A quick browse on Boohoo, you are greeted with a massive sales message — “UP To 70% OFF EVERYTHING”. It is not uncommon for fashion retailers to bring out sales messages at least twice a year — from Selfridges to ASOS, high-end to low-end, they all do it. But on a closer look, Boohoo’s lowest-priced item, a basic polo tee, dropped from £5 to £3.75 (yes, that rounds up to just about 36.5 HKD) with a 25% price drop. To put things into perspective, a McDonald’s meal in Hong Kong is worth about $40 HKD. So how is putting together a piece of clothing, which includes the sourcing of raw materials, treatments of fabrics, rent of factories, wages of textile and factory workers, and many more only add up to £3.75 per polo tee? A recent worker exploitation scandal featuring Boohoo, the ‘ultra-fast fashion’ company based in the UK, forces us to take a long and uncomfortable look at the consequences of the fast-fashion business model.
Just a few days ago on Monday, news broke that Boohoo shares plunged roughly 40% after revelations about poor working conditions in one of Boohoo’s contracted factories in Leicester were brought to the media’s attention. “Modern Slavery” was the term that showed up time and time again while conducting research for this article for a clear reason — garment workers in said factory that supplied Boohoo were paid as little as £3.5 an hour, while the legal minimum wage in the UK is £8.72 per hour. In a failed attempt to try to relieve the situation, Boohoo terminated contracts with two suppliers, launched an investigation into its supply chain, and pledged £10 million towards strengthening suppliers’ compliance processes. Despite its delayed reaction towards the scandal, it has been dropped by ASOS, Next, Amazon and Zalando, amounting to total damage of £2 billion (of the company’s market capitalisation).
Pioneer of the fast fashion business model, which demands fast turnaround, speed to market and depends on social commerce, Boohoo had come out as one of the few rare winners of the pandemic. As social distancing measures were put in place many places across the world, Boohoo very quickly pivoted from churning out £20 night-out dresses to £16.5 loungewear, enabled by local UK suppliers, which produced 40% of the companies garments. While Boohoo and its affiliated influencers push for the sales of its new line of stay-at-home loungewear ‘honouring’ the latest social norm, factory workers at Leicester were cramped under one roof producing these very garments at a barely livable wage, fuelling the spread of COVID-19.
However, despite the £2 billion drop in its market capitalisation, analyst David Holmes expressed that even though Boohoo’s UK sales growth could fall from 30% to 15%, overseas sales were unlikely to be affected. This goes to show that this fast-fashion business model, like many other businesses, is a global phenomenon with a global impact. On top of its hugely problematic supply chain, the transportation of these products contributes to a massive emission of CO2 at around 271,000 tonnes per year (this would be the amount of CO2 46,000 homes emit in a year) and this is already an improved figure provided by ASOS after signing The UN Global Compact.
Some may comment that Boohoo has taken the ‘appropriate’ measure by swiftly launching an investigation on its supply chain and setting £10 million aside for strengthening its compliance processes, but looking back on tragic incidents in relation to fast-fashion and modern slavery, their reactionary response comes too late and at the cost of too many ill-treated workers. Poor working conditions had hit headlines years ago when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in 2013, killing a total of 1,138 people who were by and large garment workers. Fashion Revolution had even commented that this tragedy was the “direct result of the opaque, complex and speedy way in which the industry functions today.” If this is not cautionary enough, Financial Times released an investigation targeted at Boohoo’s Leicester’s supplier, Labour Exploitation in Britain’s Garment Industry, exposing its “unsustainable” and “unethical” practices and its illegal hourly rate. So why has Boohoo only acted now, 7 years after the Rana Plaza tragedy and 2 years after FT‘s exposé?
Its unrealistically low prices not only come at the expense of the workers’ welfare, it often results in corner-cutting, impacting both workers and the environment. By releasing items as cheap as £6 per bikini, Boohoo and many other fast-fashion outlets such as Primark, Zara, Missguided, and many more often encourage over-consumption, leading to the generation of excessive waste and a horrific amount of CO2 emissions. Stella Claxton of Clothing Sustainability Research Group at Nottingham Trent University pointed out that the low financial value directly reflects the low quality of the garment and low emotional value tied to these extremely cheap purchases. The incentive for customers to re-purpose or resell these items then becomes low due to their poor quality. Thus, limiting the secondhand opportunity of the fast-fashion market. Then, where do all these £6 purchases (and don’t forget that the fast-fashion cycle renews every week) go if they’re not re-purposed or resold to the next owner? That’s right. The dump and most likely also the incinerator, whereby the burning of clothes releases even more harmful greenhouse gases considering these fast-fashion pieces are most likely made of cheap synthetic fibre that was energy-consuming to produce, to begin with.
So how can WE help, as consumers? Besides not buying anything at all, some of the closest solutions would be to (1) shop ethically and sustainably. The fast-fashion industry is a strong advocate for a linear economy, it’s based on the “take-make-consume-waste” approach — at the end of the products’ lifecycle, they are then discarded, never to be recycled or reused again. The circular economy, on the other hand, is the most sustainable and least environmentally harmful way to sustain the world and economic growth. Though a complete circular economy is hard to achieve, it aims to create an economic system of closed loops in which raw materials, components, and products lose their value as little as possible. (2) Shop local to avoid transportation pollution. Evidently from the ASOS environmental report, the delivery of goods amounts up to 48% of the firm’s CO2 emission. To reduce your shopping carbon footprint, use in-store pickup or centralised pick-up options. And think carefully before hitting the purchase button so as to minimise the chances of a return. (3) Purchase good-quality items (better yet, buy good quality pre-owned items) so they can stand the test of time or even better, increase in value over time so that when you decide to let them go, they still have a high resale value. (4) If you’re unsure about a company’s sustainability and hiring policies, do a bit of digging before you commit to buying from them. If you don’t know much about sustainability and ethical hiring, turn to professional sustainability rating and benchmarking agencies that work with a universal scorecard and benchmark, they often give out badges or certificates of approval once reviewing a company’s internal documents, reports and external evidence such as news reports and investigations carried out by other authorities.