We should give Boohoo credit for commissioning an independent report from a top legal expert, Alison Levitt QC, to look into the Leicester “sweat shop” scandal.  Earlier this year, the Sunday Times exposed multiple factories that were paying staff well under the statutory minimum wage as well as raising issues around workers’ health and safety during the pandemic. Boohoo was perhaps the highest profile of the retailers that sold  garments made in these factories.

But the report makes uncomfortable reading for the Boohoo board and investors. The very first paragraph is striking. “One of the aspects that I have observed is a tendency by the Boohoo board to treat every piece of negative publicity about the Leicester garment industry as though it was the first time they had ever heard it.”

But the firm knew about issues months (at least) before the story broke.  One auditor told the Board that the conditions in one factory were amongst the worst they had seen in the UK. Levitt says that there was no intenional exploitation by the firm, but rather that “governance” and processes were weak. Fundamentally, Boohoo felt no responsibility for the conditions in their suppliers’ factories. It was also unimpressive to see John Lyttle, the CEO, didn’t mention a trip he had made to “appalling ”factories when he was interviewed by Levitt. That only came out when she talked to others, which made Lyttle look somewhat devious or maybe just very forgetful …  

There is an interesting philosophical dilemma here of course. When I was a CPO in large organisations, I would have objected if you told me I had to take responsibility for every worker in every one of the thousands of firms and facilities that supplied NatWest or the Department of Social Security. So there is a question of scale and dependence here. But we have seen how the leading firms in the procurement with purpose movement (read our “Procurement with Purpose” interview with Unilever here, for instance) do step up when it comes to their major suppliers. They also look to intervene positively when important supply chains contain major sustainability-type risks and issues, whether they are environmental or social.

So suppliers of the clothes that are the main engine of Boohoo’s business should be defined as pretty strategic and worthy of more diligent supplier management from the firm than we saw in these cases. Boohoo has now accepted the review’s recommendations in full and apologised for failing to “match up to the high expectations we set for ourselves”.  The CEO also said the company would be a “leader for positive change in the city”, and promised to go further and faster to improve our governance, oversight and compliance.”

What about the business impact of all this on Boohoo? Well, the initial scandal certainly did have a negative impact, as the share price crashed by some 50%. But it is interesting to see that it is now back almost where it started, within 5% of so of pre-scandal level.  Does that suggest the group that is the main customer base for the firm – young females – has a short memory? Or do they think Boohoo has apologised and will take action, so everything is OK?   

Some of those customers are undoubtedly very committed to serious campaigning on purpose-related issues, from climate change to diversity. But (and sorry to sound like an old cynic here), it seems like many are happy to jump on a Twitter or Instagram controversy about transgender rights or veganism and express an instant virtue-signalling opinion, rather than do something more demanding and difficult – such as changing their buying behaviour and checking out the provenance of the clothes they buy.