How To Effectively Ruin Your Brand As an Entrepreneur

How To Effectively Ruin Your Brand As an Entrepreneur

Branding lessons learned from the Boohoo x Kardashian faux pas

How To Effectively Ruin Your Brand As an Entrepreneur
Photo by Harrison Haines, amended by author

What do Kourtney Kardashian and sustainability have in common?

Exactly: nothing. There’s not even a 0.005% overlap in values.

Yet a fashion brand appointed her sustainability ambassador, reportedly paid her a salary in the millions, and is now promoting their upcoming sustainable fashion line in the press.

Is it a well-planned PR stunt? Maybe. Should you as a solopreneur, startup or small business owner take it as best practice and copy the idea? You might guess it’s a no, but do you also know why?

In this case study, I’ll walk you through a perfect example of how greenwashing — or nicewashing — can backfire for your brand.

Put differently: How to kill your reputation and brand as a solopreneur in very little time.

Plus, I’ll share six important brand-building lessons, you want to take into account when planning your communication activities.

One thing is clear: this fashion retailer and Kourtney Kardashian will probably survive their marketing faux pas, but we — the one-person or small businesses — will likely not.

By now, also the sleepiest company will have understood that becoming active in terms of social or environmental sustainability is indispensable if they want to have a future-proof business.

So did Boohoo, a US fast fashion e-tailer, which has a long history of being constantly criticized for its bad business practices in the news and on social media. Just recently, a global outcry against their unethical workers waged in the UK and across the globe made its way to online- and offline newspapers.

No wonder, they decided to do something about their scratched reputation after being named one of the least sustainable fashion brands by the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee in 2019. Finally, they have to change something, we would think. Yet their next step couldn’t have been more wrong.

Earlier this week, Boohoo announced Kourtney Kardashian Barker as its new sustainability ambassador. Together, they aim to make a positive environmental impact and increase awareness of more sustainable practices in the fashion industry. It was strike number one.

In their collaboration, they plan to create two sustainability-inspired capsule collections “created in tandem with a journey of investigation into opportunities for creating a more sustainable fashion future.” That was strike number two.

Here’s why.

According to BBC, 13 million tonnes of textiles were thrown away in the US in 2017. The average American has been estimated to throw away around 37kg of clothes every year.

Globally, that’s an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste each year, which is the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of clothes ending up in a landfill every second. By 2030, the world population is expected to discard more than 134 million tonnes of textiles, according to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report 2017.

These numbers aren’t insignificant. They are massive — so taking action to make fashion more sustainable and socially fair, would actually be an honorable and very much-needed step.

So, why is the cooperation between Boohoo and Ms. Kardashian not a match made in heaven? Let’s take a closer look.

First, you don’t have to be a fortune teller to know that a woman, who is predominantly traveling in a private jet, accused of overusing water in California’s drought, and has no background in environmental or textile industries whatsoever, is NOT a good sustainability consultant.

It’s like appointing Mr. Bean president of the United States. The motivation might be there, but the skills and knowledge are missing.

If Boohoo actually cared to make the fashion industry more sustainable, they should have hired an activist, university professor, or a leading scientist. Someone with the necessary know-how.

Second, the numbers don’t add up.

The single best way for a super-fast fashion brand to reduce its negative environmental impact is to reduce its output. The second step is to pay a fair living wage to all workers involved in their garment production — this would reduce their negative social impact.

Yet the first decision made by the partners involved was to create a capsule collection consisting of 45-pieces, designed by Kourtney Kardashian, priced between $6 and $100.

Sources stated that their workers in the UK only get £3.50 an hour, workers in Pakistan 0.25 cents. I wonder how much Boohoo will pass on to their workers if their items only cost $6?

If you subtract the average material and transportation costs plus the average brand margin in the fashion industry, 25% of the retail price goes to factory owners, which in the case of a $6 shirt is $1.5.

Calculating that a garment is not made by solely one factory, but 4+ factories, less than 40 cents are passed on to one factory owner. From 40 cents, he/she has to pay fixed costs and his own wage — the rest is passed on to the garment workers sewing those clothes.

Does this sound like a fair wage for hours and hours of work?

At the same time, Boohoo pays Ms. Kardashian, worth $65m, a super-biggish sum for drawing 42 items, giving feedback to designers, and posing in front of the camera. The imbalance between these numbers is striking.

Campaign photo Boohoo x Kardashian
Photo from The Sustainable Fashion Forum

Imagine what REAL positive impact Boohoo could have made if they had invested K’s salary into the wages for their labor, scientific material research, or recycling techniques.

Third, the initial press release didn’t mention what percentage makes up the recycled content or what qualifies the cotton as traceable.

Boohoo said “of the 45 items, 41 contain recycled cotton. Others include traceable cotton and recycled polyester” and that customers will receive “clear information about how their garments are made.”

Boohoo will release a social content series giving “first-hand account of the experts they met on and off camera, the conversations they had, what they discovered, and how this continues to inform the project and the boohoo brand.”

To me and other fashion lovers, this sounds like an absolute disregard for the fast fashion problem at hand.

Creating a capsule collection instead of decreasing their production rates, including vague information about the materials used instead of providing detailed breakdowns of the components as well as discussing green opportunities with ‘professionals’ which will only INFORM the brand and not result in changed behavior, is a prime example of greenwashing.

A movie about the collaboration is just another puzzle piece in Boohoo’s PR stunt and not a researched documentation of the conditions in the fashion industry.

Don’t get blinded or inspired by such marketing activities.

The collaboration is revealing itself as greenwashing and has left some cracks on the brand’s already shaky reputation. Cracks you as a small business owner don’t want.

Boohoo’s announcement comes on the heels of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announcing its investigation into Boohoo and other fashion brands over claims about potential greenwashing and forced labor in the Leicester apparel-producing region where Boohoo makes the majority of its products.

Together, these claims and the campaign led to a loss of 23% of Boohoo’s value in one day, equating to $1.35 billion in losses.

That’s what happens on the business side. Let’s look at how the audience reacts on social media:

One person commented underneath Boohoo’s post announcing the partnership: How can we do better? — for starters, stop producing so much unnecessary clothing and start paying your workers fair wages instead of throwing it at a multi-millionaire who doesn’t actually wear boohoo clothing in her everyday life.

Another added, “Everything about this is so so vile. It could not be clearer that literally NO ONE involved in this campaign actually cares about “like, worker welfare and textile waste 🥴”

Or: “Positive change would be to stop overproducing poor quality clothes made by underpaid workers. Step one. Don’t need more awareness. The world is aware.”

Of course, many customers are also celebrating the upcoming fashion line. Not everyone is concerned about sustainability. Some just want more beautiful clothes to wear or are hard-core Kardashian fans.

Yet, the number of negative comments and bad press coverage shows people are becoming more and more critical not only about the environment and social inequalities but also about misleading business practices.

This will undeniably shape the way businesses do marketing in the future.

From a profit-oriented view, this collaboration might make sense.

First, a large portion of Boohoo’s audience is probably not interested in the sustainable character of this line. They don’t care, because the social and environmental inequalities don’t affect them directly.

Second, there’s definitely an audience overlap between Boohoo buyers and Kardashian fans, which will help both businesses sell the fashion line. And that’s precisely what this campaign is about: making more money.

That’s what all business owners want. But we should be careful in disguising profit-oriented campaigns as “good for our earth”. That might have worked in the past — it definitely doesn’t today.

If you’re a solopreneur, you’re probably not a multi-million dollar business like Boohoo.

Most of us don’t have the funding and the financial background to offset the negative press we would get from such a PR activity. Even if Boohoo is able to turn this misleading campaign into money, I doubt I could do it as a one-woman business.

In this case, the saying “Any press is good press” is not true.

Solopreneurs build their brands on visibility and trust. Read that again.

Yes, this stunt gives both companies visibility. However, it doesn’t increase trust among the audience. It does the opposite.

It kills your authenticity and credibility. And that’s precisely how you destroy your reputation and kill your brand.

So, what can you as a solopreneur learn from Boohoo’s faux pas?

Here are six important lessons you should ALWAYS keep in mind when planning your communication activities:

  1. Choose wisely with whom you collaborate. Make sure you have the same values and reputation. Because they will spill over.
  2. Don’t overpromise what you cannot deliver. This is basic marketing, yet in battle, we often forget it.
  3. Don’t make your service or product better than it is, but also not worse.
  4. Stay authentic. Especially when you’re a solopreneur, people follow and work with you because they look up to you as a person. They will stop doing it the minute your actions don’t match what you preach.
  5. Ask “Why should my audience care”.
  6. Big movements need investment. Financially, timewise, emotional. If you want to make an impact, do it properly. Or let it be.

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Entrepreneur's Handbook – Medium

Author: Nina Greimel