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Boohoo Slashes 400 Suppliers–and Labor Activists Have Some Questions

Boohoo slashed the number of its suppliers before publishing for the first time on Thursday a full list of its U.K. network in fulfillment of a pledge to promote greater transparency in its value chain.

The list, which details 78 manufacturers across 100 sites, arrives six months after an independent probe by Alison Levitt, a former legal advisor to the Crown Prosecution Service, found “widespread if not endemic” problems across the fast-fashion e-tailer’s operations. Boohoo had commissioned the inquiry after multiple reports emerged over the summer alleging unsafe working conditions and low pay in the factories it used in the British town of Leicester. A public directory of approved suppliers was one of Levitt’s recommendations.

While Boohoo, which also owns the BoohooMan, Dorothy Perkins, PrettyLittleThing, MissPap, Nasty Gal, Oasis, Karen Millen and Warehouse brands, did not specify the number of manufacturers it axed, Levitt had identified an estimated 500 suppliers at the time of her investigation.

“The group has ceased doing business with a number of manufacturers who were unable to demonstrate the high standard of transparency required, despite being provided with opportunities to address any issues identified in the auditing process,” Boohoo wrote in a statement last week. “The group remains committed to U.K. manufacturing and growing volumes with trusted and compliant suppliers who have demonstrated a desire to deliver the high standards expected.”

This isn’t the first time the Gen Z darling, known for its $5 tank tops and $10 bodysuits, has weeded its manufacturing base. At a hearing in December, Boohoo told ministers of parliament that it had severed ties with 64 manufacturers because of what it saw as a “consistent lack of transparency.”

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The approved suppliers, the retailer said, will continue to have their operations and standards monitored “frequently” to “drive long-term, positive change,” including unannounced checks to ensure adherence to its supplier code of conduct.

Boohoo said that its “significantly strengthened” responsible sourcing and compliance team, led by Andrew Reaney, its director of responsible sourcing, has been working with third-party audit firms Bureau Veritas and Verisio to plumb the working practices of its U.K. suppliers, the “majority” of which were audited twice over the past eight months, including in the evenings and during weekends, it said.

Brian Leveson, the retired judge that Boohoo appointed to oversee its Agenda for Change program to rehabilitate its corporate governance, purchasing and worker-welfare practices, said in an accompanying report—his second for the e-tailer—that he has “no doubt about the determination of all those involved to address the failings for which Boohoo has been criticized and to embed a new way of working,” and that the company is “alive to the need to ensure that working conditions are compliant with legal obligations generally.”

Labor activists have mixed feelings, however.

“It is welcome progress but let’s not forget that this is a progression from an appallingly low level of compliance and oversight in their supply chain,” Dominique Muller, policy director at Labour Behind the Label, which published a report last year alleging Boohoo was putting its workers at risk of contracting Covid-19, told Sourcing Journal.

Muller further described Boohoo’s list as “incomplete and erratic.” Several suppliers, for instance, are linked with multiple sites, in contravention of Boohoo’s request for manufacturers to consolidate all production and packing “under one roof” so it knew where its products were made. The list also doesn’t differentiate between logistics providers and cut-and-sew suppliers. Still, her biggest concern lay with the workers from the jettisoned factories.

“What is worrying is the lack of reference to what has happened to those suppliers–and crucially their workforce—who made Boohoo clothes for years despite regular allegations of violations, namely underpayment of wages,” Muller said. “Have the workers been remediated? When will they get their money back?”

“Is Boohoo laying down its ethical credentials on the backs of years of wage theft in Leicester?”

Christina Hajagos-Clausen, director, garment and textile industry, at the union federation IndustriALL Global Union, said she had told Levitt that brands like Boohoo should not abandon their suppliers but rather work collectively with other companies to remediate and improve them.

IndustriALL, through its ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation) initiative, advocates a so-called “responsible exit strategy” that considers the reasons for and the consequences of withdrawing, takes measures to ensure the payment of all wages and legally entitled severance payments, allows an appropriate phase-out time and minimizes any negative impacts on employees.

There’s no problem that one brand can solve by itself, Hajagos-Clausen said, adding that “we feel that it’s important to pool the leverage, similar to what we’ve done in Bangladesh and we’re doing in other countries for a living wage through our ACT initiative.”

Though Boohoo declined to comment on the particulars of its supplier relationships, Boohoo CEO John Lyttle said in a statement that the published list is “not the end of a project for us at Boohoo but the beginning of a new way of working with our suppliers.”

“We have faced up to the problems of the past and are now driving positive change in the industry,” Lyttle said. “We want to play our part in rebuilding a vibrant manufacturing base in Leicester, one that offers good employment and great prospects for the workers and the industry in Leicester as a whole.”

Boohoo, which has joined several multi-stakeholder initiatives, including the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Sustainable Clothing Action Plan and the Microfibre Consortium, is also rolling out a new sustainability strategy, known as Up.Front, which it says will serve as a “no-nonsense set of measurable targets” that revolves around creating eco-friendlier clothing, strengthening supplier relationships and tackling climate change.

“It has been designed to reduce the group’s carbon footprint, reduce waste and use our size and scale for good,” Boohoo said.

But earlier this month, the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons told Boohoo in a letter that tying its generous executive bonuses to measurable environmental, social and governance criteria, such as improved workers’ rights, rather than chase breakneck expansion, would “demonstrate genuine commitment to environmental and social responsibility.”

The letter noted that, despite “positive steps,” Boohoo has done “little to dispel the impression that the company has been focused on rapid growth regardless of the social or environmental costs.”

“We are asking Boohoo to put its money where its mouth is and link the multi-million pound bonuses it has lined up for its bosses to the achievement of its ethical and environmental pledges,” committee chairman Philip Dunne had said in a statement.