By Erin Gilchrist, Research Intern at Ecoveritas
Allegedly responsible for a global shortage of pink-coloured paint, the Barbie Movie was always going to be a hit. Playing on nostalgia, the film spoke to multiple generations and raked a large audience into theatres worldwide. This success was not limited to the box office but also in product sales - Mattel’s stock value has increased by around 4.5% since the start of its marketing campaign.
The film’s success saw it set social media conversations alight, but little has been said about the untold environmental cost. Barbie’s popularity has provided an interesting insight into how realistic behavioural consumer change really is.
The Barbie Movie involved countless collaborations across multiple industries. In the fashion industry alone, around 35 brands have released tie-in merchandise. Unsurprisingly, these companies have all been fast fashion brands, including Primark, Zara, and Boohoo.
The textile industry’s impact on the planet is well-known and widely reported: it is responsible for up to 10% of global carbon emissions. Once items have been purchased and used, they are notoriously difficult to recycle due to the combination of multiple materials. Increasing clothing utilisation is key to making the fashion industry more circular. Yet, it is estimated that just 8% of clothes are donated or sold via an online marketplace for reuse in the UK.
The Barbie Movie, however, has transcended these debates, quickly wrapping the planet in a thick pink blanket. A quick search of ‘Barbie’ on online fashion store Depop returns almost 20,000 results, with just under half of these items labelled ‘Unused’ and ‘Like New’. The top five labels in this search are all fast fashion brands, specifically those that have released a ‘Barbie’ product line following the film’s success. The drive for profit and social and cultural buzz has led to a microtrend, and caused unnecessary overconsumption, specifically in the fashion industry.
When bombarded with constant marketing, sustained, meaningful, and true consumer behavioural change is perhaps not as achievable as hoped - and it is something so sorely needed. The simple and obvious solution is for consumers to reduce the amount of clothing they purchase. However, when fashion brands have suddenly and suspiciously ditched their greenwashing attempts to jump on the pink microtrend, consumers find themselves swimming against the tide.
As frustrating as this development has been to witness, perhaps it shows the need for a better narrative around how consumers can indulge in trends while keeping to sustainable practices. This would have been easy for the Barbie microtrend: many people will already own pink clothing, and for those that don’t, it wouldn’t have been hard to source them from second-hand outlets. It has been shown that it is unrealistic for most consumers to exclude themselves from buying new pieces for them: more needs to be done to accommodate those who want to follow these trends.
This film was released on July 21, 2023, and just a month later, it was already out of the news cycle and largely forgotten about. The conversation moved on, with its legacy now being collateral damage to the environment and a drive away from sustainability. A time when consumers see past forgettable trends and take accountability for what they are purchasing is long overdue. Still, this episode has once again shown that perhaps the reality is that this sentiment struggles to gain enough traction.
Putting the responsibility of the entire product life cycle on businesses is paramount: the Barbie micro trend has shown just how necessary adopting an EPR scheme for textiles is to make the fashion industry more circular. By getting producers to cover the cost of textile waste management, there is an incentive for eco-design and waste reduction, therefore increasing circularity. The EU has proposed introducing an EPR scheme for textiles, with eco-modulated fees, so the amount producers pay is relative to their environmental performance. This comes after successful implementation in other European countries such as France and the Netherlands. This international expansion has also increased the sentiment in the UK to extend the EPR scheme to include textiles. Earlier this year, WRAP recommended this to the Government, but the recent EU announcement has further intensified calls for its implementation. Hopefully, it is just a matter of time before the UK follows suit.
 Mattel stock increases = Mattel, Inc. (MAT) Interactive Stock Chart - Yahoo Finance
 Fast fashion: How clothes are linked to climate change - BBC News
 Clothing Waste Statistics & Facts | Sustainable Fashion (commonobjective.co)