As the sun sets on the winter series of Love Island, contestants will be gearing up for the next time-honoured step in the trajectory of a newly minted reality TV star: the fast fashion brand partnership.
Last year’s winner Amber Gill set a new record when she signed a reported £1 million deal with the Boohoo-owned label MissPap. Not to be outdone, islanders Ovie Soko, Molly-Mae Hague and Tommy Fury all landed six-figure deals with Asos, PrettyLittleThing and BoohooMAN.
These high-profile collaborations are driving serious consumption – the UK fast fashion market was thought to be worth between £4.2 and £8.4 billion in 2019, according to a RetailX report.
But our insatiable demand for the latest and most on-trend clothes doesn’t come for free. Behind every parcel is an army of unseen labour – the people who work around the clock in warehouses packing, processing and distributing our orders.
VICE UK investigated four of Britain’s biggest online retailers in fast fashion – Asos, Boohoo, Missguided and PrettyLittleThing – to try to understand the powerhouse brands driving modern shopping habits.
Our exclusive Freedom of Information (FOI) data reveals the alarming number of ambulance call-outs to the warehouses of some of these businesses.
Between 2014 and 2019, ambulances were despatched 314 times to a total of four buildings:
- 231 times to the Asos warehouse in Barnsley, South Yorkshire
- 56 times to the Boohoo warehouse in Burnley, Lancashire
- 16 times to the Missguided warehouse in Stretford, Greater Manchester
- 11 times to the PrettyLittleThing warehouse in Sheffield, South Yorkshire
In 74.5 percent of the 314 cases, emergency staff assessed the victim was in need of further medical attention and they went on to hospital. The data obtained lists chest pain, breathing problems and fainting as some of the most common reasons for call-outs.
The figures will no doubt alarm campaigners concerned about soaring consumer demand for cut-price clothing and the welfare of those who keep the heart of Britain’s fashion ecosystem pumping.
Though none of the ambulance services disclosed any further information on the causes of such complaints, industry union Unite is concerned that the figures suggest that “Victorian working practices are still happening” in the fast fashion industry.
Our data shows that chest pain was the most common health complaint for calling emergency services, accounting for almost one in five (19.1 percent) ambulance despatches to the warehouses.
The second most common reason for an ambulance to be dispatched was in response to a 111 call – commonly made for non-life threatening emergencies or health advice – though the data did not list the reasons for the call.
According to the data collated from the four warehouses, falling unconscious or passing out was the second most identified health complaint, followed by breathing problems.
The Asos warehouse in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, had the highest number of ambulance call-outs of the four brands. Between 2014 and 2019, there were 231 ambulance call-outs to the building. Almost three-quarters (72.2 percent) of call-outs resulted in the worker taken to hospital for further treatment.
Call-outs to the Barnsley warehouse peaked between 2016 and 2017 with 56 calls in a year – or once every six and a half days. Seventy-five percent of cases were taken to hospital after reporting chest pain and other conditions not disclosed in the data.
In our overall data, call-outs to the Asos warehouse accounted for 88.8 percent of all ambulance despatches relating to breathing problems, 83.3 percent of all chest pain-related despatches, and 55 percent of all despatches relating to falling unconscious or passing out.
Founded in 2000, the company is one of Britain’s biggest fashion retailers and is understood to employ 3,000 people at its warehouse, according to Barnsley Council. UK sales hit £861.3 million in 2018 – up 23 percent year-on-year, according to a company report.
But a Press Association report in 2019 sparked fresh concerns over working conditions over the number of ambulance dispatches to the same warehouse in Barnsley. At the time, Asos and XPO Logistics – which operates the warehouse – said that it valued the safety and welfare of its workers, and that “because of that commitment, it is our policy to call an ambulance whether a situation is work-related or not, often as a precaution”. It also said that accident incident safety rates had declined considerably year-on-year since 2013.
An ASOS spokesperson told VICE: “We are a responsible employer that values the safety and welfare of our employees above all else. As we have stated previously, and as still remains the case, ambulance call-outs are not an accurate measure by which to judge our operation, not least because our precautionary policy – in line with our high standards of workplace safety – is to call an ambulance whether a situation is work-related or not.
“Since 2013, the workplace accident incident rate at our fulfilment centre has declined considerably year-on-year, and has remained significantly below the industry standard. Moreover, our commitment to workplace safety has seen us recognized by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents with a Gold award for health and safety for four consecutive years. Among other awards and citations, our site also holds a Public Health England Health and Wellbeing Award.”
Manchester-based online behemoth Boohoo is Asos’s biggest rival and owns the fashion brands PrettyLittleThing, Nasty Gal and MissPap. In 2019, it overtook Asos sales and its market value is worth nearly £4 billion – thanks in no small part to its collaborations with Love Island stars like Amber Gill and Molly-Mae Hague.
According to our data, Boohoo is the fast fashion label with the second highest number of ambulance call-outs after Asos. Staff made 56 requests for emergency assistance at its warehouse in Burnley, Lancashire between April 2014 and 2019.
Some 76.7 percent of casualties were subsequently taken to hospital. There were 18 call-outs between 2017 and 2018 – the highest number since 2014. According to its most recent Companies House accounts, Boohoo employs 885 workers in distribution.
Boohoo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
PrettyLittleThing – of which Boohoo obtained a controlling stake for a reported £3.3 million in 2016 – aims to bring “killer, affordable style to female fashion breakers and makers”. Celebrity campaigns fronted by American models Ashley Graham and Hailey Bieber helped revenues grow to £374.4 million in 2018.
Yorkshire Ambulance Service confirmed there were 11 ambulance call-outs to the warehouse address in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, between September 2018 and April 2019 and 90.9 percent of cases went on to be treated in hospital – the highest rate of call-outs that warranted further medical attention among the four brands. The brand only moved to its current warehouse in July 2018. According to Companies House filings, it employs 329 people in total.
A PLT spokesperson said.“The safety and well being of our team is of course our highest priority and is why we have such robust safety systems in place.
“Our own records show that two ambulances have been called for work related incidents in the last two years. Creating an environment that ensures that our team are happy, motivated and satisfied is good for our team and good for business, so we ensure that all of our team are paid above the minimum wage and we offer a range of competitive benefits.”
Founded in 2009, Missguided cornered the fast fashion market by targeting fashion-loving teens with pocket-friendly prices. In June 2019, its promotion of a £1 bikini caused shoppers to crash the site – and raised eyebrows of people in the fashion industry.
Missguided had the fewest number of ambulance call-outs of the fast fashion brands we investigated. There were 16 requests for emergency assistance to Missguided’s warehouse in Stretford, Greater Manchester, between April 2016 and August 2019 – with 14 people (87.5 percent) taken to hospital for further treatment.
According to the most recent Companies House filings, Missguided employs 569 people in total. Missguided said the now-infamous bikini was meant to celebrate 10 years of “empowering women to look and feel good without breaking the bank”. But its rock-bottom prices aren’t unusual among fast fashion retailers. At the time of writing, you could purchase £3 T-shirts on Boohoo, organic cotton vests for a fiver on Asos, and crop tops for just £1 in the PrettyLittleThing sale.
Missguided did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
It’s no secret that shopping is one of the UK’s favourite hobbies. A 2019 report by Barnado’s found that British shoppers were ready to spend £2.7 billion over summer on outfits that would be worn once. An estimated 300,000 tonnes of clothing is thrown away annually – with 80 percent incinerated and 20 percent sent to landfill, said waste advisory body WRAP.
This raises the question whether some workers could be risking their health for clothes that customers might wear once before chucking in the bin. A Boohoo warehouse insider on minimum wage told VICE UK: “I’m stressed. In fact, everyone’s stressed.”
“We’ve all seen ambulances come to the warehouse. I know of someone whose colleague got sick and almost collapsed. They had pain in their chest. Supervisors came and asked how they were and said they’d call an ambulance. But they didn’t – in fact they called a first aider from another part of the warehouse because we didn’t have one.”
Even during the 2019 heatwave, they said, management failed to provide staff with fans, water or additional breaks: “We had to buy our own fans. And they still wanted us to hit target.”
Local council health and safety officers are responsible for enforcing warehouse regulations. And while there is no law for minimum or maximum workplace temperatures, the Health and Safety Executive recommends the temperature range between 13 and 16C. It advises that employers must provide fans and allow “sufficient breaks” when staff are too hot. Workplaces are legally obliged to “be maintained at a reasonable temperature”.
The Boohoo worker continued: “I heard that two pregnant girls took sick days because they couldn’t stand the heat. One pregnant girl apparently took a few days sick leave – only to receive a paper that [said] if she’s not careful she can be sacked.”
Boohoo did not respond to repeated requests for comment on these allegations.
Attempts to reform the fast fashion industry were made last year by the House of Commons’ Environment Audit Committee, which scrutinises government policy and how it affects the environment and sustainable development.
Among the nine key recommendations in the Fixing Fashion report was a 1p tax on every garment made in order to invest in better clothing waste collection and recycling nationwide. Every single proposal was rejected by Theresa May’s government.
It flew in the face of figures showing a gradual rise in spending on clothing since 2005 – topping £60.4 billion in 2018 – and the number looks set to grow. Now brands are tapping reality TV stars and Gen Z celebrities to shift copious amounts of product.
On Love Island, contestants are decked out in the sponsored brand’s clothes and viewers are able to “shop” the episode through the retailer’s social channels. Missguided’s 2018 deal reportedly saw sales spike 40 percent when the show aired.
Fast fashion newcomer I Saw It First continued its 2019 sponsorship by signing on for this year’s winter series. Leanne Holmes, I Saw It First’s brand director, told trade title Drapers: “This has proven to be a fantastic opportunity for us to gain direct access to our target audience.”
Last September, Love Island runner-up Tommy Fury was among the slew of 2019 contestants to sign a clothing deal when he launched his collaboration with BoohooMAN. But the 20-year-old ran into controversy when he questioned consumers’ preference for expensive clothing.
He told reporters: “People are too obsessed with how much clothes cost. A lot of people in fashion think that because it's expensive it'll look good but that's not always the case. It's not about things costing a million quid to buy. I've worn £2 T-shirts from Primark, a little outfit that looked just as good. You should wear what you feel comfortable in.”
Comfort, price and style are some of the many reasons why people are attracted to fast fashion retailers. But would we feel differently if we knew more about the inner workings of these retailers?
Adrian Jones, the national officer for warehousing at Unite, the UK and Ireland’s largest trade union, said: “This investigation by VICE UK and the testimony of [staff] in this industry shows that ‘Victorian’ working practices are still happening. It cannot be right that going to work makes you ill. The fast fashion industry should pay attention to their employees' wellbeing and health and safety.”
Mary Creagh, the former Labour MP who chaired the EAC, said: “Everyone has the right to be safe at work. The best way to ensure safety is to have proper support from a union. This is why we have been pushing for full recognition of unions for all employees of fast fashion brands.”