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Boohoo’s First Factory: Win for Workers or Supply-Chain Smokescreen?

Boohoo Group officially inaugurated its first manufacturing facility on Friday, officially throwing open the doors of a 23,000-square-foot space that will serve as a “center of excellence” for manufacturing in the city of Leicester, which houses the second-highest concentration of textile producers in the United Kingdom after Manchester.

“This is a landmark moment for us and is a very visible demonstration of our commitment to Leicester and U.K. garment manufacturing,” CEO John Lyttle said after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, where he was joined by Leicester Mayor Peter Soulsby and other dignitaries. “By operating the site as a center of excellence, we want to bring back skills that have been lost over time and help our suppliers to diversify their product offerings, meaning they can win business from other retailers who we are hoping will be tempted to start sourcing from the U.K.”

The “bright future” for garment manufacturing in Leicester, which earmarks 75 percent of its clothing production for Boohoo, wasn’t always so bright. In 2020, the PrettyLittleThing and Nasty Gal owner came under fire after worker-rights group Labour Behind the Label accused some of its suppliers of exploiting workers through excessively long hours, unsafe conditions and illegally low wages. An independent review, commissioned by Boohoo, found that the allegations were “substantially true,” and that “weak corporate governance” rendered the e-tailer’s own monitoring of the “many failings in the Leicester supply chain” inadequate.

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The Thurmaston Lane factory is part of an extended mea culpa, dubbed its Agenda for Change, that Boohoo initiated to rehabilitate its operations—and its image. Since the imbroglio began, the e-tailer has staffed up its ethical compliance departments, published a list of its global suppliers, joined the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, plumped up its auditing system, formed the Leicester Garment and Textile Workers Trust and tied executive bonuses to environmental, social and governance targets.

It also rolled out a new sustainability strategy, known as Up.Front, to present a “no-nonsense set of measurable targets” that zero in on creating eco-friendlier clothing, strengthening supplier relationships and tackling climate change on a fixed timeline. Through the program’s waste management program, Boohoo aims to send no waste from its U.K. supply chain to the landfill by 2025.

Boohoo Leicester factory
The location will also include office space and will be used to train Boohoo’s product teams in responsible purchasing and the technical aspects of garment production. Courtesy

Production at the state-of-the-art facility, which has created 180 new jobs for locals, is already humming along. Workers, Boohoo said, will operate across two shifts, creating “double the job opportunities” and greater flexibility. In addition, employees are guaranteed 40-hour contracts, 33 days of paid vacation, private medical care, free company shares, a generous discount on all brands, and “excellent” training and development, plus opportunities for overtime when “production requires.”

The location will also include office space and will be used to train Boohoo’s product teams in responsible purchasing and the technical aspects of garment production. The company is also speaking with local educational providers about hosting students who are “keen to learn about garment manufacturing and the U.K. fashion industry,” it said.

“It has been a difficult few years but I am confident there is a bright future ahead and today marks the start of a new chapter for the garment industry here in Leicester,” Lyttle said.

Dominique Muller, policy director at Labour Behind the Label, argued, however, that Boohoo is only paying lip service to production in Leicester after culling hundreds of suppliers without demonstrating the use of a so-called responsible exit strategy that minimizes any negative impacts on workers. Outside of the United Kingdom, the Gen Z fave produces in Bangladesh, China, Italy, India, Moldova, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, Turkey and Vietnam.

“Boohoo claims to be supporting U.K. industry all the while it has disengaged hundreds of factories in Leicester and moved production overseas,” Muller told Sourcing Journal. “A quick glance at their now published supply chain list shows how much production has been moved.”

The Debenhams operator’s “reckless disengagement” from factories in Leicester, she said, has left hundreds of workers who were the victims of wage theft with no opportunity for redress—a practice described as cutting and running.

“Boohoo remains quiet on how it has remediated the workers who created their garments and helped garner the profits Boohoo has seen in recent years,” Muller said. “The reason it is quiet is because it appears to have no responsible exit strategy to ensure the harm it caused or causes is resolved. This is contrary to the UN principles on business and human rights.”

Muller said that the new factory is garnering media attention primarily because it is claiming it is complying with U.K. laws, but that progress shouldn’t be measured simply by the provision of paid holidays and minimum-wage payments.

“Garment brands should not be getting gold stars and positive publicity simply for employing workers and paying them the minimum wage,” she said. “While ownership and oversight of manufacturing can often lead to improved working conditions, brands need to ensure that a focus on a ‘model’ factory does not lead to forgetting the many hundreds of units operating without proper scrutiny.”