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The Paradox of Kourtney Kardashian Selling Sustainability

Boohoo’s latest marketing move — tapping a mega-influencer as ‘sustainability ambassador’ — embodies the conflicts inherent in sustainability marketing.
Kourtney Kardashian Barker modelling a bright silver puffer jacket and other pieces from her new capsule collection with Boohoo
Kourtney Kardashian Barker modelling pieces from her new capsule collection with Boohoo (boohoo)
BoF PROFESSIONAL

If Boohoo’s latest show as part of NYFW was supposed to demonstrate its commitment to sustainability, there was little to show for it.

Designed by its newly minted “sustainability ambassador” Kourtney Kardashian Barker, the collection unveiled Tuesday night featured trendy styles like knit cut-out dresses, sequined mini skirts and trench coats in synthetic leather — garments that could be found on Boohoo.com right now.

For the attendees — the usual suspects of influencers, reality TV stars and of course, Kardashian and her husband Travis Barker — there was virtually no information about the sustainable nature of the garments, which Boohoo said are made from recycled fibres and upcycled vintage pieces.

Even before the show, which upended a section of New York City’s High Line park, Kardashian’s appointment and the apparent marketing campaign around the so-called sustainable capsule had drawn ire from sustainability advocates, who question whether the tie-up is really selling sustainability, or just selling more stuff.

Boohoo has promoted the collaboration as a way to lend blockbuster celebrity power and reach to conversations about sustainability (not to mention a huge marketing push at a time when competitor Shein is snapping up market share).

Kardashian Barker has said she only agreed to the ambassador role on the basis she could use it to address the industry’s impact. She will release a short-form docuseries exploring the topic alongside her collections with Boohoo.

There’s no denying that with nearly 200 million Instagram followers, Kardashian Barker has a platform that far surpasses even the most well-known sustainability advocates.

It’s a captive audience of fans who may not necessarily know — or care — much about sustainable fashion. Non-profits, like anti-slavery organisation Hope For Justice, which feature in Kardashian Barker’s upcoming series, will gain unprecedented exposure. Her own self-confessed ignorance may also help make the topic more accessible for newcomers.

“I think the most exciting bit is that she is really open about not knowing all the answers,” said Rosie Howells, Boohoo’s head of sustainability. “She’s going to be able to share with hundreds of millions of followers the fact that there are no silly questions in this space, everybody’s finding it confusing, and what we’re trying to do is raise awareness to the issues of the fashion industry.”

But critics are still not convinced. Boohoo’s low-cost business model is widely associated with unfair labour practices. In 2020, the company was embroiled in a public scandal over the treatment of workers in its suppliers’ factories in the UK city of Leicester (the company’s current sustainability efforts are in part a response to this). It’s also currently under investigation for greenwashing by the UK’s advertising watchdog. Boohoo said it was working closely to support the authority in its investigation.

Meanwhile, sustainably branded capsule collections are a well-worn greenwashing tactic for big fashion brands more interested in making a marketing splash than driving real change, critics say. Other brands that have tapped high-profile figures for sustainability roles have engaged celebrities with existing track records talking about the topic.

For instance, earlier this year, Wolford named model and influencer Doina Ciobanu brand sustainability advisor, while Swiss watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen brought in supermodel Gisele Bündchen to advise on environmental and community projects. Both are passionate environmental advocates, and their appointments were tied to sustainability reports and strategies, not product launches.

“Just being interested in [sustainability] isn’t enough,” said Jesse Gre Rubinstein, founder of LA-based digital marketing agency Hello There Collective, which works predominantly with influencers and sustainability-focused brands. The tie-up would have been more compelling if there was more evidence of Kardashian Barker using her platform to advocate or engage her audience in environmental issues in the run-up to its launch, she added.

It also doesn’t help that the Kar-Jenner brand has become synonymous with a culture of excess, abundance and overconsumption, reflecting and fuelling breakneck trend cycles that have helped mainstream a culture of throwaway fashion. Recent controversy surrounding the family includes frequent use of private jets and, according to a report by The Los Angeles Times, exceeding California drought restrictions.

And while there’s still time for Kardashian Barker to put her social media presence to good use, she’s mostly been drumming up buzz around her vitamin and supplements brand Lemme, which launches later this month.

For Boohoo’s new sustainability ambassador, the influencer marketing and selling machine trundles on, seemingly unchanged.

Additional reporting by Cathaleen Chen.

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