The Problem with Primark

Own up- how many of you buy Primark clothing whilst being fully aware of the conditions in which the clothes were made? I certainly do and recently my sense of guilt, much like my wardrobe crammed with poly mix frocks, got heavier. A few weeks ago, two Primark shoppers in Swansea discovered labels sewn into their brand new garments; one reading “forced to work exhausting hours”, the other “degrading sweat shop conditions.” There was something particularly moving about reading labels (supposedly) directed towards us as consumers; the press repeatedly described the stunt as “a cry for help”, as though a voice had finally been given to the voiceless. Of course the labels turned out to be fakes, and were most likely created by campaigners for the cause here in the UK. Whether it was a hoax or not, however, it was a brilliantly successful one, as it made us wonder, to what extent we are responsible for the state of Primark’s textile workers? It’s entirely normal to feel this way, but by placing too much blame on ourselves, we absolve it from those in charge.

The discussion surrounding ethical fashion is nothing new. In fact, each time it seems to get louder, only to fall deadly silent again. It was only ten months ago that Rana Plaza, the factory producing clothing for Primark, C&A and Matalan collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 1100 workers. Five months before then, there was a fire in the nearby Tazreen factory claiming the lives of another 112. And those are just the events that have been relatively well documented. Groups like the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) have been campaigning tirelessly to help to unionise workers, and thus protect those who are illegally working double the amount of hours required- not an easy task when union membership currently stands at a mere 7%. This is further complicated by the fact that whilst 85% of the work force are women, it is an area largely dominated by male bosses who frequently threaten employees with sacking, violence and sexual assault. Creating real change takes time, and piece by piece improvements are being made as more women are stepping into leadership roles and challenging bosses.

Whilst we should certainly support the NGWF in their efforts and root for the women fighting to change their lives, we should also accept that it won’t be resolved because a few of us stop buying Primark’s clothing. A huge part of the problem is the lack of alternatives. Clothes are a necessity; children need them for school, their parents for work…. Charity shops used to be able to provide this, but with prices now rivalling that of some new clothing, they may not seem like the bargainous option they once did for families on low incomes.

I don’t even believe that those millions of us who simply get pleasure from fashion should feel particularly bad either. Vivienne Westwood’s advice of “only buying a few items you really like”, as opposed to buying lots of high street clothes, sounds very much like code for “just buy designer clothes instead” and is highly unrealistic. And no, I will never be able to bring myself to spend fifty pounds on a Fair Trade plain, grey t-shirt (as was spotted a mere hour ago by yours truly in boutique near London Fields), and neither should you.

All the negativity currently surrounding Primark proves that we really do care about where our clothes come from. We should embrace this, and ask the organisations responsible why, after so many deaths, we have been offered no clarity or reassurance? Whilst Primark’s lack of honesty over the issue is completely unforgivable, I don’t believe that we are as amoral for shopping as we think we are.

6 thoughts on “The Problem with Primark

  1. Primark makes its clothes no differently from GAP or even more upmarket chains. When the Bangladeshi factory collapsed, items of clothing from many high street stores were being made by the same workers in the same factory. All Primark does is to stack it high & sell it cheap, with little care paid to service or advertising. So stop pointing the finger at Primark only. Fashion at large is unethical whether you shop at the top or bottom end.

  2. Did you actually do much research into the company response to these issues? Did you read the company’s response to the ticket hoax, the $12 million dollars of compensation payed to those affected by the Rana Plaza, their ethical trading initiative providing, the women’s health initiative or any of the other things Primark are doing to ensure fair working conditions for all their employees? They are constantly providing more and more open policies on their ethics and production facilities and just because you have been influenced to believe that Primark is a terrible company for their productions does not mean they have a “lack of honesty”, it means your faith in out of date media is greater than solid information provided.
    I could list every problem or piece of mis-information with this article, but it would be just as easy to read this page and realise that most of the claims here are either outdated or just wrong.
    This may be an arts magazine and not Qmessenger, but I would expect the same level of research and journalistic neutrality on an article of this kind.

  3. Patrick Dubya Ford- No, it isn’t just Primark, and I did mention in the article that Rana Plaza also produced clothing for C&A and Matalan. The focus is on Primark because the label fiasco in their stores sparked a wider debate about ethical fashion in general. I also mentioned that buying designer clothing is not a viable alternative; there are a number of different brands responsible across the scale.

    Ryan Hill- At the time of writing Primark had not provided a response to the hoax or updated their ethical policy. I’m glad they have, and in light of this it may be worth making sure that articles are up to date before they are published to avoid discrepancies. At the same time, I wouldn’t be too quick to trust everything on a brand’s website. I attempted to remain as neutral as possible through using all the resources available, and stated that improvements to workers’ conditions are being made, and that this is a long and complex process. However, events such as those in Bangladesh should absolutely not have been happening in the first place. I’m interested to know why you’re so eager to defend a brand like Primark; they are a multi-billion pound chain, and not exactly a bastion of good will and proper conduct, despite their claims otherwise.

    The piece is primarily about the label hoax, our reaction to it, and how this applies to the state of fashion retail as a whole. Cheap labour is obviously not an issue exclusive to Primark.

  4. This problem is that if we don’t make a stand and change our shopping habits then people higher up won’t feel the impact and won’t start implementing necessary changes. This isn’t just for Primark but for plenty of high street shops and beyond. We should not ‘accept’ that a few of us not shopping somewhere won’t make a difference and it is a weak argument to have. There are plenty alternatives to buying clothes made from cheap labour. Places like People Tree and Bibico sell great products and you can usually get them at a great price in the sales and the workers wages aren’t impacted. This article is ridiculously contradictory in that it damns the unethical process yet still justifies all of us to continue to ignore what is happening and continue buying these unethical products anyway.

  5. It is down to corporations to ensure the welfare of their workers, not consumers. Primarily, it is the responsibility of the Bangladesh government, local business people, and factory owners and their associations. How will boycotting high street fashion- and thereby going against workers’ interests- actually help? Companies like People Tree do commendable work, but they are not realistic competitors in the market, and for many their clothes are still unaffordable.

    I did not suggest that we simply “ignore” these issues and carry on shopping. As the NGWF’s president Amir Haque Amin explains ( we should stand in solidarity with the workers of Bangladesh through pressuring companies to sign the Bangladesh Accord and confronting them directly about their policies; that’s how you create change, and if you look at the results, it is working.

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