Celebrity “Sustainability Ambassadors” – an emerging trend in the fast-fashion world but activists are not buying it. We take a look at recent announcements by H&M and Primark on their latest attempt to re-brand as ethical businesses.
Celebrity Ambassadorship is nothing new but typically falls into two categories:
>Brand Ambassador: brands enlist celebrities to help them sell their products. They pay big bucks and produce eye-catching campaigns to attract media attention and to entice the celebrities’ fanbase. Brands are selling us a lifestyle, and with an endorsement by our favourite stars, we are much more likely to align with their brand.
>Non-profit Ambassador: non-profits recruit celebrity ambassadors to generate media coverage, leverage their fame to raise awareness for the cause and solicit donations. These are usually volunteer roles and ambassadors feature in ad campaigns or event appearances. The charity draws attention for their cause, the celebrities image is bolstered.
The purpose of the celebrity in both of these scenarios is to use their considerable fame to inspire people to either buy from a brand or support a cause. This new hybrid approach sees celebrities paid by brands to influence us to buy their products while simultaneously assuring us that by supporting this particular brand, that we are doing something good because it is “sustainable”.
We’re not even talking about brands associated with anything remotely resembling sustainable, we are talking fast fashion. Yes, that’s right – notorious greenwashers H&M and overconsumption veterans Primark, are putting big bucks into their newest scam – signing up popular celebs as “Sustainability Ambassadors.”
Let’s start with Primark
TV Presenter de jour, Laura Whitmore announced her role as Primark Cares Ambassador in an Instagram post stating “Sustainability should be accessible to all!” and goes on to claim that she has “spoken about sustainability for a long time”. Her statement continues to describe a 12-month role that will involve Whitmore “asking the questions I’m sure you all have when it comes to sustainability for big high street brands.”
Now, unless you have been living under a rock, you will know that for years, sustainability experts and activists have been asking Primark for transparency around their environmental impact and their famously appalling labour policies. In 2013, protestors stood outside their stores after the devastating Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, where over a thousand people died in a factory that made clothes for a number of high street brands including Primark. It is unclear what Whitmore plans to ask but it is doubtful that they are questions that Primark hasn’t been asked before. Except this time, they are paying the person who is doing the asking. Sounds a bit like marking your own homework, right?
It wasn’t long before the criticism and interrogations came as people wanted to know how Primark, a fast-fashion pioneer, could ever be deemed sustainable and how a celebrity was qualified to help them do it. Unsurprisingly, Whitmore’s responses were nebulous and there was lots of “watch this space” and “my role is to ask questions”. If you are in the mood for some rage scrolling, I recommend making yourself a cup of tea and taking a look at the comment section. It went off! There has been no further information from Whitmore since the announcement a month ago but she has launched another partnership with a sportswear brand…
Days later, Primark was called out again in a now-deleted tweet that stated “normalise going into Primark for socks and coming out with three full bags”, a statement in direct conflict with their supposed commitment to sustainability.
Normalise paying your garment workers.— Venetia La Manna (@venetialamanna) March 31, 2021
Normalise reducing your output.
Normalise sharing your profits.
Normalise re-designing your entire business model.
Normalise ACTUALLY caring about people and planet. #PrimarkDoesntCare. https://t.co/41W5lTqrz0
Primark ignored the responses critiquing their encouragement of needless overconsumption and chose to respond only to the positive replies. Their feed has since been churning out similar messaging.
Whitmore presents a phenomenally popular TV show called Love Island which is a fast fashion machine. A bunch of scantily clad would-be influencers are flown away to a private villa in the sun to ‘couple up’ and compete for a £50,000 cash prize for best couple. The show is sponsored by fast-fashion giant, Pretty Little Thing and for 12 weeks contestants are decked out in their clothes. During the weeks that the show airs, the Islanders become the most famous people in Britain. An app allows viewers, who tune in in their millions six nights a week, to buy exactly the same outfits as their favourites.
The career trajectory for most Love Island contestants is to come out of the villa, sign up with a fast-fashion brand to do a “collection” and then continue to push everything from “skinny tea” to lip fillers to their Instagram followers. Pretty Little Thing made headlines last year when they did a 99% off sale – selling items for less than 10p and famously paid Molly May Hague £500,000 in a deal after she came out of the villa.
H&M swiftly followed
Determined not to let Primark beat them at the game they created (greenwashing, of course), H&M just announced their own celeb “Global Sustainability Ambassador”, Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams.
Williams announced her new role on Twitter and Instagram with a video hailing H&Ms initiatives as the “future of fashion”. The actress said: “working closely with experts within H&M to drive sustainability initiatives and shape the path towards an accessible and circular future. The long-term goal is to use 100 per cent recycled or other sustainably sourced materials for textiles across the full H&M Group brands by 2030.” Comments were quickly limited on the Instagram post as Williams likely wanted to avoid the volume of negative remarks that Whitmore received three weeks prior.
Just a few days earlier, H&M announced the Conscious points system. When you purchase an item from their Conscious Collection, you are awarded points that can be redeemed in-store. This begs the question, how conscious can a brand be when they are encouraging their customers to keep buying more and more?
The problem is, neither Whitmore nor Williams is qualified to advise anyone on sustainability. Both have experience of ambassadorship with brands and charities and yes, some of those charitable initiatives have been with environmental causes but that doesn’t mean that either of them has a particularly deep understanding of the complex issues around sustainability in the fashion industry. Campaigners and activists, who are experts on ethical fashion, have been contending with H&M and Primark for years. What can Whitmore and Williams add to a conversation that was ongoing long before they showed any interest?
On top of the question of qualifications, both “ambassadors” are being paid for their roles. As we previously discussed, the role of an ambassador is to advocate for and promote a brand. A genuine sustainability advisor would need to interrogate and be transparent about the findings. Can we truly believe that multi-billion dollar corporations are going to pay someone and allow them the freedom to say anything negative about their brands?
What about the garment workers?
Sustainability goes far beyond the fabric you are using. Even organic materials have to be sourced from somewhere and produced. Buying new clothes, no matter how good the supply chain is, needs to be reduced overall. There are currently still millions of people ordering new pieces weekly and if we continue, projections show an expected 60% increase in production and waste by 2030.
H&M and Primark are patting themselves on the back for using organic cotton for some of their clothing. Both have enormous product ranges, with new items coming in every week and have built a culture of overconsumption into their identity.
In response to Whitmore stating that her interest in working for Primark is because they are affordable, notable ethical fashion expert, Aja Barber created a post which asked the question – affordable for who? “Please stop calling these options ‘affordable’. The planet cannot afford it. The farmers cannot afford it. The upcyclers of Kantamanto cannot afford it. The garment workers cannot afford it.”
The worst part about this is that, while H&M and Primark are writing massive cheques for their celebrity ambassadors, the people who make the clothes are still fighting for a living wage, decent working conditions and are faced with regular crackdowns on their attempts to unionise.
Primark and H&M have been called out time and time again for exploitation. Both were listed as companies who refused to pay for orders during the pandemic – an incident that prompted the #PayUp campaign. According to the Bangladeshi and Garment Exporters Association: More than 1 million Bangladeshi garment workers were sent home without pay after brands cancelled £2.4 billion of existing orders when the pandemic hit. Some of this work was mid-production or already completed.
The Guardian shared the story of one of these women – Nazmin, a 26-year-old garment worker and mother of two in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “Our house rent is due. We are buying all our groceries on credit but they won’t give us any more food until we pay our bill. So our landlord managed to get a sack of rice for us and we’re surviving on that”
And it’s not just pay concerns. Garment workers are also subjected to horrific treatment. In the latest tragedy to make the news, Jeyasre Kathiravel, a 21-year-old Dalit woman from India was raped and murdered by her supervisor at Natchi Apparel, who make clothes for H&M. It transpired that Kathiravel had been harassed by the man at work and had filed multiple complaints, which went nowhere. Since Jeyasre’s murder, over 25 women have come forward to report harassment and sexual abuse at Natchi Apparel.
An alliance of garment worker’s rights organisations stated: “The rape and murder of this young Dalit worker was the direct result of Eastman Exports and H&M’s failure to provide a workplace free of gender-based violence, including sexual harassment. The supplier blocks TTCU’s intervention and assistance for workers in order to prevent trade union activities and collective bargaining in the factory; H&M thus far in spite of its professed support for Freedom of Association has done nothing to promote and ensure the same.“
The campaign #JUSTICEFORJEYASRE was born, demanding that H&M take accountability for the murder and compensate her family. How exactly is H&M sustainable when the women who make their clothes are not valued? How can we say that an industry that sends women home without pay in the middle of a pandemic and ignores their concerns about harassment from the men who go on to viciously attack and murder them, is in any way ethical?
Are celebs profiting off of the labour of activists?
The reason that we even have brands considering transparency and fair pay, is because of the tireless work of activists. NGOs and campaigners have been exposing the truth about fashion, the exploitation of people and the planet, pushing for change and advocating for garment workers.
For celebrities who have done none of this work, to swoop in for clout and cach is objectionable. And to be doing it with two of the worst offenders could be seen as an insult to all the hard work by passionate advocates. Whirmores apparent surprise when challenged about her role for Primark serves as further proof that she is new to the ethical fashion conversation and came unprepared.
These companies are powerful – their CEOs are billionaires. They are marketing masterminds and have invested millions into changing the way we consume fashion; strategically slashing prices and increasing their profit margins by convincing us that we have to have the latest trends and need to constantly be buying new looks. This is evidenced clearly in the steady flow of influencers creating new collections and promoting them to their fans online.
When faced with backlash on her Instagram announcement post, Laura Whitmore named dropped not one but two activists in an attempt to justify her Primark partnership. The first was Aja Barber whom Whitmore claimed she spoke to about the affordability of sustainable fashion. Aja responded saying that if she had known Laura had approached her to ask questions she could then put to Primark, that she never would have replied. She also shared that Primark has approached her in the past and that she refused to work with them because their business model is inherently unsustainable and unethical.
Whitmore then attempted to align herself with another sustainable fashion influencer, Venetia La Manna, calling her a friend and stating that “I’ve known her for years and I spoke to about this to her. In fact she gave me some really great questions months ago to put to Primark before I took the role”. Venetia made it clear that she was not happy about “the implication that I condone a 12-month ‘sustainability’ ambassadorship with one of the most unethical brands out there?!”.
The uncomfortable truth
While brands are investing in million-dollar campaigns and launching “exciting new tech”, we have to be careful not to allow ourselves to be seduced by the glossy ads and look at their track records. They frequently make bold claims and fail to deliver. H&M profess a “circular” business model but thousands of their labels were found recently at Wetahirakanda Nature Reserve in Sri Lanka where wild elephants were falling ill after consuming remnants of the garments.
Back in 2013, they pledged to pay their garment workers a living wage but since they continue to outsource this work. Eight years later they are still unable to provide evidence that they have. The average Bangladeshi worker earns as little $21 per month, while there are four billionaires in the H&M founders family.
Just last month, 100 workers in a Myanmar factory that produces clothes for Primark, were locked inside the factory when they tried to join anti-coup protests and around 20 were fired after they joined country-wide civil disobedience. These are not the actions of a brand that is “conscious” about the environmental impact of its business or one that “cares” about the human rights of its workers.
The truth is, society at large is addicted to consuming and that addiction is being fuelled by celebrity and influencer culture. The average person sees around 5,000 adverts a day. Fast fashion businesses not only take part in this – they are a huge driving force. They produce billions of garments each year, release new collections weekly, encourage customers to overbuy and enlist influencers to help them do it. The last thing we need is a celebrity mouthpiece being used to gloss over a history of overproduction and complicity in human rights violations.
This could be fast fashion’s desperate last-ditch attempt to cover up their burgeoning list of offences and judging by the backlash that both campaigns faced, the public is more informed than ever thanks to a growing global movement.
Support those making a difference
This week is Fashion Revolution Week (April 19th – 25th), if you’re new to it, check them out, support their initiatives and educate yourself. Follow and support independent organisations like Remember Who Made Them, Labour Behind the Label and Remake our World who investigate brands, compare their pledges with their practices and hold them accountable for their BS – something a paid ambassador could never do. And support the activists who have been doing the work for years (if you can afford it via their paid community sections, and by spreading their wisdom online).