Treading the murky waters of fast fashion

By Naomi Carter, GLOBUS Correspondent

Boohoo have been getting a lot of press recently, and not only because they have just signed a £55 million deal to buy Debenhams. Since lockdown 1.0, shocking conditions in their Leicester factories have been revealed – failure to pay minimum wages, inadequate fire protection, lack of social distancing, unpaid overtime, and more.

Why Leicester?

40% of Boohoo’s clothing is produced in the UK, primarily in Leicester, and the company is reported to be responsible for approximately 80% of Leicester’s garment production

Using factories in the UK allows Boohoo to produce clothing very quickly, which means that customers can get clothing from the factory within a matter of days. This has been a major factor in Boohoo’s success in ultra-fast fashion; they can place orders only two weeks before collections drop, as opposed to the six-to-nine-week lead times traditional retailers face.

But what is the cost of this ultra-fast fashion model?

However, this comes at an enormous social cost. In June 2020, the campaign group Labour Behind the Label released a report on the poor working conditions in Boohoo’s Leicester factories, citing a lack of COVID-19 measures alongside a failure to pay minimum wages. Indeed, in July, an undercover reporter for the Sunday Times revealed that he had been offered £3.50 per hour in a factory packing clothes destined for Boohoo. Other reported failures include: furlough fraud, discrepancy in working hour records, cramped workspaces, and blocked fire escapes.

Furthermore, Boohoo have been cashing-in on the COVID-19 pandemic, with sales of loungewear soaring and profits rising by 40% in the run up to Christmas – CEOs are expected to get £150 million bonus if share price rises by 66% in the next five years. However, this ‘success’ has meant continued production in Leicester even during lockdown – with workers citing a lack of social distancing and the city suffering significant outbreaks of COVID-19 amongst factory workers. Out of all of Boohoo’s many suppliers, only thirteen have shared their 2020 audits, and none of them had adequate COVID-19 governance in place – many workers and suppliers are scared of speaking out due to a fear of losing orders as a result.  

Although clearly shocking and requiring urgent action, Boohoo have known about these awful conditions for years; in 2017 and 2019, two House of Commons reports detailed the failings of Boohoo, which included not paying the minimum wage in their Leicester factories. Boohoo’s continued denial of allegations and vagueness about their supplier list is a clear attempt not to be rocked by scandal – an attempt that has failed thanks to media reports and subsequent independent reviews in 2020.

What is Boohoo doing now?

With the original reports of 2020 causing a major scandal, Boohoo share prices dropped by $1.5 billion in two days and much criticism was (rightly) directed at the company. Following the initial media reports, Boohoo commissioned an Independent Review into the Leicester supply chain, led by Alison Levitt QC. The Levitt Report confirmed that factories in Leicester were putting workers’ health at risk during the first lockdown, and that senior members of the Boohoo Board knew that there were serious cases of unacceptable working conditions, including critical health and safety violations, a high risk of fire, illegally low pay, excessive working hours, and lack of proper contracts, statutory paid holidays or sick pay. 

Following this, Boohoo hired Sir Brian Leveson to oversee their new Agenda for Change Programme – the Leveson Report demonstrates that, whilst Boohoo are taking some action to improve conditions, there is still a long way to go. 

How realistic are Boohoo’s goals to become “industry leaders in ethical supply chains”?

Whilst much of this action seems commendable, it’s hard to get excited for transformative change. Human rights abuses and environmental concerns are not new to the fashion industry, yet they persist in the supply chains of almost all global fast fashion brands. One reason for this is the sheer opacity of supply chains. 

  • A key component of this is sub-contracting. When brands decide to launch new collections, they place orders with suppliers, who themselves often sub-contract work to other suppliers and factories – a chain which can continue to the point of employing homeworkers (who are often women that work in garment supply chains by doing jobs that need to be done by hand, such as embroidery or button sewing). As a result, workers are essentially invisible to management, and brands feel very little responsibility to their workers and suppliers. Therefore, it will take a lot of work from Boohoo to identify and audit all of its suppliers, when its supply chains are so opaque.
  • Another important factor is that of purchasing practices between brands and suppliers. Here, in order to get the lowest possible prices, brands host auctions amongst suppliers to see how low they are willing to sell their labour. This creates a power asymmetry where brands can decide how much to pay suppliers and can demand impossible targets that suppliers cannot refuse for fear of losing business. Whilst brands can pretend not to be aware of this ‘race to the bottom’, they are in fact controlling and incentivising the lowering of prices that will inevitably result in human exploitation. Therefore, Boohoo will have to completely transform its buying practices; which is likely to cause price rises – an unappealing prospect for a company committed to selling clothes for as little as 4p.
  • Boohoo’s goal to create a new factory in Leicester, as a “state-of-the art” demonstration of “best practice” may sound commendable, however their belief that ethical practices can be implemented “without impacting lead times or financial expectations” puts this confidence in doubt. How can a company produce thousands of garments every week in an ethical and sustainable way, without this taking longer or costing more? If current garments are being sold at the cost of total exploitation, erasing this exploitation is unlikely to come cheaply. 
  • Additionally, the Boohoo Group is made up of nine different brands who are all encouraged to maintain their own brand identity. This makes a comprehensive set of policies highly difficult to achieve, as well as further complicating the transparency of supply chains.
  • One of the most important ways to ensure workers are respected in the supply chain is through unions; however, Boohoo repeatedly refuse to recognise unions in their warehouses, which leaves workers with no real voice or political power within the workplace. Despite committing to ensure “that workers understand and are able to exercise their rights and to represent their interests”, a continued refusal to allow workers to unionise will hardly achieve this goal.
  • Overall, there is a lack of structural analysis. One action Boohoo has already taken is the removal of sixty-four Leicester factories from the Boohoo supplier list, as they do not meet their ethical criteria. Whilst this may seem like a positive move, it is in fact extremely damaging, as it leaves hundreds of workers unemployed and vulnerable to deeper exploitation from other brands. Many of these workers have never known better conditions and are therefore confused about why they have lost their jobs. There is a need to look holistically into the entire operating system of fast fashion in order to truly transform supply chains and ensure no workers are left behind.

Therefore, although the Leveson report suggests there is “real enthusiasm” within Boohoo to “achieve real change”, it is yet to be seen whether transformative change can occur…

If learning about this has made you as angry as it did me, consider joining Fast Fashion Mobilisation, a student movement set up here at Warwick to fight for workers’ rights within fast fashion brands, with a specific focus on Boohoo. We’d love to engage with more people, even if only to share our content, and hope to create a university-wide student network campaigning for change in the fashion industry.

For further resources and people to follow, check out:

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

1 comment

  1. Another really interesting and topical article. As Naomi makes clear, everything to do with fashion is embedded in so much of the contemporary fabric of our lives (pun intended!). It also has a long history of association with radicalism. From the peasants in the Frence Revolution, the ‘Sans culottes’, who bucked convention wearing trousers not silk culottes (knee-breeches) worn by the rich. Who would have thought sabotage had anything to do with wooden clogs?! Sabot was the name of the cloggs worn and used to make noises duirng industrial actions in the 19th century. Of course fashion can be repressive and linked to reaction, did you know Hugo Boss designed the uniforms for Hitler’s Nazi’s? Here is a link to a fascinating talk that I attended two years ago, on ‘Fashion and Capitalism’ by a lecturer from the London School of Fashion.

    Like

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