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Why Boohoo’s inclusion on a panel about ethics was a huge WTF moment

You’re hosting a panel on ethical sourcing in fashion: who do you invite? Perhaps someone who grows or produces raw materials? A labour union representative? If you’re Source Fashion, you invite Boohoo. And only Boohoo

You’re hosting a panel on ethical sourcing practices in fashion. Who do you invite? Perhaps someone who grows or produces raw materials? A labour union representative? Someone from Fairtrade? Maybe someone from Stella McCartney or Collina Strada? Well, if you’re Source Fashion, “the UK’s new sustainable sourcing show”, you invite Boohoo. And only Boohoo. 

A seminar called Fashion’s new ‘must have’: Ethical clothing starts with industry collaboration was billed for February 14 featuring a 100 per cent Boohoo line-up (bar the moderator). A lucky audience got to see the brand’s head of sustainability, head of quality and product compliance, head of ethical trading, and head of sourcing talk about how they’re “going the extra mile to strengthen their ethical practices” and “being known as a company who is willing to play their part”. 

The billing is laughable to those who know about how Boohoo operates as a company, and insulting to those whose lives have been impacted by it as the brand has a storied history of ethical failures, called out at the event by a group of protestors who took to the stage to highlight the hypocrisy of Boohoo speaking on ethical sourcing. They were quickly and forcefully escorted out of the room by security.

In 2020, an investigation by The Sunday Times revealed that a Leicester supplier factory for Nasty Gal, owned by Boohoo, was operating during localised lockdowns and paying staff as little as £3.50 an hour. The original article now states that it is “the subject of a legal complaint from Jaswal Fashions Limited”, the factory in question.

Boohoo responded to the allegations by saying “it does not and will not condone any incidence of mistreatment of employees and of non-compliance with our strict supplier code of conduct.” However, an independent report found that “Boohoo’s monitoring of its Leicester supply chain was inadequate”, and it “concentrated on revenue generation sometimes at the expense of the other, equally important, obligations which large corporate entities have.” 

“It is time for Boohoo to come of age”, wrote the paper’s author Alison Levitt QC, and it’s clear the label is trying to do just that by positioning itself as an ethical business figurehead. In 2021 it launched its ‘Ready for the Future’ manifesto and products, and in 2022 it opened a manufacturing facility as a “Centre of Excellence”, and appointed Kourtney Kardashian as sustainability ambassador.

“The billing is laughable to those who know about how Boohoo operates as a company, and insulting to those whose lives have been impacted by it, as the brand has a storied history of ethical failures”

But in November last year, another investigation by The Sunday Times went undercover in a Burnley warehouse. Temperatures were as high as 36°C. “I get it is hot, but we still have to perform”, said a manager. Multiple workers, who are expected to pick 130 items per hour, claim injuries to their feet, knees, and shoulders are caused by the nature of the warehouse work, while a Pakistani worker claimed they and other Pakistani workers were forced to work in the hottest areas of the warehouse, while white Bulgarian workers were positioned in the cooler areas. 

The same year, an investigation by The Independent alleged that hundreds of Boohoo’s items were mislabelled as “Ready for the Future” when in fact they didn’t even meet the brand’s own criteria for what that actually means. No wonder, then, that in another bout of bad news for the brand, the Competition Markets Authority launched an investigation into Boohoo (alongside ASOS and Asda) to “get to the bottom of whether the firms’ green claims are misleading customers”.

Some of the moves Boohoo has made to clean up its reputation have resolutely worked against it. A study commissioned by the Garment and Textile Workers Trust, funded by Boohoo, alleged that of the 116 Leicester garment workers surveyed, 49 per cent received no sick pay, 56 per cent had been paid below the minimum wage, 55 per cent did not receive holiday pay, and a third had no contract and didn’t receive a payslip. 

The survey was a broad look at the Leicester garment production landscape, not specifically Boohoo, but it’s a damning view of an ecosystem in which the brand is embedded. In addition, recommendations raised by the body included creating a single point of contact for workers wishing to make a complaint. Boohoo notoriously refuses to engage with and recognise the Usdaw trade union, placing a direct barrier between its workers and a real, representative voice. 

Boohoo founder Carol Kane has previously said she will recognise a union “if the workers would like it”, but that “there does not currently appear to be a demand for our workers in our Burnley warehouse to require a union”. As recently as November 2022, Usdaw, which says it “represents workers at Boohoo’s warehouse and call centre in Burnley along with the head office in Manchester” asserts that there has been no response from Boohoo to the invitation of sitting down to explore how they can work together. 

The accusations against Boohoo and evidence of its decidedly unethical working practices simply don’t stop coming, many of them listed by campaign group Labour Behind the Label in a Twitter thread calling out exactly why the seminar should not go ahead. Underpaid warehouse staff, underpaid garment workers, outlandish corporate salaries and bonuses, and non-compliance with minimum wage, it all adds up to a pretty bleak picture – and yet there Boohoo executives sit, waxing lyrical about how great the company is and how many brilliant initiatives it is working on.

“Boohoo's billing is perhaps a surprise to some, but embedding yourself within the sustainability world is a standard reputation-cleansing tactic”

It’s perhaps a surprising billing to some but embedding yourself within the sustainability world is a standard reputation-cleansing tactic. H&M is a ‘strategic partner’ or sponsor for just about every sustainability and ethics event you could care to think of, including the Global Fashion Agenda, while Nike donated its Materials Sustainability Index to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which later became the (now highly challenged) Higg Materials Sustainability Index. Look at any major report on circularity, sustainability, or sourcing and you’ll likely see a whole host of brands listed as partners. Become an ‘industry leader’ and no one can question you, is the hope.

But in this case, people did question it, with some offering Source Fashion ample time to change direction for the seminar. Unfortunately the response wasn’t to knock Boohoo’s seminar off the bill entirely, only to change the name from “Fashion’s new ‘must have’” to “A fashion focus”. It’s a meek response. The best response would have been to boot them from their chairs, and the best decision would have been to never invite Boohoo to speak on ethics in the first place. 

Dazed reached out to Boohoo for comment on this article, with a spokesperson for the label responding: “We attend events like Source Fashion to share insights from the work we are doing to reduce our environmental impact, embed our responsible purchasing principles and our quality assurance programme. The challenge of sustainability affects the whole fashion industry and no single brand or government agency will be able to solve these problems on their own. That is why it is important that we talk to people about the work we are doing to reduce our environmental impact and why we will continue to partner with other retailers, government and NGOs, through initiatives like Textiles 2030, to find solutions to these shared problems.”