The internet rolled in euphoria as Rihanna made her long-anticipated return to the stage to take on her half-time performance at the 57th Super Bowl this month. To top it all off, the 34-year-old took the chance to reveal the pregnancy of her second child, making social media go into a meltdown. Twitter was aflutter.
As a sustainable fashion obsessive and raging Rihanna superfan, I felt conflicted watching Rihanna make her return on arguably the most coveted stage in America. On the surface, I was seeing an immigrant woman of color turned singer-entrepreneur-designer-mother-actress-billionaire take the stage, inspiring marginalized groups across the world with her success story and entertainer appeal.
This disconnect is striking; we see a brand profiting from using feminism and inclusivity as core elements of its marketing and branding strategies while at the same time neglecting to put in place basic safeguards to protect workers in its supply chain, 80% of whom are women.
However, looking more closely at the companies Rihanna has founded to elevate her to this coveted icon status, I became aware of some less than pleasant truths, including the abysmal presence of ethics in the operations of these very companies that made Rihanna the wealth and power symbol that she is today.
FYI, I’m the kind of person who receives Rihanna birthday cards, so writing a critical piece on the famed woman and her business ventures has never been on the top of my list. But affecting real change in the industry means holding the brands we love to account, and those owned by our favorite celebrities are no exception. So let’s talk about it.
A revolution in lingerie
Rihanna’s seven-year hiatus from producing new music has been fruitful, to say the least. Now officially a billionaire, her business ventures in the fashion world have included perhaps her most-known brand, Savage X Fenty (SXF). SXF has disrupted the industry, showing its competitors how inclusive and diverse a lingerie company can and should be.
Savage X Fenty blatantly disregards industry standards when it comes to social and environmental disclosures, merely noting on its website that products are “imported.”
Age, gender, abilities, size, race — Rihanna’s lingerie and lifestyle brand Savage X Fenty has covered it all on the runway and in marketing campaigns; anyone can be their baddest self in a slinky SXF teddy. Producing some of the most inclusive fashion shows, SXF redefined what sexy means, making Victoria’s Secret’s exclusive ‘Angels’ look antiquated. And the public has been responsive: SXF generated an estimated $150 million in revenue in 2020 and is now reportedly valued at an estimated $3 billion in just five years.
— NFL (@NFL) February 13, 2023
Rihanna’s comeback was a win for representation, no doubt. When interviewed during Apple Music’s Super Bowl press conference, Rihanna explained the performance was an opportunity to represent her “country,” “black people,” and “immigrants.” And not only that, she showed some 110 million viewers at home that the Super Bowl stage can be rocked by a pregnant woman.
Ever the businesswoman, Rihanna used the opportunity to promote her brand when she turned to touch-up her make-up with the Fenty Beauty “Invisamatte” Powder while surrounded by dancers cladded in SXF bras, boxers and tank tops. In the run up to the show, SXF dropped its Game Day collection of jerseys and sweatshirts with pop-up stores for fans to nab merchandise.
We see a brand profiting from using feminism and inclusivity…while at the same time neglecting to put in place basic safeguards to protect workers in its supply chain.
Although Super Bowl performers don’t get paid directly for performing, it does pay to perform. Google searches for Fenty Beauty rose by 833 percent after her performance, making it the fourth most searched topic of the evening. Additionally, according to a report by Launchmetrics, the mention of Rihanna and Savage X Fenty is reported to have generated 2.6 million dollars in media impact value. On top of that, Rihanna earned an extra 1.5 million Instagram followers. Thirteen minutes of stage time was no doubt a commercial success for her brands… but at what cost to people and planet?
A savage scorecard
SXF is amongst the lowest-ranking companies on Remake’s 2022 Fashion Accountability Report, scoring a meager four points out of a possible 150, demonstrating an utter lack of transparency and accountability in all of the assessment categories. For context, the average score of the 58 companies analyzed in the report was 14, with even ultra-fast fashion brand Shein outranking SXF.
Remake’s scorecard for the brand concludes that the company “blatantly disregards industry standards when it comes to social and environmental disclosures, merely noting on its website that products are ‘imported.'” The company doesn’t report on its carbon emissions or indicate any carbon reduction targets. Most of its products use oil-based synthetic materials, and the brand has set no clear targets to move away from these materials.
View this post on Instagram
Alarmingly, SXF lacks even a Supplier Code of Conduct to define guidelines for assessing factories’ compliance with international labor standards, especially in regard to workers health and safety. This disconnect is striking; we see a brand profiting from using feminism and inclusivity as core elements of its marketing and branding strategies while at the same time neglecting to put in place basic safeguards to protect workers in its supply chain, 80% of whom are women.
SXF will need to shape up its business practices, and fast, lest it becomes displaced by the next, and more ethical, lingerie disrupter.
SXF did pick up some points with regard to diversity and was one of only six companies assessed which demonstrated that they have somewhat diverse boards that reflect the regions in which they operate. Considering SXF brands itself as a celebration of “fearlessness, confidence and inclusivity,” this should be a given.
Let’s bffr…we all know who the real winner of Game Day was.🏆
Dancers wear custom #SavageXFenty Pin Up Low-Impact Sports Bras, Savage X Cotton Boxers, & custom Mesh Tanks as layered pieces. Cop these looks from the field, available on the site NOW!🤍
📸: Emma McIntyre \ Getty pic.twitter.com/Jk14Vpx25h
— Savage X Fenty by Rihanna (@SavageXFenty) February 13, 2023
On the plus side, Rihanna’s philanthropic arm, the Clara and Lionel foundation, prioritizes climate justice as one of its focus areas, pledging to fund $15 million to 18 organizations on the frontlines of climate justice with the aim of supporting communities which bear the brunt of climate change. In fact, in an interview with Allure in February 2022, Rihanna made it clear that sustainability is on the brain when she reflected on how pregnancy has made her “look at being more sustainable — with everything, all around.”
To her credit, positive, albeit pretty small, steps have been taken to advance sustainability in other parts of her business. Fenty Skin claims to be ‘earth conscious’ through its use of refillable products, recycled materials and reduction of unnecessary packaging – though with no concrete information on how it plans to reduce its emissions, chemicals or waste, nor any mention of reduction targets, this can arguably be seen as greenwashing.
Most of [Savage X Fenty’s] products use oil-based synthetic materials, and the brand has set no clear targets to move away from these materials.
What’s more, SXF was fined £1 million by Santa Clara County and four other California local governments for allegedly defrauding consumers. The governments accused SXF of deceiving consumers by automatically enrolling them in a “VIP” program with recurring credit card charges. Such membership models can also fuel overconsumption and waste, encouraging VIP members to buy something new every month to get their money’s worth.
To fund climate justice initiatives using profits from an unsustainable fashion brand while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the impact of fast fashion on the planet is a joke, at best. A complete hypocrisy, at worst. With an expansion of brick-and-mortar stores and rumors circulating that the company is pursuing IPO and the greater scrutiny that comes with being a public company, Savage X Fenty will need to shape up its business practices, and fast, lest it becomes displaced by the next, and more ethical, lingerie disrupter.