Skip to main content

‘Things Can Go Sideways Quickly’ as Security Frog-Marches Protestors from Boohoo’s Ethical Fashion Monologue

Like a game of human Whac-A-Mole, the protestors popped up faster than the security staff could react.

“How dare Boohoo take this platform to speak about ‘ethics’ and ‘industry collaboration’ when their garment workers in Leicester are paid 3.50 pounds an hour,” shouted one woman, who leaped onto the stage at an event in London on Tuesday, just as a panel featuring representatives from the fast-fashion giant was getting underway.

“Why aren’t your garment makers on this panel?” she said. As the woman was escorted away, another demonstrator stood up to take her place. Then another. And another. And still another. All of them had something to get off their chest.

“Boohoo sells more than 207 million items of clothing a year,” one called out. “Boohoo’s CEO is set to receive a bonus of 200 percent times his salary,” another said. “Boohoo’s garment workers in Leicester, they complain about not being allowed to take toilet beaks,” uttered a third. “Warehouse workers in Burnley were forced to work in extremely hot conditions and subject to sexual harassment and racism. What’s ethical about that?” queried a fourth. One by one, they were frog-marched away.

The panel didn’t set out to be controversial. Organized as part of Source Fashion, which bills itself as “Europe’s newest responsible sourcing show,” the discussion centered around the role of collaboration in ethical fashion. But it also consisted of only Boohoo executives, including head of sustainability Lianne Pemberton, head of ethical trading Samuel Cliff and head of sourcing Sophie Rycroft. Moderating the session was another Boohoo vet: Cheryl Chung, who until recently served as the Nasty Gal and PrettyLittleThing owner’s global head of corporate affairs.

Related Stories

“There is nothing ‘ethical’ about a Boohoo-only panel—none of them garment makers—to discuss ‘industry collaboration’ when you take into consideration how they mistreat the people who make their clothes,” Venetia La Manna, one of the demonstrators, told Sourcing Journal. The “All the Small Things” podcaster previously slammed Boohoo for tapping Kourtney Kardashian Barker as its “sustainability ambassador.” Much like choosing a jet-setting millionaire as the public face of one’s planet-saving efforts, the panel was an “exercise in greenwashing,” she said.

La Manna, who caught wind of the event from a Labour Behind the Label chat group that she’s part of, previously helped the Bristol-based workers’ rights group formulate a 15-post tweetstorm denouncing Boohoo’s capacity to speak about ethical production. The organization was the first to publish a report in 2020 ringing alarm bells about the Karen Millen parent’s behavior during the pandemic, precipitating the infamous “sweatshop” scandal that exposed a culture of wage underpayment and unsafe working conditions among its U.K. suppliers.

The panel’s original title, which referred to ethical fashion as “fashion’s new must-have,” was even “more outrageous,” said Dominique Muller, policy director at Labour Behind the Label. Muller took issue with the way Boohoo was being framed as an ethical authority. Despite launching widespread reforms and establishing a “center of excellence” in Leicester, Boohoo continues to be plagued by allegations of poor working conditions and sub-minimum wages. In November, an investigation by the Times said that workers at Boohoo’s Burnley warehouse were walking the equivalent of a half-marathon, at temperatures that could reach 89 degrees, during each shift. The company refuted the claims at the time.

Muller wrote to both Boohoo and Source Fashion regarding her concerns. Calling ethical fashion a new “must-have,” for instance, suggests that it is “simply the latest in a long line of fast fashion trends,” she said. While Source Fashion would later remove this from the panel’s title, its centering of Boohoo still indicates a “clear lack of due diligence” on the event planner’s part, one that ignores red flags such as the “lack of transparency around Boohoo pricing and sourcing strategies, the resistance to trade unions in its logistics chain, the refusal to pay back workers who have been subject to wage theft for decades alongside the current investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority into greenwashing at Boohoo.”

“The panel calls for ‘industry collaboration,’ yet [it] is exclusively made up [of] representatives of one brand, a brand that has a poor reputation for sustainability and labor rights,” Muller added. “Without the voice and concerns of garment workers, trade unions, climate specialists or small suppliers where indeed is the industry collaboration?”

Suzanne Ellingham, sourcing director at Hyve Group, Source Fashion’s organizer, told Sourcing Journal that its inaugural agenda was meant to “stimulate conversation and learning” around responsible sourcing through a wide range of seminars. The one involving Boohoo, she said, tackles one of the biggest issues in fashion: ethical manufacturing in the United Kingdom and abroad.

“While we completely understand the concerns, we approached this session with caution and, on balance, felt that having a conversation on stage with [Boohoo] on their challenges and the role of industry collaboration in addressing them would encourage further debate,” Ellingham said. “This session was always intended to talk about one company’s journey, and the challenges they encounter in making a change. Every company has a right of reply. This discussion did not shy away from difficult questions, and the panel [was] open for all questions at the end of the session.”

Source Fashion believes in “freedom of speech, and the right to protest,” she added. “However, we also have a duty of care to produce a safe event and prevent actions that could escalate. The venue has security as [a] matter of health and safety.”

Boohoo similarly defended its participation in the panel, noting that it attends events like Source Fashion to “share insights from the work we are doing to reduce our environmental impact, embed our responsible purchasing principles and our quality assurance program.”

“The challenge of sustainability affects the whole fashion industry and no single brand or government agency will be able to solve these problems on their own,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “That is why we will continue to partner with other retailers, government and NGOs, through initiatives like Textiles 2030, and share insights wherever we can, to help find solutions to these shared problems.”

Still, La Manna expressed her doubts. She didn’t feel like the concerns she and her fellow protestors called out were mentioned at all. “Security kicked us out as soon as we spoke up and the panel sat back and smirked, which tells us everything we need to know,” she said.

Boohoo wasn’t the only fashion e-tailer that experienced blowback in the United Kingdom this week. On Monday, three students demonstrated at the University of Newcastle student union’s “Discover Newcastle” fair, which included Shein as one of its exhibitors.

“We’re not sure how Shein got involved or if they were invited,” Jemima Elliott, who is pursuing a master’s degree in literature at the school, told Sourcing Journal. “We saw them on the student union’s social media and shared social media posts of our own and messaged SU accounts asking for accountability. We’ve now been told that the SU are amending their approach to allowing fast fashion brands on campus but we haven’t been told what these amendments are.”

Elliot, who posted a video of herself and a friend calling for a boycott of the Chinese retail juggernaut on Twitter and TikTok, criticized Shein for its “ridiculously high production levels” and “horrendous human rights record.” Shein, which pumps out 6,000 new items a day, has faced several allegations of worker exploitation, as well as questions about potential forced labor in its supply chain. Last year, a British broadcaster claimed that workers at two factories in China were toiling 18-hour days, with only one day off per month, for as little as 3 cents per hour on behalf or Shein. The former Rolling Stone collaborator insisted that most of the allegations were false.

“Newcastle University claims to be the most sustainable university in the U.K. and to be champions of social environmental justice—the same with the student union,” Elliott said. “But by hosting companies like Shein they are essentially endorsing businesses who stand in direct contrast to those values. We as students don’t believe that exploitative companies should be allowed on campus.”

Shein respects the right of individuals to “protest and share their views,” a spokesperson said. “It is our mission to make fashion that is accessible and affordable for all, and we look forward to continuing to serve our customers.”

The protests, both spearheaded by younger people, could represent a tipping point in the way fashion firms are being scrutinized by Gen Z for their behavior, particularly with the speed at which they proliferate through social media, said Neeru Paharia, a professor at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business.

“In general, consumers balance their desire for fast, trend or cheap fashion, and what they could possibly represent,” she told Sourcing Journal. “There is a critical point at which protests get enough mindshare with consumers, such that the social costs can counteract the benefits. Accordingly, it matters whether these protests get attention and mindshare. That said, I do think younger consumers are generally more aware of these issues, and more likely to include these dimensions into their purchase decisions.”

Such outbursts could be a “point of leverage,” too. “Companies are aware that things can go sideways quickly if they do catch steam,” Paharia said. “Even if they appear to be small now, I would be worried they can blow up easily.”

Muller is worried that too many companies are throwing around the words “sustainable” and “ethical” without evidence they can back them up.

“Fashion brands are increasingly claiming to be responsible and that their products are sustainable and ethical, but these terms are meaningless—there is no definition for this and no accountability,” she said. “At [Labour Behind the Label], we work on urgent cases from partners around the globe where we see the impacts of fashion’s exploitative model every day: workers being harassed, union members dismissed, women workers sexually assaulted and migrants abused. This is in addition to the reality of wage levels that are still poverty wages.”

What some brands frame as “ethical” is really creating a “small part” of production with claims of sustainability in order to “hook new customers interested in buying responsibly,” Muller said.

“All the while [they’re] continuing to churn out fast throwaway fashion that not only is destroying the planet but also keeping whole generations of workers in poverty,” she added.