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Opinion: Sustainable Fast Fashion Is More Than Just Pure Irony

A member of the Kardashian family has made headlines in the last week for their new business venture: sustainability ambassador for Boohoo, a fast fashion retailer based in the United Kingdom. While it seems like the jokes write themselves and many were also quick to criticise the decision, the issue digs deeper than the apparent irony and into the problematic use of sustainability and eco-friendly gimmicks as a shallow marketing tool.

The 43-year-old reality TV actress revealed on September 7 that she is the new “sustainability ambassador” for the fast-fashion company Boohoo, ahead of the New York Fashion Week on September 13. This came as a surprise, especially given that she had only been exposed fairly recently for exceeding the water restriction by 100,000 gallons during a drought. But Kourtney Kardashian is not alone. Her sister, Kim Kardashian, along with comedian Kevin Hart, former NBA star Dwyane Wade, and actor Sylvester Stallone have also continued to exceed district limits despite repeated warnings and fines.

According to Mike McNutt, a spokesman for the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, the district is entirely reliant on imported water from the Sierra Nevada mountains, which are 400 miles distant. “We have no groundwater, we have no other alternative sources to draw from,” he told NPR.

There’s no other way to say it, but it’s beyond excessive. But this also raises the question of “Why do consumption patterns of the rich differ greatly?” and “Why are we still using paper straws?”

Do it for the baby turtles I guess

In recent years, you may have noticed an increase in the number of businesses, and even communities, that have eliminated the use of plastic straws and cups from their operations. In 2018, Seattle became the first major US city to ever ban the use of plastic straws and utensils at bars and restaurants in an effort to reduce waste and prevent marine plastic pollution. The United Kingdom soon followed, with the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, proposing a ban on plastic straws, drink stirrers, and plastic cotton buds by the end of 2018.

This is something we should rejoice in, right? Well, it’s not as clear-cut as it sounds. To put it this way, when considering that 100 fossil fuel firms are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, the idea of “personal responsibility” might feel hollow. In other words, it’s basically “Why am I still paying taxes when Amazon was able to avoid more than 5 billion US dollars in corporate income taxes and paid just 6 percent of its 35 billion US-dollar profits in 2021?”

While it’s beyond heartbreaking to see marine life suffer the consequences of getting stuck in a web of plastic trash, why was the convenience of everyday life the first thing to be taken away when organisations are prompted for their solutions to environmental issues? It seems that when it comes to an issue as massive as environmental degradation, the myth of human responsibility soon collapses. However, many problems are best understood as a product of their convoluted and flawed systems than of individual decision.

In an article by Vox’s Gaby Del Valle in 2018, Richard Heede, co-founder and co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute, said that “You can measure a person’s impact, but there would be a lot of digits behind the zero in terms of percent of global emissions attributable to or savable by an individual.” With this account alone, it should come as no surprise that an individual’s contribution to pollution is little compared to that of a multinational organisation.

Does guilt tripping work?

To a certain extent, we are the target audience for the bulk of the pollution. The rising tide can’t be stopped by individual decisions, but the situation will only get worse if we do nothing, which is why we need to reduce our consumption in light of the climate crisis. And this essentially leads to one huge cycle.

However, the truth is, greenwashing is commonplace, whether we notice it or not. From fossil fuel companies to fashion brands, it’s almost as if we cannot escape greenwashing. But how did we get to this point?

In a groundbreaking essay published by Mashable, author Mark Kaufman calls “carbon footprint” a sham. In the essay, Kaufman eloquently explains how BP utilised “the public relations professionals Ogilvy & Mather to promote the slant that climate change is not the fault of an oil giant, but that of individuals. […] The company unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator” in 2004 so one could assess how their normal daily life — going to work, buying food, and (gasp) travelling — is largely responsible for heating the globe. A decade and a half later, ‘carbon footprint’ is everywhere.”

With this “successful, deceptive PR campaign”, it has become almost too easy to put the blame on consumers. While we can debate on whether or not it’s good, bad, or problematic, one thing is sure: the popularisation of the term wasn’t meant for BP’s own accountability. As Kaufman brutally highlights, “In 2019, BP purchased its’ biggest acquisition in 20 years’ […] In 2018, BP invested 2.3 per cent of its budget on renewable energies. Its bread and butter is still black oil and gas.”.

All that glitters is not green

The same goes for using sustainability as a marketing tactic. As more and more fashion companies promote their sustainability initiatives, you may be tempted to validly assume that the fashion industry is growing more ethical and sustainable. While it may ring true in some areas, the adage “all that glitters is not green” is not always applicable.

Just last month, a lawsuit was filed against Swedish fast fashion retailer H&M in the US, alleging that the firm engages in “misleading” marketing by fraudulently labelling certain items as “sustainable.” While the lawsuit may be a turning point in the fashion industry, retailers like H&M are not alone in profiting from false sustainability claims made about their products.

Other fast fashion retailers like Asos, Boohoo, and George at Asda are being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK on whether or not their claims of being environmentally friendly and sustainable constitute as greenwashing.

Interim CMA chief executive Sarah Cardell has stated that the organisation will be thoroughly examining the companies’ environmental claims and that “People who want to ‘buy green’ should be able to do so confident that they aren’t being misled. Eco-friendly and sustainable products can play a role in tackling climate change, but only if they are genuine,”.

This brings us back to the great irony of Kourtney Kardashian’s new job. The reality star and Poosh founder will meet with “sustainability experts to better understand challenges and opportunities in the fashion industry” and showcase two capsule collections, the first of which will debut at New York Fashion Week next Tuesday.

Carol Kane, co-founder and executive director of the Boohoo Group, called the partnership an “extraordinary collaboration” that represented “the culmination of months of work by our teams.” While we cannot exactly fault people for standing by their businesses, we must be able to question them respectfully on why they believe deceit is a legitimate marketing strategy.

Furthermore, follow-up research conducted by Labour Behind the Label, ShareAction, and the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in 2021 found that Boohoo had not made substantial changes to worker rights in its supply chain. The organisations pointed out that “the low prices paid, the price competition encouraged among suppliers and short order times – are drivers for illegally low wage payments, informal labour and poor working conditions.”

A new way to virtue signal?

The thing is, many of us don’t really have a choice but to shop at fast-fashion chains. And giving credit to where it’s due, they know how to cater to their customers. From luxury brand inspired trends to inclusive sizing, it’s easy to understand how fast-fashion is able to basically take over the world. However, it’s hard to forgive and comprehend fast fashion companies when they pay celebrities or influencers a lot of money to promote their supposed “sustainable” clothing lines through what amounts to a form of virtue signalling.

Once again, this is rife with irony. Yes, it is not only unsustainable, but the notion that when called out for their actions, those who buy fast fashion because it is what their budgets allow are suddenly as much to blame as the celebrities who promote it. This is absurd. These people are not the ones contributing to the success of fast fashion as they do not necessarily have the luxury of disposable income to simply keep on buying trendy pieces whenever they want to.

It again raises another question of “What exactly are we going to do then?”. Yes, recycling is one of the feasible answers. However, inventory sales aren’t the only option. A long-term solution is needed, and it will necessitate a critical approach, one rooted in culture and our way of life.

While the fashion business will undoubtedly evolve over time, we simply cannot let it evolve on its own by doing nothing because it is difficult to mend or solve “nothing”. We need to dig deep into the roots of using consumers as scapegoats or companies playing hot-potato when it comes to their environmental impact and accountability. By gaining insight from our setbacks, we may move closer to our ultimate aim of identifying what actually performs the trick.

IMAGE: via Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Shirts with funky patterns hung on a clothes rack at a store