Proper Gander – Fashion Victims
Online clothes retailer Boohoo has found its niche as a go-to site for image-conscious teenagers and twenty-somethings looking for a bargain. Its business model is that of ‘fast fashion’: producing versions of the newest clothing trends and getting them on sale cheaply and quickly while the style is still the latest and demand is at its highest. The working practices Boohoo has adopted to achieve a speedy turnaround have attracted complaints which prompted an official review of the company and its supply chain. Published in early 2021, this found that the allegations of poor working conditions were largely true. Boohoo responded by vowing to overhaul its methods, and detailed how in its ‘Agenda For Change’ plan. An edition of BBC One’s Panorama: Boohoo’s Broken Promises aimed to show that the agenda hasn’t been followed and not much has changed.
Reporter Emma Lowther goes undercover at Boohoo’s head office in Manchester by getting a job as an admin assistant. Her colleagues’ roles are to negotiate deals with smaller companies which make and supply the togs which Boohoo flogs. She uses her hidden camera to film other staff saying they lie to suppliers about invented rival offers in order to secure the cheapest deal. And even after a contract has been agreed, Boohoo staff have later imposed further reductions to the price.
The starting point for a deal would be low anyway. Boohoo’s clothes are often made in factories across Asia where workers’ pay is lower, conditions are shoddier and methods are more polluting than usually found in Western countries. Reports of workers making clothes for Boohoo in dismal circumstances haven’t only come from outside the UK, though. Boohoo and other traders use dozens of suppliers in Leicester, whose staff have held protests for more job security and higher wages. Another undercover reporter gets a job at one supplier, MM Leicester Clothing Limited. He covertly films people being shouted at by a manager who demands that they work late on an order. The rush is due to Boohoo wanting the ‘lead’ time between when it orders its stock and when it receives it to be as short as possible.
In January 2022, Boohoo opened its own flagship factory at Thurmaston Lane in Leicester, supposedly to demonstrate the reformed practices of its ‘Agenda For Change’. Panorama suggests that Thurmaston Lane is more like a PR-friendly front, distracting from how Boohoo still favours different sources for its stock. The ‘centre of excellence’ which is Thurmaston Lane only makes 1 percent of garments sold by Boohoo, and hundreds of orders contracted from there were really made in other factories in Leicester and Morocco with lower costs and standards. Boohoo says that this doesn’t break any rules as although it has banned subcontracting within the UK since 2021, it allows contracting, which it claims is what it’s doing, as Thurmaston Lane is part of Boohoo and can therefore contract out.
Boohoo’s various tactics for securing cut-price deals from its suppliers mean that one of the brand’s dresses costs the company £4.25 each to buy in from a UK supplier. This is then sold on to consumers for £15, making a hefty profit for Boohoo’s owners. The documentary features Peter McAllister and Chris Grayer, specialists in the field of ‘ethical trading’. McAllister describes this margin as ‘completely bonkers’, while Grayer calculates that a ‘fair’ amount for Boohoo to buy each dress for would be £7.23, allowing the supplier to make 10 percent profit. Boohoo’s lawyers’ justification for the big mark-up in the cost of the dress is that its suppliers still make a profit and their staff are paid at least the minimum wage.
Boohoo’s approach has been pushed by its multi-millionaire co-founder and Executive Chairman Mahmud Khamani. Following the review of Boohoo’s practices which preceded its ‘Agenda For Change’ programme, he has meant to be getting less involved in the company’s day-to-day running. But he still has an ‘iron grip’ by sending out arrogant motivational videos to staff and personally approving all deals with suppliers. He and the other senior staff featured in the documentary share the same sad motivation: to make money by maximising the exploitation of those lower down the chain.
Lowther lasts ten weeks working in Boohoo HQ before getting sacked for making mistakes, and she’s even less likely to get a good reference now they know she’s a journalist. McAllister and Grayer say that what her footage and research has revealed is ‘unacceptable’ and ‘unethical’, flouting multiple rules and guidelines about how companies are meant to function. Regulators, along with professionals like McAllister and Grayer, want Boohoo (and, by extension, capitalism) to be run in a ‘fair’ way: decent working conditions, sufficient wages, honest trading. This utopian aim doesn’t take into account how legislation can only ever try to make exploitation less unpleasant, nor how strong the drive to cut costs and corners to maximise profits is. Boohoo has gone further than other companies with how exploitative its methods are. Its approach has worked, if measured by how in 2022 it had sales of £1.7 billion from 18 million customers. Panorama’s investigation illustrated some of the objectionable aspects of the fast fashion industry: misleading deals, appalling workplaces, forced overtime, low wages, which together enable high profits for the few. But the documentary’s findings didn’t damage Boohoo’s standing. Its share price rose a little in the days after first broadcast, suggesting that its tawdry practices fit in well with how the market operates.