Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Double Life of Barbie Merchandise


Barbie mania isn’t going away anytime soon. But can our obsession with the film and its merchandise be a force for good?

In Greta Gerwig’s summer blockbuster Barbie, the protagonist, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), is conflicted. An existential crisis leads her out of Barbieland in search of answers taking her on a Dorothy-goes-to-Oz journey.

Off the screen, the hype over the movie and the #Barbiecore mania is having much of its own soul search.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen this many brand partnerships coming out of one film,” Jo Ashdown, managing partner at Mando-Connect, a brand partnership agency that is part of WPP, told Reuters.

The Barbie treatment is coming to major labels and retailers with collections at Bloomingdale’s, Zara, Gap, H&M, Walmart, and many, many more. Hyatt Hotels and Hilton are both offering Barbie-themed hotel suites in several cities. In Boston, a Barbie boat cruise drew hundreds of passengers.

In total, more than 100 brands have licensing agreements with Mattel around the film. The company is anticipating record sales for Barbie dolls and gear. Its stock rose 20 percent ahead of the film’s release last Friday.

Mattel says the Barbie movie is expected to boost global sales of Barbie dolls, which declined last year from record growth during the pandemic.
Mattel says the Barbie movie is expected to boost global sales of Barbie dolls, which declined last year from record growth during the pandemic. Courtesy Reuters

While Barbie merchandise is anticipated to give a boost to a lackluster economy, it’s also boosting our addiction to cheap, disposable products — and it’s happening in the month also known as Plastic Free July.

“As much of the world eagerly awaits the new Barbie film starring Margot Robbie, UN negotiators are trying to address the parts of our plastic world that aren’t so fantastic,” says the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Plastic products — from dolls to sneakers to tires—are often essential to modern life, but they’re also harmful to our planet and our health. Most plastic is produced using gas and oil, so it contributes to global warming. It also damages the environment by contaminating oceans and harming marine life.”

Barbie and plastic go way back. Since plastic and Barbie were introduced in the 1950s, more than 8.3 billion metric tons (9.1 billion US tons) of plastic have been produced, says the EarthDay organization. It says nearly 80 percent of all plastic ever produced since the 1950s still remains in landfills or scattered throughout the natural environment. “Global production is only growing, with over half of all plastic having been produced in the last 13 years. And, each year more than 500 billion new plastic bags are created, “meaning more than a million are produced every minute,” Earth Day says. “Just like Barbieland, our planet is surrounded by plastic everywhere we look.”

As a fossil fuel byproduct, plastic is a leading contributor to climate change. Because it doesn’t biodegrade, and because recycling efforts aren’t effective (only about five percent of plastic is recycled according to Greenpeace), plastic is responsible for a large chunk of landfill and ocean pollution.

Specifically, plastic’s impact on our oceans isn’t just killing marine life. It also causes ocean acidification, which reduces the ability to sequester carbon. Healthy oceans absorb 25 percent of all CO2 emissions and capture 90 percent of the excess heat generated by these emissions, according to the U.N. The more plastic in the waters, the less carbon they can trap.

More Barbie products mean, inevitably, more plastic waste speeding up climate change. Climate Central took to Instagram last week to show the impact climate change is having on the Barbie Dream House.

The Barbie merchandise craze is so widespread that its inevitable implosion will mean heaps of clothes, dolls, and gear clogging up secondhand stores and landfills.

While Reuters notes that Mattel’s “renewed emphasis on diversity and inclusivity” could provide enough novelty to keep people interested in Barbie gear, the “sheer amount of merchandise — from Barbie rugs to Barbie toothbrushes — raises a possibility of the brand overstretching,” it says.

Not all partnerships are new plastic products, though. Jacqueline Durran, the film’s costume designer, has partnered with online secondhand platform ThredUp. Durran curated a #Barbiecore Dream Shop, which includes a collection of nearly 300 Mattel-looking styles priced from $9 to $500.

“As a former vintage seller and designer known for period pieces, I’m passionate about reimagining the old and turning it into something entirely new,” Durran said in a statement.

Secondhand shopping is increasingly popular, and with Barbiecore a style more than it is branded merchandise, there’s far more flexibility for consumers to leverage secondhand platforms to get the pink-on-pink look.

“As trend and “core” cycles get faster each year, it’s becoming second nature for consumers to turn to fast fashion to get the look of the moment,” Erin Wallace, VP of Marketing at ThredUp says. “We hope our #Barbiecore Dream Shop inspires fans everywhere to be mindful of how they participate in the latest trends without missing out on the fun.”

Sustainable brands are also pushing their pink and pastel-colored collections to the fore. The eco underwear brand The Big Favorite recently introduced a “Better Barbie” collection made with mineral dyes and cotton.

“The Big Favorite’s vision for the future is simple, clean, iconic basics that don’t compromise for our customers or the planet; that means no compromise on color either,” founder Eleanor Turner said in a statement. “With the upcoming release of the ‘Barbie’ movie, we knew there was a better way to offer the iconic hot pink color that Barbie is known for without the harsh chemical dyes or synthetic fabrics. We were able to use a special non-azo, mineral-based dye that is low-impact, biodegradable and eco-friendly on our 100-percent plastic-free Pima Cotton basics.”

Mattel too has made strides to increase its sustainable design and production. The toy giant pledged to achieve 100 percent recycled, recyclable, or bio-based plastic materials in its products and packaging by 2030. In 2021, it achieved a nearly 98 percent recycled or FSC-certified content in its paper and wood fiber in both products and packaging. The film also earned the Environmental Media Association’s Gold Seal for production.

The Barbie movie does a commendable job championing equality and inclusiveness, and, critically, it pushes for self-inquiry and understanding of the irony of one’s own mortal impermanence and the permanence of our actions while we’re here. In this case, that’s the propensity for amassing virgin plastic Barbie movie merchandise.

The EarthDay organization says it is impossible to “decouple the glorification of plastic and its direct relationship to environmental and health degradation.”

“While the Barbie movie has fans looking at a ‘life in plastic’ through rose-colored glasses, the reality is a lot less ‘gorgelicious,'” EarthDay says. “Especially when considering the inequities existing within the communities affected by plastic pollution. Marginalized and low-income populations are affected disproportionately by plastic pollution at every step of the plastic lifecycle.”

EarthDay says in order to shift the world away from our plastic ‘paradise,’ there needs to be collective action from governments, industries, and individuals. “As an individual, it is your responsibility to make the consumption changes necessary to limit your plastic usage.” And given Barbie’s own evolution, it seems likely she’d be the first to agree.

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