This article focuses on the UK-based fashion collective the boohoo group. While the company has been making efforts to appear more sustainable – whether in their worker’s wages and conditions or in the materials they use – the company is still falling short when it comes to actual changes. Due to this severe disconnect, the boohoo group has been met with criticism for their apparent greenwashing.
In recent years, sustainability has become a more popular conversation in the fashion industry, with campaigns cropping up such as #PayUp, #WhoMadeMyFabric, or the 15 Percent Pledge. With the mass influx of social media and news articles highlighting corporate greed, environmental damage, and humanitarian issues, major corporations such as the Boohoo Group have made the strategic decision to overhaul their processes in an attempt to appear more sustainable to the general public and consumers.
The boohoo group was founded in Manchester’s textile district in 2006 by Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane. Today, the group hosts 13 brands that focus on clothing, shoes, accessories and beauty products. These brands design, source, market and sell these items, focusing on consumers from age 16-40, both in the UK and around the globe. With over 5,000 employees, 13 brands, and sales exceeding £1B in revenue, the boohoo group has become a significant player in the international fashion community.
On May 31, 2021, the group published its 2021 sustainability plan titled Up.Front: Fashion.Ready for the Future. According to this plan, the group has 3 focus areas:
- Clothes.Made Smarter: Making our clothes in a smarter way – with better materials, more sustaianble design, and less waste and packaging.
- Suppliers.On Better Terms: Doing more for our suppliers – transparent supply chains, improved standards and management, and a long-term commitment to those that work in fashion.
- Our Business.Taking Action: Running our business responsibly – strong governance, a great place to work, tackling climate change, responsible marketing, and a role in communities we can be proud of.
While this plan and its ideas may sound great, it has to be taken with a grain of salt, as boohoo’s history tells a different story. Boohoo is the fastest growing fashion company in the UK; skilfully employing social media influencers and local manufacturing processes to bypass the burden of owning or distributing through retailers and storefronts. Known specifically these days for its inexpensive clothing and TikTok presence, the company has become one of the worst offenders of greenwashing.
In July 2020, the company’s shares dropped 13.9% a week after The Times revealed that boohoo’s UK workers were being paid as little as￡3.50 (about $6.00 CAD) an hour. At the time, the minimum wage in the UK for individuals over 25 was￡8.72 (about $15 CAD). After this was revealed, the National Crime Agency began investigating boohoo for modern slavery practices in the company’s Leicester factories. Unfortunately, this was not the first time that substandard working conditions were revealed among boohoo’s factory workers, with a Channel 4 investigation occurring in 2017 with similar findings. This information is in stark contrast with the information provided on the company’s website relating to employee wages. The site states that:
- Everyone in the business is given free shares each year so they have ownership of the business they helped build
- All hourly paid employees earn significantly above the National Living Wage, regardless of age
Overall, it is difficult to believe that a company that can sell a dress for￡8 (about $13 CAD) and generate a gross margin double that of the market leader, ASOS, while also being a fair and equitable employer. This is especially true when it comes to manufacturing carried out in the UK, where labour costs are higher than those in emerging markets.
Recently, in June 2021, co-founder Carol Kane faced a shareholder revolt after accusations were made that she had a direct role in the ‘inadequate governance practices’ that led to the sweatshop conditions permitted in boohoo’s Leicester supply chain. Shareholder advisory Glass Lewis stated the senior directors were aware of what was going on in the factories for at least 6 months before the scandal broke but did not move quickly enough to solve the situation. Nonetheless, none of the senior directors have lost their jobs over these inadequacies, and both Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane are still eligible for £50M bonuses if Boohoo’s market capitalization manages to hit £7.B before June 2023.
Lyttle made it clear where his loyalties lie when asked to comment on the shareholder revolt, saying, “if you ask most shareholders. and employees, they feel Carol Kane should stay. She plays a fundamental role and is a key part of the business. We look forward to the successful re-election of Carol Kane.” However, Lyttle has also faced some uncertainty in his own role in the group recently, with calls for his resignation. In an effort to solve this, John Lyttle appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Wake Up to Money podcast on August 11th. Unfortunately for the boohoo group, Lyttle managed to dig the collective into a deeper hole, with a series of cringe-worthy statements and countless references to the group’s “clear strategy for being more sustainable” (their 2021 sustainability plan). Somehow, Lyttle managed to come out of the interview looking even worse. To see some of the quotes from the interview, see below:
In this day and age, it is crucial that we as consumers and businesses are not naive and do the necessary research into the companies we choose to support and do business with. The onus is on us to ensure all of our personal and corporate standards are met, whether they’re industry standards or societal standards. This can be said for small businesses such as The Sustainable Switch and global collectives such as the boohoo group. There are no excuses for unjust operations occurring in your company without your knowledge.