“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 I’ve been raising awareness about the way MLMs operate to help women avoid falling into the trap." Over the years she has heard hundreds of horror stories, including reports of bullying and emotional manipulation by other reps. "The structure is that you make money by getting people in underneath you," Martin continues. "If you lose your volume of sales then things start to become precarious. There’s a huge pressure to sell, which encourages emotional manipulation. Everyone in that house of cards is needed by the person above them and if they leave that collapses." 
Luxurious incentive holidays with other reps, car lease offers and lucrative salaries are often dangled like carrots for prospective reps. For busy mothers, or those excluded from other positions, it’s easy to see the appeal.  Yet Martin points out that only a tiny percentage of people manage to penetrate the top level, with the majority unable to make a living wage. Research by Jon M. Taylor of the Consumer Awareness Institute, which was posted on the US Federal Trade Commission’s website, shows that less than 1% of MLM participants turn a profit after expenses, compared to 39% of legitimate small businesses. The report even states that MLM makes gambling "look like a safe bet in comparison". According to the UK’s Direct Selling Association (DSA), MLMs contribute £2.7 billion a year to the UK economy but in reality that accounts for only 0.67% of the entire retail industry.
Martin adds that MLMs use carefully curated scripts to encourage people to join. These scripts, which have been shared with Refinery29, involve positive language, compliments and repetition of the same uplifting success stories. Reps are also encouraged to share recycled social media posts, with inaccurate or misleading claims about the products. 
As part of my research for this article I put this approach to the test by contacting Amy*, an Arbonne rep, to enquire about opportunities. Posing as a single mother who had recently left an abusive relationship, I was sold the benefits of joining the organisation. While Amy was clear that it would take longer than six months to truly build a business with Arbonne, the rest of the sales spiel felt carefully curated. I was told that Amy had worked with people from all backgrounds, including corporate women, which Martin explains is a common trick to create the illusion that MLMs are more successful than they are. "They like to give the impression that people have given up successful careers to do direct sales but it’s not true." The issues that I flagged around an abusive ex-partner, which would have prevented use of social media for safeguarding reasons, were not deemed problematic. Amy told me it would be possible to create a successful business from local, face-to-face networks without the use of Facebook. 

There's a huge pressure to sell, which encourages emotional manipulation. Everyone in that house of cards is needed by the person above them and if they leave that collapses.

Hannah Martin, Talented Ladies Club
MLMs argue that they don’t discriminate in terms of offering opportunities but Martin worries that vulnerable women, especially those who are processing trauma or suffer from mental health issues, may not be suited to a high-pressure sales environment where the behaviour of other reps isn’t regulated. "Whatever you say, you’ll never be told you’re not suitable. You’ll never be told the truth as they need a certain number of people underneath [them] to retain a certain rank and to continue being paid the same bonuses."
Amy did not share exact figures on earnings and the commission structure seemed complex. The language around the management structure is also more complicated than in a traditional business. Martin says this is a deliberate ploy by MLM owners to prevent people from fully understanding how difficult it is to make money. 
MLMs also differ hugely from other organisations in their structure, and people working with them won’t have the same legal rights. "Despite the fact they can be mentally damaging for many women, there’s less protection from bullying than there would be in a traditional job, and less support if you encounter any problems."
While some women, like Brina, lose the time they’ve invested, others lose substantial amounts of money. Jennifer, who was in her 30s when she joined Body Shop at Home, lost £2,000 during the 15 months she was a rep. "Not long before the pandemic I saw an advert on Facebook that was targeting mums," she says. "You could sign up for £49 and get £200 worth of products." Initially she joined to try out the products but when lockdown hit she began to wonder whether it could be a viable business opportunity. "I had a newborn baby and I was trying to homeschool a 10-year-old," she says. "I was told my account would be closed if I didn’t do £150 in sales so I decided to give it a proper go as we really needed money." 
At first Jennifer was reasonably successful with her sales and had a couple of people join under her. "A lot of people lost jobs during the pandemic, which meant there was a bigger pool of people to recruit." But those above her in the organisation, known as 'uplines', became greedy. "They were making money from the sales I was making," she says. "They just started seeing me as a potential cash cow and the pressure to sell increased." 
As the pandemic wore on, Jennifer’s husband’s business struggled and the family became more financially vulnerable. "I told my uplines all about this and the fact we might have to put the house on the market but they told me that should be the reason I needed to work harder," she says. "I felt exploited as I was never going to make any money. I panicked and started buying more from other MLMs in the hope they’d buy from me. It became a vicious circle." 
She attempted to boost her sales by investing her own money in the hope of increasing her commission cheque. "My upline never told me I needed two months of sales to get this bonus," she says. "She told me it was in the contract but I’d never seen it. She’d dealt with all that for me when she signed me up. If she’d been honest with me then she would have lost her commission from the money I put in so she let me do it." 
In addition to losing money, Jennifer was beginning to question the company’s ethos and culture. "My husband told me I was in a cult," she says. "I was told to add a certain number of people to Facebook every day, read self-help books for 30 minutes a day and use social media for work only and avoid scrolling." Her posts had to remain positive at all times and she was continually encouraged to 'think bigger' and, in some cases, actively lie about products. "We were told to use words like 'felt', 'feel' and 'found'. I was telling people I’d found this amazing product when in reality I had the worst acne of my life." Jennifer was also told to advertise in mother and baby groups during the pandemic, which made her uncomfortable. "I felt a huge pressure to make money for my family. My son was at home and I was trying to homeschool him too and I felt tremendous guilt for all the time I was spending on the Body Shop." 

I was brainwashed into believing I could make money by what was essentially a cult.

Eventually she left after an altercation with one of the other reps. "She was doing lots of illegal raffles, which you aren’t meant to be able to do in the UK without a gambling licence," she says. "She was constantly bragging about her sales and making other women feel bad." When the rep stole a ticket code that Jennifer had paid for to get into a Body Shop conference, it was the final straw. "I wrote a message on social media to say that I was leaving as a result of bad treatment and my upline rang me to ask if I wanted to kill her and her children while she was driving. Apparently her daughter read her the message while she was driving." The emotional manipulation was hard to cope with but Jennifer’s mind was made up. "I added it all up and realised I had lost £2,000 and couldn’t go on. I had to get out." (As part of this investigation, Natalie*, a rep for Body Shop at Home, advised me that although she no longer sells much product directly, it’s a good career choice for mothers as it allows you to work around childcare. While she seemed less certain than Amy about the benefits, she stated that earnings can be high when you start and that she has since gone on to be successfully involved with other MLMs.) 
A spokesperson for The Body Shop said: "We are deeply concerned to hear that someone in our collective has had a negative experience. At The Body Shop, there is no place for bullying of staff, consultants, or customers of any kind. All Independent Consultants must sign up to our strict Code of Conduct which stresses that Independent Consultants must at all times treat others with respect and must always refrain from any type of disrespectful conduct, whether towards other Independent Consultants or consumers. Each and every claim of bullying or harassment is investigated. Whilst cases of misconduct are rare, we have in the past terminated contacts if our strict Code of Conduct has not been followed."
Money isn’t the only reason that people get involved with network marketing. Tanya* began working for the MLM cosmetics firm Mary Kay when she was 22, in the hope of building new friendships. After winning some makeup in a competition, she went to a recruitment event. "I had always been insecure and shy and struggled to meet people but everyone seemed so nice. I thought it would be really nice to have friends I could work with." She paid the $100 fee to order a starter kit but never received it. "I tried to get the money back but I was ghosted by my new friends after that. I felt really naive."
Ten years later, at the age of 32, she fell into another MLM scheme, Usborne Books at Home. "My kids were really young and I’ve always loved books. I didn’t know it was an MLM," she says. After ordering a starter kit, she soon realised she was only able to sell small amounts to friends and family. "They give you a script on what to say and who to contact. I had a lot of overlap with friends doing it and it felt like you were trying to poach customers." Like others who’ve been involved in MLMs, Tanya felt guilty for using other products. "It was like I was cheating on my job if I bought other books for my kids." With no new customers to join her social circle, she left after eight months without making any money. "The only way to make more was to recruit but I didn’t want to do that. How could I bring people on when I wasn’t getting the support I needed myself?" Since leaving she has vowed never to get involved with another MLM. "I know the signs to look for now."
While Martin believes all women should be supported to achieve their goals and be successful in the workplace, she argues that the MLM model is exploitative and designed to benefit a handful of people at the top of the food chain, without adequate employment rights. "It's misselling a dream to financially vulnerable women," she says. "It’s important that people are aware of what the reality can be."
It’s a sentiment that Jennifer can relate to. "I was brainwashed into believing I could make money by what was essentially a cult," she says. "It’s sold as an empowerment opportunity but the reality is anything but. I was on maternity leave and thought I needed the money but now I wish I’d never done it." 
Refinery29 has contacted Arbonne Mary Kay and Usborne Books for comment.
*Name changed to protect identity