Collection Greenwashing

Greenwashing or generating sustainability awareness? Boohoo’s Kourtney Kardashian Barker collaboration does both, while raising even bigger questions.

Like many, I was quick to condemn the recent Boohoo x Kourtney Kardashian Barker collection as yet another well-funded greenwashing campaign. 

An ultra-fast fashion brand producing thousands of garments every month from synthetic, fossil-fuel derived materials, Boohoo’s business model—which relies on the volume sale of low-value, trend-led goods—is clearly not the poster-child for fashion sustainability. 

Indeed, there’s nothing particularly eco-friendly about the new 45-piece Kardashian collection, which was recently launched during New York Fashion Week. While over 75% of the designs are made using recycled fibres, this is no different from Boohoo’s use of materials in its previous ‘conscious collections’. It’s also worth noting that while recycled polyester is an alternative to virgin polyester, it’s still non-biodegradable at end of life and will shed microplastics when washed. 

The eye-wateringly low price point of Boohoo’s designs is well-known, and speaks to a wider cultural issue of the role fast fashion brands play in the dangerous devaluing of clothes. Prices for the new collection start at just £5 for an open back bodysuit—basically, the same as your daily coffee run. 

These cheap prices and ease of accessibility promote hyper-consumerism and perpetuate throwaway culture, a phenomenon which has led to rampant textile pollution around the world, but particularly in developing countries. Just a google search of the mountainous cliffs of clothes blighting the shores of Accra, Ghana’s capital, gives you a glimpse of where many of our unwanted fast fashion finds end up.

What’s more, it’s not clear whether Boohoo’s garment workers were paid a living wage. With the range being produced in the UK, where the National Living Wage is 9.50 an hour, it’s unlikely that fair pay and safe working conditions are guaranteed—especially given Boohoo’s reputation for labour scandals.

In the midst of the climate crisis, where brand’s should be creating less and designing better quality, it’s clear that Boohoo’s latest ‘kollaboration’ raises many red flags. But, I also feel it speaks to a broader issue: what role, if any, can fast fashion brands play to drive action for a more sustainable world?

There’s no easy answers. 

Mountains of clothes caused by textile pollution on the shores of Accra, Ghana's capital
Mountains of textile waste pollute the shores of Accra, Ghana

Celeb-washing, or driving consciousness?

While I’d be the first to argue that we don’t need another celeb or influencer-fuelled fast fashion collaboration, I feel the silver lining (if any) to this collection was the video content campaign running alongside it. 

Entitled ‘Kourtney Kardashian Barker’s Sustainable Fashion Journey’, the series goes behind the scenes of the story behind the collection. While some of this is just fluff—like backstage scenes of Kourtney posing vapidly on set and flurries of crew in the background—Boohoo also brought in several sustainability experts and industry leaders to weigh in on key issues.

From Dr. Christina Dean, the founder of Hong Kong-based environmental NGO Redress, to Patrick Duffy, a circular fashion advocate and founder of Global Fashion Exchange, the videos give airtime to important issues like textile waste, clothing reuse and repair. Filmed in a mini-documentary style, the first episode has amassed 161 thousand views, while the second episode, released yesterday, is at 26 thousand views and counting. 

While I don’t agree with Boohoo’s business practices and its impact on the planet, I appreciate that they’ve used their wide-reaching platform to spotlight the real hard work of individuals who have been actively campaigning for change for years. 

We know that the fashion industry is polluting. We know that fast fashion is the mainstay of the global fashion system. Consumers are not going to stop shopping anytime soon. And we know we must change,” shares Christina Dean in a recent Linkedin post. “To achieve this, in my humble view at least, we must collaborate with fashion in its entirety—from small to big and fast to slow—with the goal of making clothes less polluting and, if possible, more sustainable.” According to her statement, she was not paid for her involvement in the show. 

But wait, you may be thinking: couldn’t Kardashian-Barker have embarked on this ‘journey of discovery’ without it being cuffed to a collection release? I totally agree. This was, at the end of a day, a business transaction. It raises the question: rather than driving new consumption, could Boohoo have engaged Kourtney purely for an educational campaign? Perhaps that’s something that they—or another brand with deep pockets to afford celebrity ambassadors—can explore in the future.

Christina Dean, the founder of environmental NGO Redress
Dr Christina Dean, the founder of Redress, an NGO fighting environmental textile waste

Fast fashion’s green intentions

Boohoo is just one of a number of billionaire-owned fast fashion brands fuelling the overconsumption of clothes, while attempting to implement sustainable practices. Just recently, Pretty Little Thing launched PLT Marketplace, a Depop-style resale platform to encourage circular consumption with the tagline ‘resell, rewear, recycle.’ The move was quickly condemned in industry circles because it deflected attention away from the companies core business model; putting a band-aid its overproduction rather than opting to simply make less stuff. 

In June this year, Shein created a $50 million extended producer responsibility fund to help manage textile waste (a lot of which it contributes to, given the fact that they add a staggering 6,000 garments a day to its website!) $15 million of this was given to The OR Foundation, a non-profit that has been creating solutions to mitigate textile waste in Kantamanto Market in Ghana. Again, this announcement stirred up huge debate and polarising opinions. 

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It’s easy to condemn any sustainability attempt by a fast fashion brand as greenwashing. There’s no denying the hypocrisy surrounding most of these efforts, including the latest Boohoo x Kardashian ‘kollab.’ But, if we collectively write off every fast fashion brand’s attempts to be greener, I can’t help but wonder: how will the industry progress? 

While activists may say the simple solution is for fast fashion brands to just shut up shop, such statements feel flippant and privileged when you remember that millions of livelihoods within their complex, global supply chains are tied up with their existence. 

For that reason, the conversation about Boohoo’s most recent collaboration shouldn’t stop with our collective greenwashing stamp. While it’s clear that the fast fashion business model cannot be eco-friendly in the form that it exists now, we must address the bigger elephant in the room: can fast fashion brands, with their wide-reaching influence, ever have a place in trying to make the world a better place (and clean up some of the mess they’ve created in the process?) 

If so, what could that look like? 

The future of fast fashion

Honestly, I’m not sure where fast fashion and sustainability go from here. Did we need yet another celebrity-fuelled brand campaign and collection? Not really. Could the planet benefit from less fast retail business models? Most definitely. 

But, could influential brands and celebrities use their wide-reaching influence to help shift consumption culture and make reparations? Maybe. eBay’s recent appointment of Love Island contestant Tasha Ghouri as their first pre-loved ambassador gives us (and her 1.4 million instagram followers) a glimpse of that. 

As sustainable fashion advocates, we can’t continue to preach to the converted. We need to move outside of the echo chamber to reach more consumers. If Boohoo’s campaign influences just 1% of Kourtney’s near 200 million instagram followers to be more aware of the impact of the fashion industry, then that’s not to be sniffed at. 

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