One UK company’s story illustrates how the world is changing – and how the old and new ways are colliding. All of the issues are here: Covid-19; the role of social media; extractive capitalism; winner takes all; the demise of traditional retailing; data analytics; and the environmental impact of fast fashion and sharp business practices. We even get a glimpse of something most of us thought extinct: investigative journalism.

Boohoo is an online retailer of fashion clothing, targeting the under-30 market. Its registered address is in Jersey while its head office is in Manchester. It sells in more than 100 countries. Next-day delivery is a key part of its offering as is a massive marketing budget.

The company spends a lot of money on social media influencers on all the usual platforms. This is how you make money if you have starred on Love Island and gained millions of Instagram followers. Beautiful people aspire to become Boohoo global ambassadors. At least they did until controversy recently engulfed the company over employment practices in England.

The company has grown rapidly since its founding in 2006. Its strategy includes buying established brands and then scaling them on its digital platform. The pandemic, initially at least, boosted Boohoo’s sales. The switch from high street to digital predated the virus but has been accelerated by the pandemic. It’s a trend that has got many retailers worried and has left plenty of town centres with shuttered shopfronts and too many charity outlets. Boohoo’s sales during the early months of the pandemic took off.

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Harold Evans, who died this week, is remembered as a pioneering investigative journalist. He led the Sunday Times for many years and is famous for exposing the Cambridge spy ring and the thalidomide scandal. He would have enjoyed the newspaper’s story in July about pay and working conditions in Leicester at factories that supply Boohoo. Poor working environments are said to have included lack of social distancing. Minimum pay rules were alleged to have been ignored.

A just-published independent review conducted by Alison Levitt, a leading lawyer, has concluded that no crimes were committed, nor were low pay and poor working conditions deliberately allowed or intentionally profited from. Part of the story appears to have roots in all that rapid growth: governance processes were unable to keep up.



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