A number of enquiries nail Boohoo, the British fast fashion retailer, which suffers heavy accusations (and ‘substantially true’) of fomenting practices of ‘modern slavery’ by throttling suppliers. But it is not the only one to live and bill in that dark side of fast fashion that everyone says they disdain, except that, starting with the youngest, they are affectionate customers
In 2020, a Sunday Times investigation revealed that in a Leicester garment factory, workers were being paid £3.50 per hour. At the same time, English law stipulates that the minimum for employees over 25, is £10.42. This factory supplied Boohoo, a fast fashion brand/retailer with 18 million customers and a turnover of £1.8 billion. After this investigation, it was charged with ‘modern slavery’. Boohoo instructed a lawyer to exercise a special defence. In other words, they asked him to verify the allegations by making a careful analysis of the supply chain. Alison Levitt concluded this work by stating that the allegations were ‘substantially true‘.
The case of Boohoo
Some retailers terminated their relationship with Boohoo, whose valuation lost billions of pounds. Further consequences: several of the company’s investors demanded damages and are negotiating with Boohoo’s board before taking legal action. In the wake of the scandal, in order to improve conditions in its supply chain, Boohoo allocated £10 million. It launched the Agenda for Change programme and, as part of this programme, opened a factory in Leicester called Thurmaston Lane. A ‘jewel’ factory designed to put its new ethical procedures into practice.
Yet another very dark side of fast fashion
Three years on, the promises made by Boohoo have fallen on deaf ears, or almost. In short, much talk and few facts. BBC journalist Emma Lowther managed to work for ten weeks undercover at the company’s headquarters in Manchester as an administrative assistant. Once she was fired, she reported everything she had seen with her own eyes and heard with her own ears.
In just one day, the undercover journalist was asked to make a 5% price reduction on more than 400 already agreed orders (some on back order). The company justified itself by saying that these economies of scale were passed on to customers because product prices did not increase despite inflation. This is to say that it has been working with most of its suppliers for many years. And such a thing ‘would not be possible if subcontractors worked below cost’, says Boohoo.
So, how do these suppliers survive? The question insinuates more than one doubt related to the remuneration of employees. Besides price, Boohoo also exerts pressure on delivery times. In the ten weeks of the journalist’s work, the average delivery time, basically imposed by Boohoo, went from 10 to 6 weeks after the order. From the second week of delivery delay, the brand applies a penalty in the form of a 5% discount for each week of delay.
What consequences does this pressure generate? With a hidden camera at one of Boohoo’s suppliers, MM Leicester Clothing, the BBC showed workers addressing managers and asking them to respect their shifts. But the response was always: ‘No one can leave before eight o’clock, or 10 o’clock, or later’. And the jewel factory Thurmaston Lane? Well, it only produces 1% of Boohoo’s total. Hundreds of orders that arrived at Thurmaston Lane were diverted to other factories in Leicester or Morocco.
In bad company
An investigation carried out in 2022 and broadcast by the US broadcaster Channel 4 showed how workers in 2 of Shein’s 700 factories in China were forced to work 17 hours a day in poor, hygienic conditions. They had only one day off per month. They had to produce 500 garments per day, and their pay was 4 cents per garment. Twenty dollars for 17 hours of work. Boohoo, therefore, can dramatically claim to be in very bad company. Except that, then, sustainability and modern slavery will continue to be discussed, while a good chunk of consumers, starting with the youngest, will not stop buying fast fashion.
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