A well-known industry group that monitors supply chains has refused to give evidence to Boohoo’s QC-led investigation into how the online retailer’s clothes are made, criticising the focus of the inquiry and questioning its independence.
Consumers’ eagerness to snap up Boohoo’s cheap clothes has turned the group into one of the hottest stock investments in the UK, but it was last month rocked by renewed allegations that Leicester factories making its clothes were paying workers far below the minimum wage.
The fast-fashion retailer has denied allegations of illegal wages among its suppliers, but has since launched an independent review into its supply chain led by QC Alison Levitt, a former principal legal adviser to the Crown Prosecution Service. The report is set to be completed next month.
The Ethical Trading Initiative is an alliance of companies, unions and NGOs that monitors supply chains, whose members include retailers such as Asos, Gap and Marks and Spencer. Nigel Venes, strategic lead at its apparel and textiles division, said the group had decided not to provide evidence after an online questionnaire launched by the review had appeared to focus on identifying factories where labour abuses had occurred.
“In a sector operating in a climate of fear, it is unrealistic to expect anyone to give names or details,” he said.
The ETI said in a statement on Tuesday that the “detailed systemic abuse” in the UK’s garment industry was being fuelled by retailers’ purchasing and costing practices, as well as a lack of responsibility towards factory workers.
It said a solution to the issues, which have been resurfacing for years, would require Boohoo to consider how the cheap prices of its clothes affected suppliers, adding that “so far we have not seen a willingness from Boohoo to engage in this process”.
The ETI also questioned the review’s pledge not to share evidence with the online retailer. “I remain sceptical that an inquiry paid for by Boohoo to look into allegations made against Boohoo is truly independent,” Mr Venes said.
A spokesperson for the review said the “confidential” online questionnaire was only one way to submit evidence, adding that the ETI had, “alongside other organisations and advocacy groups”, been invited to provide information directly to Ms Levitt and her team.
“We also regret the Ethical Trading Initiative’s unjustified questioning of the independence and impartiality of the review and, by doing so, seeking to undermine important work being carried out in the public interest,” the person said.
Boohoo said it was not party to any exchanges between the ETI and Ms Levitt, as “we have made crystal clear that Ms Levitt’s independent review is indeed independent”. It added that it would “act decisively” on the review’s findings.
MPs in July criticised Boohoo for failing to keep its promise to join the ETI, made after the environmental audit committee last year issued a report that detailed issues in the retailer’s supply chain similar to those that resurfaced recently.
Peter McAllister, executive director of the ETI, at the time confirmed that Boohoo had not applied for membership and said “we are not convinced that they would meet a number of critical aspects essential to ETI membership”.
Home secretary Priti Patel has also called on Boohoo to ensure workers are “protected and remediated”, expressing concern in a letter to chief executive John Lyttle that the company “appeared to be focused on terminating contracts with suppliers . . . rather than on protecting vulnerable workers” in response to the allegations.