Blake Lively may not be the only one who awed everyone with her gilded glamour at the MET Gala 2022. At this year's Met Gala, a notable feat was that celebrities, including Shawn Mendes, Billie Eilish, and Camila Cabello, donned upcycled designer ensembles. Shawn said he was proud to be wearing a sustainable costume since Tommy Hilfiger created the 1900s-inspired suit entirely out of deadstock fabric. At the same time, Billie and Camila also stated their outfits were 100% upcycled. On the other hand, Amy Schumer mocked the concept of the Gilded Age and invited her designer Gabriella Hearst to talk about climate change.
Although the sustainability and climate change movements have been slow to gain a foothold in Hollywood, fans have increasingly acknowledged their effects. Though A-list celebrities first started the sustainable movement, the studios, in the meantime, also set out to change how they operate. The Harry Potter superstar Emma Watson played a prominent role in promoting sustainability as early as 2011, inspiring her fans worldwide. Leonardo Di Caprio is an ardent advocate of fighting climate change, nature conservation, and exposing the dairy industry's unethical practices. Zac Efron's documentary series "Down To Earth With Zac Efron" premiered in July 2020 and took the audience on a voyage of planet preservation. Jessica Alba established 'The Honest Company', which is now worth $1 billion, out of a genuine necessity for her child. The business offers an alternative to popular infant items that contain petrochemicals and synthetic fragrances. A lot of prominent celebrities have committed to the sustainable movement.
Fans no more turn a blind eye to fake branding gimmicks.
Consequently, followers of Hollywood entertainment are now quick to call out celebrities who involve themselves in controversial branding activities. Netizens, especially, are increasingly intolerant of stars simultaneously promoting sustainability and fast-fashion labels. For instance, Fast fashion and the Kardashian-Jenner family have a paradoxical relationship. In a lawsuit against the UK fast-fashion brand "Misguided" for exploiting her name to sell knock-offs, Kim Kardashian won a whopping $2.7 million in damages. Yet, ironically, her sisters Khloé Kardashian and Kylie Jenner have been closely associated with other fast fashion companies such as Shein and Fashion Nova, which have sparked widespread outrage.
If only fans were quick in realising their carbon footprint, just as how quickly they caught celebrities' branding blunders!
Music festivals are in the unfortunate situation of adding to the climate crisis. Plastic cups flood trash cans, dazzling lights and loud sounds consume electricity, and fans and artists travel from all over the world. According to an environmental impact report on Coachella and other festivals held on the Indigo Empire Polo Club Grounds by event organiser Goldenvoice, solid waste generated by these events is estimated to be 1,612 tons annually and 107 tons per festival day. Only 20% of that waste is recycled (Washington Post, 2017).
When the sun is setting in the west, the east rises with a unique MO.
Unfortunately, the west is sloppily working towards undoing its misdeeds. Meanwhile, renowned for its quirky, vivid, and avant-garde styles, Korean entertainment is aggressively clawing its way up the global entertainment charts, quickly garnering an international fanbase and followership. The aesthetic charm distinct from Korean music and Korean shows has recently earned a large audience.
The Korean music industry has built a name for itself in the elite fashion world, from music videos with bright backdrops to light tinted and tonal attires. Lastly, each member has a different hair colour. The international appeal of K-pop stems from its eclectic nature. Be it a stage performance, a music video, or airport fashion, K-celebrities’ costumes exude flamboyance. When YG Entertainment’s bands 2NE1 and Blackpink became successful, the popularity of urban-styled clothing skyrocketed. As a result, airport outfits, especially edgy, comfort streetwear that idols like CL wore, such as baggy pants and oversized t-shirts for travel, became trendy. Tennis skirts are regaining popularity thanks to idols again.
During the pandemic, the Hallyu wave gained a global following thanks to K-pop music, which also helped boost the growth of K-fashion, K-dramas, K-beauty, and K-food. While everyone was grooving to Dynamite and Butter to blow their pandemic woes off, South Korea anticipated total tourism earnings to be approximately 10.28 billion USD in 2021.
Kpop is in vogue and so is its carbon footprint.
Millions of K-pop fans (even in India, regardless of inflation or financial deprivation) buy merch, stream music videos, opt for premium subscriptions on apps like Weverse and VLive, and attend online concerts of their favourite band. They also devotedly make an effort to dress up as their favourite idols while attending concerts and customised fan events; this reflects the industry's incredible impact on fast fashion. The fans religiously follow their idol’s new outfits from each comeback music video, airport fashion, and personal style through Instagram.
Undeniably, K-pop 'idols' are untitled fashion influencers. The obvious well-crafted songs and music videos with the latest designer outfits are a serve! However, the primary issue with K-pop is the trends fade as soon as the bands release an album or mini-album every year, unlike the western singers who release an album and perform it for the next two years.
Fast fashion helps ordinary people get their hands on the hottest new style or the next great thing for a reasonable price. To aid these fans, websites like Shein, Fashion Chingu & YesStyle bring out affordable imitations of designer clothing worn by Korean celebrities. However, all these companies hailing from China use cheaper materials to mass-produce the copies.
Singer IU is wearing the Italian luxury brand Moschino while a Fashion Chingu website sells the imitation for a more slashed rate of 44 pounds.
There's nothing wrong with following a new trend. However, the frenetic change in fashion trends has become an underlying problem. The rise of social media has forced fashion trends to die soon, and new ones are born in just a few days.
Fast fashion is also linked to pollution, waste, the proliferation of a "disposable" mentality, minimal salaries, and unsafe working conditions. The fashion industry is the world's seventh-largest economy and one of the largest polluters in the world. Polyester is the most manufactured fabric of the twenty-first century, according to Bloomberg (February 2022). Like plastic, gasoline, and paraffin, polyester is manufactured from petroleum. Knowing their industry’s hazards, some brands recently announced that they aim to become 100% 'circular' by 2030. However, the cons of fast fashion outweigh the pros.
Stans take a Stand!
In 2021, K-pop fans worldwide came together for the ‘No K-pop on a Dead Planet’ (#NKDP) campaign to raise awareness about climate change, plastic reduction, and waste-free performances. The petition, aimed at fans, performers, and K-pop agencies, was favourably welcomed, with approximately 11,000 people signing it. ARMYs, Blinks, NCTzens, Exo-Ls, and MooMoos were the top five fandoms who signed the petitions.
Art by fans of BLACKPINK and members of Kpop4Planet send the message that the Earth under the threat of climate change must be saved together by fans and their idols. Courtesy of Climate Media Hub
The Korean entertainment industry has taken this issue extremely seriously and has begun integrating sustainability in many areas. For example, Red Velvet members were recently seen at their comeback performance for the EP Queendom wearing upcycled ensembles. These repurposed skirts were from the sustainable brand Popsiz; other idols like ITZY were also seen wearing those outfits. Additionally, according to YG Entertainment, one of the big four South Korean agencies, boyband Winner's member Mino's albums were made using recycled materials.
Red Velvet wearing upcycled skirts from the brand Popsiz for the Queendom comeback stage
Another YG girl group, Blackpink, was appointed UN ambassador for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2021. The industry's efforts to reform are most evident, with Bangtan Boys (BTS) indicating a preference for sustainability. BTS stunned everyone by donning upcycled costumes from the company ReCode during the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly 2021 in New York. More than a million people tuned in to hear BTS speak at the United Nations General Assembly.
There is no denying that fans religiously support, follow, and promote the issues taken up by their favourite idols. Yet, ironically, we don't see as many fans taking the actions or trying to incorporate sustainability into their own lives.
Consumerism and music bands
Most current millennials (including this article's authors) were generally enormous fans of Disney/Nickelodeon, Marvel/DC, Cartoon Characters, Sci-fi movies, boy bands/girl groups, rapstars, wrestlers, and sports personalities during their teens in the nineties. We also had a fair share of Potterheads, Beliebers, and F.R.I.E.N.D.S enthusiasts. Purchasing Hannah Montana and Jonas Brothers band merchandise, such as stickers and notebooks, was the rage in the noughties. Having a bag or pencil case with Selena Gomez or Miley Cyrus's picture was like declaring your love and loyalty to the world. Things haven't changed much since then, as indicated by the similar pattern in K-pop band merchandise. Like ExoL or Blink supporters, the BTS ARMY proudly displays their keychain with their favourite bias.
Fans typically purchase merchandise from their favourite artists to display their devotion and support. Many believe that the fan-artist connection is established through merch. Musicians aren't the only ones with unique merchandise; followers of YouTubers and social media influencers are also among the top buyers. In today's music scene, band merch is a must-have because it generates additional revenue. The most famous band merch items are hoodies, t-shirts, and wristbands, with band tees topping the list, according to Loudwire. In addition, mugs, bags, masks, notebooks, pens, socks, and other souvenirs are available.
What's the way forward, then?
It is conclusive that Kpop wants to retain fandom loyalty.
In contrast to the west, the east's music companies recognised the situation promptly and took action. Some corporations, such as Hybe with their K-pop boy band, BTS, have begun to take initiatives. Undoubtedly, Korea's soft power is attempting to embrace sustainability to avoid criticism and maintain the positive branding they have built over the past decade. Indisputably, the Korean music industry is one of the most customer-friendly entities, as K-pop never fails to impress listeners and has set a high bar for its contemporaries.
Armchair Activism without individual action is an impasse.
Fans are quick to call out the various celebs' inconsistent actions or show solidarity with their idols when they speak out against social and environmental issues. For instance, BTS has been invited to the White House to talk about anti-Asian hate crimes, and the viral social shares about this news are off the roof. Ardent K-pop followers even pressure entertainment industries to take steps to lower their ecological footprint.
All this advocacy seems peachy on the outside, especially when K-pop, if not the west, is very responsive to such demands. While some of the fans are practising what they preach, most of them are still engaging in conflicting behaviours. For example, they voice concerns about global warming on different social platforms. However, these are the same people who buy merch, albums and other goodies to increase the sales and popularity of their idols, to flaunt how big of a fan they are, or impulsively buy more merch to flex their collections just because this is the 'it' thing to do.
Then, such social and environmental movements would be as transient and pointless as K-pop trends. For that reason, fans must introspect on themselves while pointing fingers at the industry. They are essentially creating market demand for fast fashion, so they must first look at their carbon footprint. Next, they must educate themselves on Sustainability and practise conscious consumerism before blindly and superficially advocating for climate action. Or else, environmental activism would end up being green branding events for optics and not exactly catalysts for climate action.
Varsha holds a master's in Communication and Media Studies; she is an avid researcher and observer of the dynamic pop culture trends. In addition, she is passionate about music and the music industry. As an aspiring creative and marketing strategist, she hopes to bridge the music industry with Sustainability.
Deepa Sai is the founder of ecoHQ, a startup that consults for organisations in the Sustainability and Social Impact space. Hailing from a background in Psychology, Social Work, Human Resources, and Communications, Deepa believes in Creative Advocacy. She is also a music aficionado who consumes liberal amounts of coffee!