Online fashion retail group Boohoo this week said it was committed to raising standards and that it would end relationships with any supplier “who is found not to be acting within both the letter and spirit of our supplier code of conduct”.
Its comments came after an undercover reporter from The Sunday Times found poor working conditions at a supplier making clothing destined for Boohoo Group brands. The reporter spent time working at a company that appeared to be trading as Jaswal Fashions in Leicester and found that workers were being paid £3.50 an hour, well below the minimum hourly wage of £8.72 for workers aged 25 or older, while also working in conditions that did not permit social distancing at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown.
The comments also follow a report from Labour Behind the Label last week that suggested evidence was emerging that “conditions in Leicester’s factories primarily producing for Boohoo are putting workers at risk of Covid-19 infections and fatalities.” Boohoo refuted the report in detail, saying that it was able to produce clothing cheaply not because its workers worked in poor conditions for little money, but because it did not spend money marketing its goods and advertising on television, and relied on social media instead.
Both come at a time when Leicester has been locked down for a second time after infection rates rose in the city.
After the new revelations of the weekend, Boohoo, whose brands now include PrettyLittleThing, Nasty Gal, Coast, Karen Millen, Warehouse, and Oasis, said it remains “committed to supporting UK manufacturing and is determined to drive up standards where this is required.” It said that Jaswal Fashions was not a declared supplier and indeed was no longer trading as a garment maker. “It appears therefore appears that a different company is using Jaswal’s former premises and we are currently trying to establish the identity of this company. We are taking immediate action to thoroughly investigate how our garments were in their hands, will ensure that our suppliers immediately cease working with this company, and we will urgently review our relationship with any suppliers who have sub-contracted work to the manufacturer in question.”
It added: “We are keen and willing to work with local officials to raise standards because we are absolutely committed to eradicating any instance of non-compliance and to ensuring that the actions of a few do not continue to undermine the excellent work of many of our suppliers in the area, who provide good jobs and good working conditions.”
Boohoo pointed to improvements it had made over the last year with the appointment of its first-ever sustainability director, the introduction of 14-day payment terms for UK manufacturers, and starting to audit all of its suppliers’ manufacturing facilities.
Our view: Fast fashion has long been criticised for the impact that clothes that are so cheap that they can be worn once and thrown away have on the environment, as well as suspicions that those making them were poorly treated and underpaid. Retailers should be able to answer some of those criticisms by manufacturing in the UK. But for that to be a long-term strategy, workplace and environmental standards must continue to be upheld rigorously – and that may well mean clothes need to be a bit more expensive – and long-lasting. In turn that may well mean shoppers choose to buy fewer of them.
Certainly that’s what other retailers seem to be deciding. Zalando is now requiring that its partner brands measure how sustainable their businesses are, while H&M promises transparency on its website about where, and by whom its products are made. Both in tune with public opinion. Fashion Retail Academy research published this spring suggested that more than half of British shoppers (51.4%) would buy long-lasting clothes rather than cheaper ones, while only 14% consciously choose cheaper and fast fashion items. Boohoo has started to move in a similar direction over the last year, but recent reports suggest this work is by no means complete.