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Kim K's new nipple bra ad is greenwashing
An expert in the deceptive marketing tactic explains.
Definition: Green·washing (grēn-wȯsh-ing)
verb - to put more effort into marketing oneself as doing good things for the planet than on actually doing good things for the planet.
noun - a misleading advertising gimmick used by companies to exaggerate their environmentally friendly actions for the purpose of selling more product to climate-concerned customers.
Used in a sentence: Kim Kardashian’s new viral commercial for an undergarment with perpetually hard nipples may seem silly and harmless, even laudable—but it is a textbook example of corporate greenwashing.
I just want to start this off by saying I love a good climate change joke. The darker the better.
Just yesterday, a friend who is also a climate journalist sent me a mug with a picture of a burning Earth on it that says, “The climate beat: So hot right now.” We joke to cope with professional lives dedicated to telling stories about one of the most deadly injustices known to humanity. We laugh because we have to.
So when I saw Kim Kardashian’s new commercial for the SKIMS Ultimate Nipple Bra— which is essentially a bra with built-in hard nipples—my first reaction was to laugh. It pokes fun at the climate crisis in both a dark and racy way.
Here’s what the whole thing says:
The Earth’s temperature is getting hotter and hotter.
The sea levels are rising.
The ice sheets are shrinking.
And I’m not a scientist,
but I do believe everyone can use their skillset to do their part.
That’s why I’m introducing a brand new bra with a built-in nipple.
So no matter how hot it is, you’ll always look cold.
Some days are hard. But these nipples are harder.
And unlike the icebergs, these aren’t going anywhere.
See, it’s very funny! Except for one, super small, teeny-weeny thing:
Kim Kardashian, the person telling us this joke, is not doing it to ease the existential burden of living through the climate crisis—a burden she, a billionaire, does not personally have to grapple with.
Kim Kardashian, billionaire, is telling us this climate joke…to sell shit. Fossil-fuel derived shit. While she flies in a private jet that annually emits 610 times more than the average person emits in a year; while she operates multiple billion-dollar businesses dedicated to fueling unhinged consumerism of fossil fuel-derived plastic products; while she refuses to disclose the emissions of those businesses; and while she tells the rest of the world to be “realistic” about climate solutions.
Kim Kardashian is also telling this joke while assuring us she is, in fact, in the fight to solve climate change with us; that she is doing her part more than she is contributing to the problem. Alongside the ad, Kardashian announced that “in addition to our investment in advancing carbon removal, SKIMS is proud to donate 10 percent of sales from our SKIMS Ultimate Nipple Bra, as a one-time donation, to 1% for the Planet,” a global environmental nonprofit.
Kardashian has been repeatedly praised for this donation, as if it is some sort of philanthropic achievement for the planet. But it is not. It is an extremely vague commitment; nearly impossible to check up on (just like the rest of her companies); and absolutely minuscule compared to her personal contribution to the problem.
And sure, the Ultimate Nipple Bra is not just any product; it is a product that has been lauded as “significant for those who have fought breast cancer and for trans women.” That’s great, and we have absolutely no issue with that.
The issue we see here is joking about the climate crisis while pretending you’re seriously in the fight to solve it—and using that fake seriousness to boost your reputation and sell more shit. This is called “greenwashing,” and make no mistake: it’s exactly what Kim Kardashian is doing with this commercial, whether she realizes it or not.
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The 5 signs of greenwashing in Kim K’s new ad
To more thoroughly explain to you how Kardashian’s new commercial is greenwashing, we contacted an expert on the subject: Wren Montgomery, an associate professor of sustainability at the Ivey Business School at Western University.
Montgomery just so happens to have authored a report on corporate greenwashing that was published last week, wherein she and her co-authors list nine common forms of greenwashing, including: vagueness, jargon, no proof, selective disclosure, and inconsistent organizational practices.
In an interview, Montgomery told us that at least five greenwashing tactics are used in Kim Kardashian’s ad. Read on to learn exactly how, along with more details about the environmental impact of Kardashian’s products, and what Kardashian means by “investing in carbon removal.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Arielle Samuelson: What about Kim Kardashian’s nipple bra ad looks like greenwashing to you?
Wren Montgomery: The statement, “Skims was proud to donate 10 percent of sales from our Ultimate Nipple Bras as a one-time donation to 1% for the Planet.” That worried me a lot in terms of greenwashing.
That one-time donation is without any details. Is that 10 percent of one bra? Is it 10 percent on the first day of sales? Is it 10 percent of the first year of sales? It’s completely vague. They could be giving $10. They could be giving $1 million. That “no proof” stuff is so common in greenwashing.
They go on to take up prime social media space with two whole sentences talking about the good things that 1% for the Planet does. “A global network of businesses working together to support people on the planet" makes it sound like they're doing that work.
So they're taking 1% for the Planet's credibility to legitimize what they're doing. That’s like when BP says, ‘We're doing renewable energy,’ but it's 1 percent of their investments. They actually spent more on the marketing campaign than they did on renewable energy.
She also says, in addition to her donation, she’s “advancing carbon removal.” I didn't see anything in that video about an investment in advancing carbon removal.
There's just a number of common greenwashing tactics in here, and very little detail.
AS: It sounds like the upshot is that by making these vague promises about how much they'll donate to an environmental nonprofit, Kim Kardashian and Skims are saying, “If you buy this bra, you are helping the planet.”
WM: Absolutely. That's the definition of greenwashing, as a colleague has defined it: suggesting that you're more green than you actually are.
We've always said it’s “communication that misleads people into adopting a really positive belief about the organization's environmental performance, practices, or products.” Check, check, check. And they’re using various greenwashing tactics to do that.
AS: Can you name those tactics?
WM: It's the vagueness. They're using a lot of green language, but I'm not sure what they're actually doing, whether they're giving a dollar or whether they're giving $100,000. Jargon; so again, a lot of green words used here without much clear information.
Then there’s the no proof. They make that statement, as I said, about reducing carbon. There’s no proof of that whatsoever. I don't know what they mean by that, and it seems to be separate from the donation to 1%. It's just a sort of random, unverified claim.
Another tactic on the list is inconsistent organizational practices. If some parts of the organization—or person's empire—are doing one thing, and then the rest of the organization is doing something else, then it can be called greenwashing.
And then selective disclosure. They’re talking about certain things they're doing that are good, but not disclosing the rest of the impact that the bra would have or that their company has. They're putting a lot of focus on one good thing that they're doing that's probably a very, very small part of the overall organization's sustainability impact.
AS: One of the questions I tried to answer was whether Skims discloses its emissions data, which it doesn't. I assume that's still fairly uncommon among companies unless they're forced to. Is that right?
WM: Yeah, absolutely. That's getting really interesting because there's legislation coming through in the European Union as of January 1st that's going to require disclosures for companies doing $20 million of business in the EU. I'm not sure if she's doing $20 million of business in the EU.
But there are also regulations recently announced in California, which would require much more rigorous disclosures if you're doing over $1 billion worth of business. [Editors note: Skims was valued at $4 billion this year.] Skims wouldn't have to be disclosing, but it's coming down the pipeline rapidly.
AS: You made a point earlier about the bra’s environmental impact. Skims sells a lot of shapewear, but this particular bra is made out of 84 percent nylon and 16 percent spandex.
WM: So all fossil fuels. There's many names for wearing fossil fuels, and we've hidden them.
AS: You also mentioned the “advancing carbon removal” claim is part of the post. I looked into that, and this might be getting into the weeds, but Skims is part of a climate platform called Watershed. Watershed has partnered with a company called Frontier that says it is “buying an initial $1 billion of permanent carbon removal between 2022 and 2030.” Frontier was founded by Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify, Meta, McKinsey and others.
WM: We're talking about future washing. I see future washing as a form of greenwashing. But instead of misleading people in the present, firms are finding it easier to mislead people about what they're doing in the future.
It's becoming increasingly difficult to lie about what's happening in the present because somebody can go check. So we see a lot of companies shifting to greenwashing the future because it's much harder for somebody to prove that they're lying.
AS: I want to also ask you about another one of Kim Kardashian’s companies, which makes skincare. Skkn says that their products are in refillable bottles and jars, and they're packaged inside materials that are 100 percent recyclable. The bags that they arrive in are 100 percent compostable. When these claims were first made, it sparked a whole lot of backlash and claims of greenwashing. What is your take?
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WM: To give you an example, in Canada we have something called the Competition Bureau. They recently fined Keurig for making claims about their pods being recyclable, because there were only a couple of small places in Canada where that was actually possible. In theory the pot is recyclable, but most municipalities don't actually have the facilities to do that. They were actually fined almost $4 million for making those claims of recyclability.
I think we see that a lot, where something may be compostable, recyclable, or refillable in a lab, or maybe in a few select municipalities. But most people are not going to have access to the facilities to do that. So in Canada, at least, we've found that to be greenwashing.
AS: Kim Kardashian is worth $1.7 billion. Weighing her company's claims of sustainability and donations to climate nonprofits against her net worth and her impact on the environment, do you think Kim’s more climate friendly or climate harmful?
WM: I don't know much about Kim Kardashian. But I do know the flights, the clothes, and other things she's doing to drive excessive consumerism are not aligned with the sustainability claims that she's making on this one product when it's convenient for sales.
AS: So she’s climate harmful. I was trying to be nice actually because last year headlines were blaring that her sister Kylie Jenner is a climate criminal.
WM: Exactly. I think this is just hypocrisy, in plain words. Are the Kardashians really doing anything about the environment or just using it as a marketing ploy? Versus what they're doing in the rest of the company, and the rest of their lives, which are completely unsustainable and really encouraging and pushing excessive consumerism and overconsumption. I think they're highly problematic.
AS: And that excess consumerism is bad for the planet. I think it's really telling, because Kim’s had a huge impact on culture and the products that people buy.
WM: We have to deal with consumption. Nobody can say we can make more sustainable jeans in order to get it out of the climate crisis. No matter how sustainable your jeans are, we still don’t need more and more jeans. So we really have to think, if companies are going to make sustainability claims, about how we address that overconsumption.
Personally, I don't see how you can say you have a sustainable product while the rest of your company is not behaving sustainably.
AS: Given how popular Kim Kardashian is, and the size of her audience, how damaging are greenwashing statements from her about a product that she's encouraging people to buy?
WM: The thing that is encouraging to me is she knows that audience is getting concerned about the planet. They're worried about their purchases and they're looking for more sustainable products. So she's trying to play to that.
But she has the resources, she has the ability, to do something actually credible. This idea that you should trick your customers because you know they care about the planet and about sustainability drives me crazy. Why don’t you just actually do something credible? Be clear and transparent about it. Tell us what you're doing instead of using big promises. The customers are going to be happier, and we won't be sitting here talking about how much you're greenwashing.
Catch of the Day: Sweet 11-year-old Munchkin cat Biscuit doesn’t want to sell you anything—but according to reader Jill, she wouldn’t mind if you got her some catnip, lasers to chase, or belly rubs.
As Biscuit’s favorite activity is soaking up the sun, she strongly supports renewable energy projects, especially solar. Biscuit herself is solar-powered.
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