Boohoo’s appointment of Andrew Reaney to the new role of responsible sourcing director is either a significant step on the path to a more sustainable future or an exercise in window dressing designed to relieve pressure on the under-fire retailer.
Whichever view you adopt will depend on the extent to which you believe chief executive John Lyttle’s pledge to put right the failings that led to allegations of modern slavery in the retailer’s supply chain.
Lyttle wants Boohoo to be a “driving force behind positive change” as it takes forward the recommendations from the independent review into its supply chain by Alison Levitt QC.
On the face of it, appointing Reaney is a good start, as is the imminent recruitment of an individual to provide independent oversight of the company’s change agenda – a key recommendation from Levitt’s review.
Yet it’s hard to avoid nagging doubts over how influential these new appointments will really be. The fact remains that no senior executive has carried the can following an investigation that found workers at garment factories in Leicester were being paid well below the National Minimum Wage of £8.72 per hour. Calls, including from MPs, for both Lyttle and Boohoo co-founder Mahmud Kamani to resign from their roles have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Boohoo is talking a good game about changing the culture of the business but in my experience a culture of corporate social responsibility trickles down from the top of an organisation and is invariably driven by a leader who is personally invested in social and environmental issues.
Tesco had a reputation for, shall we say, combative supplier relations before Dave Lewis took the helm in 2014. Not only did Lewis’s arrival herald a positive change in how the grocer dealt with its suppliers, he also transformed Tesco into a sustainability leader, powering an agenda that Lewis clearly believed in passionately. It is doubtful the same transformation would have been possible under Philip Clarke or Sir Terry Leahy.
Under Kamani and Lyttle, Boohoo has been a huge success story in purely economic terms; but that success has come at the expense of the people producing its fast-fashion garments. It remains to be seen whether the same duo can effectively decouple continued financial growth from the company’s negative social and environmental impact.
Reaney knows Lyttle from his career at Primark where he held the role of product operations director at the same time as Lyttle was chief operating officer. This could be advantageous – certain people can achieve great things in combination – but it also leaves question marks over what influence Reaney will really have and whether he is simply a ‘yes’ man.
Certainly his background in trading and buying for a fellow fast-fashion retailer doesn’t immediately point to a revolutionary new approach to sourcing from a company Levitt said prioritised commercial concerns “in a way which made substantial areas of risk all but invisible at the most senior level”.
Should Boohoo prove doubters wrong then the company and its leaders will deserve credit. People have the ability to change and in doing so improve businesses for the better. Just don’t expect that change to happen overnight.