“I Lost £2,000”: Inside The Murky World Of Multi-Level Marketing Schemes

“I Lost £2,000”: Inside The Murky World Of Multi-Level Marketing Schemes

Designed by Dionne Pajarillaga.

When Brina, 28, left her job in 2019, it wasn’t an easy time. Unable to work full-time due to personal and mental health challenges, her future looked uncertain. Although she’d never previously considered network marketing sales (also known as person-to-person marketing), she became interested in the health and cosmetics brand Arbonne after she was introduced to it by an acquaintance from her yoga studio.

“She invited me to a session for prospective members and I thought it might be a good way to earn some extra money,” she says. “Everyone seemed really nice but I soon realised it wasn’t what it seemed.”

Network marketing, also known as multi-level marketing (MLM), is a method of selling products directly to consumers through social media and local networks using independent sales representatives. MLM businesses differentiate themselves from pyramid schemes , which are illegal scams focused on recruiting people in exchange for profits, although there are some similarities.

Unlike a traditional pyramid scheme , reps are told they will earn a commission for their sales, known as ‘direct selling’. However, like pyramid schemes, MLMs offer additional commission and bonuses for people who recruit others to sell products underneath them.

Anecdotally it seems that the vast majority of consultants are women and there are often upfront costs involved: sellers are usually expected to purchase either starter kits or products when they join, as an ‘investment’ to kickstart their business. From cosmetics and wellness brands like Avon (whose Avon ladies are almost synonymous with this sort of business structure), Arbonne, Body Shop at Home, Herbalife, Juice Plus+ and Forever Living to educational companies like Usborne Books at Home, the MLM model has become popular in the past two decades, despite attracting controversy.

Champions of network marketing argue that it’s an opportunity for women to build a business on their own terms but many who have left these schemes have highlighted the pitfalls and limitations of the model, as well as exploitative practices used to recruit and retain sales reps.

For Brina, who is based in the US, the opportunity with Arbonne soon turned sour. “I found it difficult and quite overwhelming from the outset,” she says. “I was being told to message everyone in my network and add as many people as I could on social media. I felt uncomfortable with how I was meant to go about bringing the products to other people’s attention.” She was also concerned about the type of products she was encouraged to sell. “I liked the cosmetics but they also had this 30-day healthy living programme, as well as protein powders and various supplements. I have struggled with disordered eating in the past and didn’t feel right about selling these because it involved calorie deprivation.” Although many of the women she worked alongside were pleasant, the demographic skewed heavily towards white women in their 30s and 40s. “As a person of colour, I didn’t feel I could connect with a lot of people in the group,” says Brina. “In the beginning people are so friendly and supportive but because it’s all about sales, I didn’t feel I was getting any real depth out of the relationships.”

Brina was involved in group chats with other Arbonne reps and conversations often turned to money. “There was an implicit pressure that you weren’t doing enough. If you weren’t regularly turning over a £10k income, there was a feeling of inadequacy.” In reality only a tiny proportion of people were making a good living and Brina believes there was a “false promise” about getting to that level. After a few months she left the organisation, without making a penny for the many hours she’d put in.

Refinery29 has contacted Arbonne to ask them what percentage of their reps earn their top-tier salary and what percentage earn a living wage.

Brina’s story – of working and never actually earning any money – isn’t uncommon in the world of MLMs. According to Hannah Martin, founder of the Talented Ladies Club , an online network which supports women to find well-paid work, multi-level marketing companies typically seek to recruit those in precarious financial situations. Women with young children who are unable to work conventional hours are one target demographic, as are migrants who can’t get working visas easily and people with a history of mental health issues, addiction, debt, relationship challenges, learning disabilities and other vulnerabilities.

“I became interested in MLM companies in 2016 after watching a show called Betting on Zero [a documentary investigating dietary supplement firm Herbalife],” says Martin. “Since then […]

source “I Lost £2,000”: Inside The Murky World Of Multi-Level Marketing Schemes

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