There was a time, earlier in my career, when a story about fashion sourcing and manufacturing practices would only ever get published in a trade title.
But over the past few years our expectations and our interest, as consumers, has changed. Ever since 2013, when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh killing over 1,100 garment workers who had been making clothes for Western high street chains, our eyes have been opened to the fact that - as with cheap food - if you can buy a new dress for under £10, there’s probably an unpalatable reason why.
Seven years on from Rana Plaza, the brands which once used manufacturers on that site have all moved on and changed suppliers. Take a casual glance at any major clothing retailer’s website, and you will see boasts of high health and safety standards for workers and regular factory inspections. It is essential for a brand, these days, to convince us shoppers that they have all of this under control.
But then there are the relatively new players in the fast fashion market. Boohoo.com, the £5.2 billion ultra-fast fashion giant, was founded in 2006 and now owns Warehouse, Oasis, Pretty Little Thing, Nasty Gal, Karen Millen and Coast. It has, as of this week, also launched an investigation into its supply chain in the wake of 'sweatshop' allegations.
A report by campaign group Labour Behind the Label claimed that workers at some Leicester-based factories were forced to work during lockdown and that some were paid as little as £3.50 an hour. The report also suggested that at least 75 percent of clothing production in all Leicester factories is commissioned by the Boohoo group. The group said yesterday it had found no evidence of suppliers paying workers £3.50 per hour. It has also said it was 'shocked and appalled' by the claims.
Boohoo’s shares fell by 35 percent on Wednesday, wiping £1.94 billion from its valuation, as stockists including Next, Asos and Zalando have removed Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing merchandise from their websites. Home Secretary Priti Patel has called the alleged activities 'truly appalling'.
Meanwhile Boohoo’s army of fashion influencers have been deserting the brand as well. The brand spent at least £90m on celebrity endorsements and other social media marketing last year - a key part of the company's success had been in its ability to identify reality television stars which appealed to its specific target market.
The Only Way Is Essex star Vas J Morgan led the charge on social media, writing on Instagram: “Slavery is slavery and my heart hurts for the families that have suffered at the hands of companies that fail to do due diligence. [sic] Companies that make billions off the back of hard working people trying to feed their family.” Model Jayde Pierce suggested that she "wouldn't feel comfortable working with them again" on Twitter.
It’s a bold move for Morgan, Pierce and the others, as many of these social media stars rely on the Boohoo group for a significant portion of their income - but it also serves as evidence that they risk losing followers (the metric by which they are all judged) if they choose to align themselves with companies which are seen to be out of favour with consumers.
The Boohoo storm may well inspire the biggest shift towards transparency from fashion firms since the Rana Plaza factory collapse.
It has coincided with a time when consumer tolerance for bad behaviour is pretty low. We've all had time to reflect on our shopping habits during lockdown - 45% of us intend to cut back on fast fashion, according to a recent survey. And the protest movements for Black Lives Matter, as well as Extinction Rebellion, which marched on Boohoo's headquarters on Monday morning, have ignited a passionate switched-on new generation.
That younger generation are the same consumers as Boohoo once targeted. If the bargain prices of its partywear have helped shoppers to turn a blind eye to inconvenient truths in the past, it may not last much longer.
There is growing demand from consumers for more transparency in the sourcing and manufacturing of our clothes, says Orsola de Castro, founder of Fashion Revolution, a campaign for a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry.
“The future, I feel, belongs to those brands that will be prepared to do the right thing and be transparent, and the new customers will demand it,” de Castro told my colleague Caroline Leaper. “Many young people haven’t made the correlation yet; they want to buy the party dress, but they also want to save the planet. They will soon. It won’t be immediate, but it will be inevitable.”
Just as Millennials and Gen-Xers have been seduced by forward-thinking labels’ ‘radical transparency’ and virtual factory tours, so too will Gen-Z. It won’t be long before more and more of them are boasting that their T-shirts are second-hand, and their jeans were made at Saitex, the world’s cleanest denim factory which can be toured online by anyone who cares to take a peek.
Boohoo's young audience may be waking up to the issues surrounding ethical manufacturing more rapidly than the group's bosses. Gen-Z is something of a moving target, and Boohoo is going to have to work harder to keep up.