The PR move that left Boohoo looking sheepish. An op-ed by Eleanor O'Leary
Last Friday afternoon, the press was abuzz with news that Boohoo had plans to implement a ‘wool ban’.
In a statement that seems to use the word ‘knowingly’ to suspicious effect, the brand announced that “as of AW19/20, we will not knowingly source any wool products”. PETA’s Director of Corporate Projects, Yvonne Taylor stated “PETA is toasting boohoo group's compassionate, business-savvy decision to scrap wool. Kind shoppers agree that no jumper or scarf is worth kicking, punching, and killing gentle sheep on the shearing floor, and we're urging other retailers to follow boohoo's forward-thinking example.”
From a brand that was declared as “failing to commit” by the Environmental Audit Committee in its recent investigation of British fashion brands, this move would be considered a real step in the right direction, yes?
Well. Not for everyone.
It didn’t take long for key opinion leaders within the sustainable and ethical fashion industry, not to mention The National Farmer’s Association, to call Boohoo out on the fact that really, wool is not the biggest issue here, and they literally could have focused on anything else within their supply chain if they wanted to make a real statement.
Fashion4Change’s Charney Magri, whose recent documentary Catwalk To Creation looks exactly at the lifespan of a woolen garment vs a garment with man-made fibres, set the record straight with an Instagram post that echoed the sentiment of many people within the sustainable fashion community:
“I don’t normally use social media to vent but I’m utterly disgusted by this post today claiming @boohoo has banned the use of wool because of claims by #Peta for animal cruelty. Firstly, #wool accounts for approximately 2% of the world fibre production and man-made fibres are 60%, of which the majority are #synthetics and are made of #PLASTIC. Secondly banning wool is THE most ridiculous move I could possibly think of. If animals are not being treated right then change your supply chain. There are plenty of companies out there doing an incredible job, looking after their animals so go find them so the ones who aren’t doing the right thing get closed down. And if you don’t know who these companies are, do some simple research or ask the #changemakers in the industry like @joinourco @thewoolmarkcompany@mrpatrickduffy @mrspress @fash_rev @orsoladecastro to name but a few. And thirdly take a look at the fashion industry and know it is one of THE top polluting industries IN THE WORLD next to oil. A third of the plastic problem COMES FROM FASHION. So banning wool is only fuelling this madness of mass consumerism and global catastrophe that we are in. Seriously. Stop and think before you make these ridiculous claims. Just proves #Catwalk2Creation could not be more timely and relevant in getting the message out there to really know what is happening in the world of fashion and most importantly #fastfashion @blixtiz .”
Within 24 hours of the ban being announced and featured in national press, including claims from The Daily Telegraph that suggested Boohoo didn’t even have that much wool anyway, the online retailer did a complete EWE-turn (inews.co.uk’s words) and that actually they wanted to let us “know a little bit more about our ongoing commitment to a sustainable future” and indeed they would be using wool as a sustainable material.
…All’s well that ends well then?
Sadly not. As many of us in this industry know, the terms sustainable and ethical and animal welfare all come with their own challenges, opportunities and meanings. Inwardly, we’re on one team; working to clean up much of the mess we’re in and get brands to take responsibility for their behaviour. And outwardly we’re trying to encourage consumers to ask the right questions to retailers, vote with their wallets, and inspire a new way of conscious consumerism. So when one of the UK’s biggest fashion brands makes a statement completely damning a small and not entirely toxic part of the fashion industry – then branding it under the umbrella term ‘sustainability’– it’s hard not to feel like they’re actually doing more harm than good, and instead of empowering consumers to make the right decisions, they’re actually just confusing them even further.
Public greenwashing aside, I personally affinity with wool and the part it plays in our fashion industry.
Back in 2012 I was a 26 year old fashion PR with no awareness of ‘sustainable fashion’. I didn’t shop on Boohoo, but I’ll admit, I was an H&M & Primark regular, and saving the planet was not high on my agenda. However, that August, I got the opportunity to work on The Campaign For Wool’s annual ‘Wool Week’; a really excellent campaign that champions “a global community of sheep farmers, retailers, designers, manufacturers and consumers united by our patron His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales.”
What should have been a tough sell (fashion press didn’t find wool particularly sexy back in ’12) became one of the most educational and rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on. Learning about the heritage and influence of the industry, the sustainable benefits of the fibre, and meeting the passionate and dedicated teams behind Margaret Howell, albam, Wool & The Gang and Pringle, made this project a real joy. I got to visit Yorkshire mills that produced pieces for Burberry, and came away with some fascinating if slightly morbid facts about ganseys. A few years later when I moved over to innocent and started working on The Big Knit, I teamed up with Campaign For Wool again on their ‘Wool BnB’, and was also lucky enough to secure a little woolly hat from the Christopher Raeburn team, known within the industry for their commitment to sustainability. I would go as far to say I credit the Campaign For Wool as being my gateway to wanting to work in sustainable fashion, and it’s led me to collaborating with many wonderful, kind and conscious people along the way.
But back to Boohoo.
I knew in ‘sustainable fashion’s watershed year' it would only be a matter of time before a major brand got caught out ‘Greenwashing’. And on the positive note, perhaps it’s a good thing that this has happened just seven weeks in to 2019, so that it can act as a lesson to other brands that have ‘integrated sustainability’ in to their Marketing & PR messaging.
Eleanor O’Leary is The Better Brand Consultant; focusing on championing sustainable and ethical brands with best-in-class PR & Marketing.