Boohoo and the cries of celebrity-driven “eco-conscious” campaigns

UK-based fast fashion brand Boohoo recently announced that it had tapped US celebrity and influencer Kourtney Kardashian as its “sustainability ambassador” and launched a “sustainability journey” campaign that included a capsule collection and mini-series. But instead of winning the favour of an increasingly eco-conscious market, the brand has come under fire, as critics point out the irony of a fast fashion business pitching sustainability to its customers. “Let’s be

s be honest here, this move isn’t about being or becoming sustainable, this is yet another example of blatant greenwashing,” Madeline Kulmar, analyst and co-director of Australian consultancy Retail Oasis, told Inside Retail.

Boohoo x Kourtney Kardashian 

As the brand’s sustainability ambassador, Kourtney is slated to launch two capsule collections. The first collection, scheduled to go live in September, includes 45 limited-edition pieces of clothing made from “recycled fibres, traceable cotton, recycled polyester, and recycled sequins”, as well as two vintage biker jackets from wholesale vintage company Glass Onion. 

Aside from the capsule collections, the fast fashion label is also launching a Youtube series hosted by Kourtney, where she will talk to experts about the challenges and opportunities surrounding sustainability in the fashion industry, including textile waste, employee welfare, resale, upcycling, and pre-loved fashion. 

After the backlash to the collaboration announcement, Kourtney addressed the criticism in an Instagram post. 

“I went back and forth about doing this collection with @boohoo because the first thing I think about when I hear the words ‘fast fashion’ is that it’s bad for our planet,” she said. 

“I thought pushing Boohoo to make initial changes and then holding them accountable to larger change would be impactful. It’s making some noise which is exactly what I was hoping for.”

But while that idea sounds plausible in theory, it simply doesn’t fit with Boohoo’s fast fashion business model. 

Launched in 2006, the brand describes itself as selling “the latest trends from $5”. It owns several brands, including Nasty Gal, PrettyLittleThing, BoohooMan, and MissPap, and is said to manufacture its clothing in Pakistan, where workers are paid as little as 33 cents an hour in unsafe conditions,The Guardian reported. 

A report from Vice showed the brand uploads 722 products weekly, equivalent to 116 new products daily. 

Consumer backlash

Boohoo certainly doesn’t seem to be fooling anyone with its purported efforts to go green. 

“Would absolutely love to see you use the money you spend on these misleading marketing campaigns to pay the people who make your clothes,” said Venetia La Manna, a slow fashion campaigner, in a response typical of the public backlash the campaign has attracted.

And yet, the brand continues to attract a large number of customers. Boohoo’s annual revenue was nearly £2 billion ($3.4 billion) in FY22, up 14 per cent on the previous year. This is slower than in previous years, but by no means negligible. 

For every person calling out greenwashing, it seems there are many more spending hundreds of dollars on new clothes every week. 

“What’s challenging is figuring out how people can still live in this way where it’s simple, and easy, and fast, and fun, but it doesn’t have a negative impact on people and the planet,” expressed Patrick Duffy, founder of Global Fashion Exchange

“A spoiler alert for everyone: you can’t. The only truly sustainable thing that Boohoo and its fast-fashion brethren can do is immediately shut down the operation.”

Controversies and contradictions

Indeed, this isn’t the first time Boohoo has faced criticism for its business practices in recent years. 

A 2020 report from Labour Behind the Label revealed that the company’s factories in Leicester had committed tax fraud and laid off workers. It was also accused of forcing employees to work in “unhygienic” locations during lockdowns and withholding documents from migrant workers so they could not report the workplace abuse in fear of being deported. 

The brand published a statement saying it would conduct an independent review of its supply chain, invest $12.5 million to “eradicate malpractice”, and use third-party auditors. 

“As a board, we are shocked and appalled by the recent allegations that have been made, and we are committed to doing everything in our power to rebuild the reputation of the textile manufacturing industry in Leicester,” said Boohoo. 

But in July of this year, the brand was back in the headlines after the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) put Boohoo under investigation for greenwashing related to its Ready for the Future collection.

The label claimed items in the line were “made from more than 20 per cent sustainable materials” with no information on what materials and percentages were recycled. 

“People who want to ‘buy green’ should be able to do so confident that they aren’t being misled,” Sarah Cardell, interim CMA chief executive, told The Guardian. 

“Eco-friendly and sustainable products can play a role in tackling climate change, but only if they are genuine.” 

This year’s Fashion Transparency Index – a report that ranks major brands on their transparency regarding labour practices and social and environmental efforts – gave the brand a measly score of 28 per cent. 

What’s in it for Boohoo?

Given its track record, why is Boohoo continuing to promote sustainable collections? 

“This move, I’d say, is the brand’s small effort to appear to be progressive in the hopes of attracting and securing a new, younger, values driven customer, whilst also distracting from their fast-fashion roots,” Kulmar told Inside Retail.

“As for Kourtney, partnering with Boohoo I’m sure has its financial benefits, but it also helps her stay relevant by allowing her to connect with their younger consumer.”

In the end, however, the brand’s efforts may end up doing more harm than good. 

“From the backlash that this decision has seen online, I don’t think either party is going to overly benefit from the partnership,” Anna Forster, sustainability advisor, and director at Leaders for Climate Action Australia, told Inside Retail. 

With more consumers becoming aware of the impacts of fast fashion and all the bad press it has recently received, there have been increasing calls to boycott retailers like Boohoo. 

The Money UK reported that short-seller bets against Boohoo hit a record high after the inflation crisis affected retailers across all sectors. The positions built by hedge funds, which make money if share prices fall, rose to 8.7 per cent, amounting to about $44.8 million, before dropping back to 8.1 per cent last week. 

Boohoo’s shares have already plummeted two-thirds this year, following the investigation into greenwashing by the CMA. 

The UK’s financial regulatory body predicts the company will further decline, and with Boohoo near 90 per cent from its peak, it could keep going, reports Ask Traders. 

Boohoo responds 

Carol Kane, co-founder and executive director of Boohoo, responded to the greenwashing allegations by pointing out that most sustainable clothing isn’t affordable for the average consumer.

“The word sustainability always has a little bit of an elitist kind of view,” she told Vogue. “That it can just sit in the designer end of the market, and that if you’re at the lower price point, you can’t achieve it.” 

She explained that there are other ways to convert the masses to have more sustainable choices, from education to conversation. 

“Be that buying vintage, be that swapping, be that wearing things several times and creating your style from different things and wearing them over a decade,” she said.

Vogue asked Kane whether that would go against the brand’s fast fashion business model. 

“It does,” Kane responded. “But I think there’ll be a change. And changes happen really, really slowly. People aren’t going to cut their wardrobes in half in the next 12 months! That isn’t going to happen.”