By Claire Watson
Reality star Molly-Mae Hague says “if you want something enough then you can achieve it. It just depends to what lengths you want to go to get where you want to be in the future.”
The Workers and the Star
Late June 2020, it is revealed that at the height of the pandemic and in a city-wide lockdown, factory workers are forced into unsafe working conditions, all while working for £3.50 an hour- less than half of the UK’s minimum wage. According to a report by Labour Behind the Label, this Leicester site is a source for 60-70% of Boohoo’s production, with this increasing to 80% during this time. To maintain a fast production of clothes, workers were forced to work while sick with the virus. The local outbreak of the virus was traced to factories such as Boohoo’s that had stayed open throughout the pandemic. During this time Boohoo had a market value of £4.6 billion, with shares increasing by 22%.
This report also draws attention to the fact that the majority of the workforce are from vulnerable ethnic groups, with 33.6% being born outside the UK. Corporations often take advantage of the vulnerability of these workers using any language barriers, immigration status, and unemployment rates to abuse and subject these workers to horrible working conditions and unjust pay. While Molly-Mae says we all have “the same 24 hours in a day,” many have no choice in how those 24 hours are spent and are forced to work themselves to death, so that higher-ups, including Molly-Mae Hague and shareholders, are able to turn a profit.
In August of 2021, Molly-Mae Hague became the creative director of Pretty Little Thing, (owned by Boohoo) after being a brand ambassador since 2019. On leaving the villa she signed a £500,000 deal, and the following year she signed for £600,000. These enormous payouts come while workers are subjected to the worst of the worst. Hague’s latest deal is alleged to be in the millions. On receiving backlash, Hague apologises to those who “misunderstood” her comments and doubles down on her “24 hours” statement. Also, Nigel Farage defended her, which really says it all, doesn’t it?
Hague is not the only star to sign such insensitive deals and be posed as a successful entrepreneur. Maura Higgens also signed a deal with Boohoo on leaving the villa, along with India Reynolds. Olivia Bowen signed with MissPap, another brand owned by Boohoo, as well as Amber Gill. Curtis Pritchard had a deal with Debenhams, and Ovie Soko had a collaboration with Asos- with both companies having similar allegations of abuse.
While the reality series may be entertaining for those watching, there are many hidden faces suffering, so that those who are young and conventionally attractive are able to succeed. All of this for the purpose of selling clothes.
You’re watching the telly, the ad-break come on. You don’t want to sit through all that, do you? So you take out your phone and start scrolling through social media. There, you see everyone talking about the dresses or the swimsuits that the contestants were wearing. Everyone, including yourself, wants to know where they can buy them, and so the brand swoops in, send you an ad whether by promoting their own account or by use of influencer and voila- they’ve got you.
Boohoo is now an online store, using social media and reality TV as its main sources for advertisement. It latches onto what is relevant and uses this to control trends on a wide scale. Through the use of influencers, such as ex-Love Island stars, Boohoo has been able to double its profits. By dominating social media, companies are able to control what people are seeing, all under the guise of “relevant ads.” If the analytics sense you’re a possible buyer, they’re going to target you in their marketing as much as possible, keeping themselves relevant in your life.
In doing so, brands like these are able to control trends. To ensure a constant flow of profit, new trends are introduced at an alarmingly rapid rate, creating this environment of single-wear fashion. These disposable garments need fast production rates, which leads to dire situations as seen in the Leicester factory, and produces incredible textile waste both at the supply chain and at home. It is the hidden price of cheaply made clothes.
Because of such a strong online presence and connection to social media, it isn’t difficult for these brands to cover up their scandals. If not for Hague’s incredibly insensitive comments, this scandal wouldn’t have resurfaced. While Boohoo had done little to improve the conditions of its workers, In June of 2021, 15 key managers were ready to share a £150 million bonus. Workers had not been compensated for their lack of adequate pay, and the company refused to engage with workers’ unions. From 2019 to 2021, Boohoo’s revenues increased from £1234.88 million to £1745.3 million- the biggest increase it had seen yet.
Workplace abuse is not the only issue with online brands. The environmental impact fast fashion has is egregious, and it’s not just down to textile waste either.
Shein has refused to disclose information about its carbon footprint, however, the website admits to hosting production on a large scale for popular products. The company’s supply-chain transparency is poor, meaning it is difficult to determine the conditions of workers and the sourcing of materials. While on their website Shein states they do not engage in child labour, and “proactively campaign[s] against unethical practices,” there is little information to back these claims. The company also claims to use recycled materials where they can, yet very few products are made with these materials. It is the shipment of these products that have a severe impact on the environment, as Shein states that products “are loaded onto a cargo plane for a speedy transcontinental voyage,”
Another issue with online brands like Shein, Cider, Yesstyle, Asos, and Boohoo is how often their trendy, aesthetic pieces are stolen designs. It’s not that they are creating dupes of designer brands like Gucci or Dulce & Gabbana, it’s that they’re stealing designs from small, indie artists as an attempt to seem trendier and more in touch with millennial and gen Z aesthetics.
How do we fix this?
It’s easy when reading about these scandals to distance ourselves from the issue, and truthfully, consumers are not the issue. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, after all. But by turning a blind eye to the abuse of human rights, and the disastrous impact of these corporations on the environment, we play right into their manipulation.
The thing is, this industry doesn’t want you to think you have power. At the end of the day, you are the one buying their products. We, collectively, have the power to demand better. Boycotts can be an effective way of giving the finger to a business, and telling them you won’t accept their actions any longer. I’d like to reiterate: Boohoo’s revenue increased after their controversy. They knew they could get away with it, even after everything surfaced. Now, we have a second chance. Refuse to buy from Boohoo, and all brands owned by them. Find alternatives, that are transparent about what exactly is going on in their supply chain.
For a quick check, Good on You is a website that rates brands based on a series of ethics: People, Planet, and Animals. By putting a brand through their directory I can skip all of the tough stuff and learn if they’re a company worth supporting. For example, Boohoo scores the lowest with a “We Avoid.” This is mainly due to a lack of sustainable materials, a lack of transparency on gas and chemical usage within the supply chain, as well as a lack of policy to ensure workers are paid a living wage.
But for those wanting to do more in-depth research, I’d highly recommend checking out Labour Behind the Label and Remember Who Made Them. Both organisations have a plethora of resources, whether that’s reports, articles, a dictionary, or theory, to make the subject more accessible to the individual. These abuses can continue because brands purposefully withhold information from their consumers, but through stubbornness and with a bit of reading, we can take a firm stand against them.