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.