Home » Boohoo, H&M Lock Horns With UK Legislators Over ‘Fast Fashion’

Boohoo, H&M Lock Horns With UK Legislators Over ‘Fast Fashion’

Boohoo Group and H&M Group clinched the win for most unexpected double act this week when they were the only clothing purveyors to show up at a House of Commons evidence session about the sustainability of the U.K. fashion industry.

Conservative Member of Parliament Philip Dunne, head of the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee, opened up the second half of the hearing by thanking the retailers for “having the courage” to be grilled by lawmakers. He also admonished the 15 companies that “chose not to come today,” including Asos, Shein, John Lewis, Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Next, for the “pretty poor performance” of “not [being] prepared to stand up to their own corporate responsibilities” in person.

Andrew Reaney, who is serving out his notice period as the outgoing director of responsible sourcing and product operation at Boohoo, is no stranger to testifying before the committee. In December 2020, he and chairman Mahmud Kamani were called up before a similar panel, led also by Dunne, after Boohoo courted controversy over poverty wages and unsafe conditions in its Leicester supply chain during the summer.

Reaney, who had joined that September, explained at the time that Boohoo had cut ties with 64 suppliers for displaying a “consistent lack of transparency.” The EAC would say a few months later, however, that it was “disappointed” that Kamani was “unable to provide sufficient detail in response to a number of highly pertinent questions about the company’s governance.”

More than three years later, during a revisit of the committee’s 2019 “Fixing Fashion” inquiry, whose 18 recommendations were notably not adopted by the British government, Reaney was in the hot seat again. He appeared to brush off criticisms of overproduction and overconsumption that the previous set of witnesses raised, saying that the average Boohoo customer purchases three-and-a-half items of clothing two-and-a-half times per year, or the equivalent of 200 pounds ($251) in total.

“That has been constant over the course of the last five years,” Reaney said. What has changed, he said, is the way consumers expect to interact with the company. Two years ago, the Nasty Gal and PrettyLittleThing owner launched a resale marketplace place that was downloaded 450,000 times within the first four weeks. It also partners with Thrift+, a secondhand platform whose founder and CEO, Joe Metcalfe, was also testifying.

“That is probably the single biggest change,” he said. “Consumers want options to resell. They want options to rent.”

Reaney also took issue with the term “fast fashion” when used to denote throwaway clothing. He said that Boohoo seeks to have zero waste in U.K. landfills by 2025. A Nottingham-based business called Upcycle Labs, for instance, is turning unwanted clothes and converting them into industrial bricks and tiles.

“We use the term ‘fast fashion’ in the context of monetizing a trend,” he said. “Our buyers’ job is to commercialize a trend—if a consumer wants something, to get it in front of them quite quickly. That is the nature of online retail. It is test and repeat. It does not in any way, from our perspective, mean that the products that we sell do not have a long life and are not durable.”

Marcus Hartmann, head of public affairs at H&M, ran through the Swedish giant’s “longstanding commitment” to offer customers a “combination of fashion, quality, price and sustainability.” H&M wants to halve its carbon emissions by 2030 and buy 100 percent of its materials from more sustainable or recycled sources by 2040. Last year, he said, 68 percent of the garments it collected through its takeback program went on to be reused. Rental, resale and other circular models, Hartmann added, allow the Cos and Monki owner to “grow as a business…in a sustainable way.”

H&M isn’t afraid of due diligence legislation, he said. Rather it hopes regulation will create the “level playing field” that’s currently missing.

“When we look at our supply chain and the countries where our suppliers are based, we do have production offices in these countries and we are working on the ground to make sure that our due diligence is sound,” he said. “We work in very close partnership with these suppliers, both to make sure that they have the right processes in place but also to promote workers’ rights, the right to collective bargaining and similar.”

Both Reaney and Hartmann talked about the pitfalls of misleading sustainability claims, a.k.a greenwashing. Boohoo recently signed an agreement with Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority to stick with “accurate and clear” information. H&M, while having managed to avoid the agency’s scrutiny, has tangled with Dutch and Norwegian regulators over similarly unsubstantiated statements. A brief conversation similarly ensued over microplastic and microfiber pollution. Reaney said that the issue is “something that unfortunately at this point does not have an industry-wide solution,” while Hartmann noted that “one of the lowest-hanging fruits is communicating with our customers and educating them on how to take care of garments, not only to prolong their life but to avoid microfiber shedding.”

One Boohoo-specific question that only Reaney could answer, however, had to do with the closure of its so-called center of excellence at Leicester’s Thurmaston Lane, with Claudia Webbe, MP for Leicester East, doing most of the asking.

The e-tail giant had previously chalked up the closure to the “evolving” role of its sites, “significant” investments at its Sheffield distribution center and the launch of a new warehouse in the United States, all of which required that Boohoo “take steps to continue to ensure we are a more efficient, productive and strengthened business.”

Reaney said, however, that the failure of Thurmaston Lane, the land on which Boohoo purchased two years before the sweatshop imbroglio, stemmed from its inability to make clothing to the “right workmanship standard in the U.K.”

“The vision behind Thurmaston at the time, very simply, was that we had gone through a significant acquisition phase where we had bought several British brands out of administration,” he said. “Ironically, none of those British brands had a U.K. manufacturing footprint. We obviously had and still have relations currently with 41 suppliers in the UK, mainly in Leicester. They are still manufacturing for our brands, but the vision, quite simply, was to manufacture what we would call more complex garments—garments that would generally get made overseas, such as woven dresses, buttoning, plackets, fusing; more complex areas.”

The “truth” is that “that skill set unfortunately is not in the U.K.,” said Reaney. “Ultimately, where we got ourselves to was that we are a retailer; we are not a manufacturer.”

When Webbe asked Reaney how confident Boohoo was in ensuring that workers, both in and outside of Leicester, were being paid sufficiently and on time instead of ending up with contracts that say that their holiday wages would be paid after 12 months’ service, or that their hours could be reduced to 10 a week should orders decrease, he went on the defensive.

“What you have listed there are, effectively, evidences of modern slavery,” he said. “What I would say categorically is that no responsible retailer would tolerate modern slavery—nor us, from that perspective. If you have any specifics related to Boohoo suppliers or suppliers that manufacture Boohoo goods, please share.”

Reaney referred to Boohoo’s use of the Fast Forward audit protocol and methodology, “which goes above standard audit methodology,” its work with Highfields Centre and its worker hotline as among the “very strong mechanisms in place to make sure that what you are talking about does not happen.”

“If I may…all of the narrative around Leicester and the challenges in Leicester unfortunately, from our perspective—practically, from what we see—means that fewer and fewer other businesses are willing to manufacture in Leicester,” he added. “That is a lost opportunity economically, from our perspective.”

Webbe also asked Hartmann who was holding H&M to account for paying fair or liveable wages if it does not have any suppliers in the United Kingdom.

“That is…why we have the global framework agreement with IndustriALL, which is a global union, and we are part of the ACT, which is a co-operation to discuss these issues,” Hartmann said. “We just signed a prolongation of three years on that. We are working on that level with these different bodies.”

After Hartmann clarified that H&M does not own its factories, which means it’s not the one “filing cases with the police against its own workers” in Bangladesh, as Webbe described it, she suggested that that was “part of the problem.”

“The brands and the retailers can say, “‘The workers are not our employees and not our responsibility,’” Webbe said. “That is the heart of the problem with brands and retailers in the U.K., or from the U.K., when it comes to workers. You can say it is down to your supply chains, in terms of how they are paid and the conditions that they operate under.”

The hearing ended as it began, with Reaney, who pushed back at Dunne’s characterization of the “human error” that resulted in the mislabelling of overseas products with “Made in the U.K.” labels as a “convenient excuse.”

“It was not a convenient excuse,” Reaney said. “It was less than 1 percent of our intake volume, but it did happen, and we acknowledge that it did happen. It was genuinely human error. We do not look to misrepresent the country of origin of our goods. Obviously, we have had some challenging conversations internally and we have ensured that that process does not happen again. But it was an error.”