Primark

I don’t really understand how anyone can shop there. Or ASDA, or Tesco, or wherever else, for their clothes. I’m sorry, I just don’t get it. You know they’re made in a sweatshop by blind five-year-olds with missing fingers doing a million-hour day for a pittance (I admit I may be exaggerating slightly). You all know it.

I’m not brilliant. I still buy clothes from M&S (which is, ethically, very nearly as bad as Primark etc) and H&M and so on. I do try where possible to buy things second-hand, but I will admit, I like shopping, I like new clothes, and if you’re looking for a well-fitting pair of jeans in the right shade of blue or whatever you’re more likely to find them on the highstreet than you are in your local vintage store, and until I’m a lot richer, I really can’t afford to buy basicsy highstreety stuff on a regular basis from fairtrade stores such as Ascension, much as I would love to do so. And yes, the other day, I did buy some socks from Primark. It was an emergency and I do feel guilty.

And as a Christian, where our faith is all about loving the Lord our God, and loving thy neighbour as much as thyself… how can you possibly treat your fellow man, by proxy, so badly? How can you call yourself a good Christian while you boast on your facebook profile about the suit you bought for some completely unbelievable sum from ‘Primarni’? While you actually boast about the cheapness of your clothes? Now, I’m all about good value. I’m not that kind of a snob, I’m not going to look down on you because you bought a cheap suit, but you have to look at those prices, think about the price of cloth and so on and think, hang on, surely getting a suit for under £50, shirt, shoes, tie and all, should be technically impossible? What’s going on here? Where is the money being cut from?’. You surely have to be suspicious of something that costs so little – you must realise that someone’s paying for that, and that someone is probably the poor woman who sewed the buttons on and doesn’t get paid or won’t be given work tomorrow if she doesn’t manage to make 20 suits in an hour or something.

It should be no more shocking that my Christian friends boast about Primarni than that my non-Christian friends do. I have always argued that atheists are as nice and have as much of a developed conscience as Christians – why would I argue otherwise? But somehow, when these days seemingly every church has a fair trade stall and a link to all kinds of fairtrade this, that and the other, when you’re looking at upstanding pillar-of-the-student-church-community types, it still brings me up short.

I want to interfere, but I don’t know that I know this guy well enough. Personally if I was interviewing a student for a job, I wouldn’t necessarily even expect them to own a suit. If I was employing a student, I would understand if they wore their old school trousers etc until their first pay packet. It’s not impossible. And for crying out loud I know full well that the Oxfam where I work has a lot of suits in at the minute. Honestly.

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14 Comments

Filed under Fashion, Religion, Society, Thoughts, University, World

14 responses to “Primark

  1. I guess you could make the argument that the big, cheap Primark store is easy to find, totally noticeable and, at the end of the day, there’s a little bit of mental acrobatics which can be performed to let you believe that the clothes actually come from “the shelf”, not “the sweatshop”. If you really do need unaffordable clothing at semi-affordable prices, charity shops are a much better idea. But they’re hard to find and don’t always have what you need. Maybe one day the ethical clothing will always be sold next to or instead of the sweatshop variety, in the same way that you never find shops these days that sell only battery farmed eggs. Things would be different then.

    I’ve got one pair of jeans from Primark (which were a total waste – they shrunk to unwearable proportions the first time they were washed). I bought them because I was meeting a girlfriend’s parents in less than an hour, had no money and no clean laundry. All of my other clothes are from high-street shops, though, which I’m under no delusion is much better, but I don’t think I’d actually boast about the fact. That said, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to draw attention to my clothes anyway, lest others notice my appalling fashion sense…

    And I’ve got a cheap suit, but it was bought in bits, in clearance sales. Sometimes it pays to be freakishly tall and skinny. I’d be lying if I said the price I paid came even remotely as low as £50.

    I don’t necessarily think the £50 suit is the best example, though. At least there someone is paying that price because they’re desperate and poor. I’d be more upset about the sorts of people who absolutely refuse to pay more than three or four quid for a pair of jeans or a t-shirt.

  2. It’s not just clothes. In the developed world, we outsource an awful, terrible number of things to the developing world. We hear about the BP spill in the Gulf Of Mexico because it’s happening off the coast of the US. We don’t hear about the equivalent, more common, tragedies that we perpetuate in Africa or other parts of the world.

    It’s a sad truth that we’ve developed a habit for living outside of our means.

    That said, I try and buy Fairtrade as often as possible; Imperial is really great for that, because all the college catering stuff carries loads of Fairtrade goods, and all the coffee is Fairtrade and that kind of thing.

  3. Jenny

    I always buy fairtrade coffee and tea and bananas and chocolate and stuff; my shampoo and conditioner tends to be ‘green’, as is my washing up liquid and clothes-washing liquid (except the Ariel I bought in an emergency). It’s a shame because I love the smell of Persil and I could smell clean Persilly clothes all day and not get bored if it wasn’t for the odd creepy-stalker connotations it might give off.

    I love clearance sales; I’m always on the look-out on the sale section of Ascension, which is all fairtrade clothing and stuff – for instance I bought all my towels there which means they also match, all lovely dark chocolatey brown :). I also like high-end high-street sales – you get better quality at prices you can afford and although they may not be fairtrade at least it’s not sweatshop central in quite hte same way.

    And yes – you’re right, Dom, t-shirts and jeans for three or four quid *sadface*. How can people think that more than that is expensive or unreasonable?

    We’ve developed a habit and a taste for living outside our means – and there’s no way to go back without making massive sacrifices which as a society we’re just not prepared to make. It’s a horrible mess and I don’t really see that there’s a solution. I think my father is genuinely scared about the world my children will live in, and has asked me on more htan one occasion, when I make jokes about his grandchildren or whatever, if I think it’s really wise to bring children into this world. Honestly? I don’t know how to answer him. I don’t want to not have children, but that’s selfish – but then I have to allow that my kids will be grown-up, capable and clever enough to make their way in a difficult world and perhaps do some good while they’re here, and maybe that makes putatively having children less of a selfish thing to do.

    Putatively, mind…!

  4. I don’t think it’s that bad yet, Jenny!

    Bear in mind that at the start of this millennium, the concept of an ‘ethical’ product was relatively unknown. In the last 10 years we’ve seen EU and British legislation on all sorts of global issues which for a long time were completely ignored. We’ve seen climate summits and agreements on energy consumption. We’ve seen comeuppance for our so called “credit culture”.

    We’ve seen the massive increase in popularity of fair-trade and ethical products. These days I can’t imagine going to the supermarket and not buying fair-trade coffee and chocolate, free range eggs. It’s not that I’m even particularly ethically conscious, it’s just what we have come to expect.

    So there’s still room for improvement. The clothing industry is grossly unfair at the moment, for example. Cosmetics that aren’t tested on animals are also a problem area (they’re not uncommon, but they’re difficult to identify. Retailers have to be careful what they put the ‘not animal tested’ mark on). But real improvement happens all of the time.

    I don’t believe the spread of a ‘consumer culture’ – of constantly living irresponsibly decadently, is irreversible. When I go home I don’t see my family dressed in cheap, throwaway clothing, or transforming our living room every few weeks ‘just because’. We don’t live outside our means and we consider every purchase in terms of its long term worth and the benefits it will bring. I’m not sure my family is all that atypical in this.

  5. The trouble is that our current society makes it almost impossible to exist at all without living beyond our means, and by our means I mean to say the sustainability of our current standard of living.

    To put it simply, if everybody on the planet enjoyed a Western standard of living, our planet would not be capable of supporting that. We simply could not produce enough energy or resources to do so, let alone absorb the inevitable by-products.

    That’s a fact. Look at the population and industrialisation growth curves; they blow right past our ability to extract oil from the ground.

    Given that oil is finite, this means that demand will rapidly begin to outstrip supply. Oil prices will skyrocket, and tank the world’s economy. Our rich, complex, energy-hungry society will just spectacularly implode. Thousands of people with job titles like “advertising executive” or “actuary” will suddenly find themselves in a world in which they are a superfluous irrelevance.

    The worst case scenario is that the developed countries start a war for access to oil resources, and crack out the nukes. Personally, I’d hope to die in the first wave.

    Jenny, your dad’s right to be scared. I know I am. I try not to think about it too much. I get especially worried when I read stories like this:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/jun/06/nuclear-fusion-iter-europe

    If fusion doesn’t work, there is no Plan B. The best that can be hoped for is a mitigation of the coming Fall; that the best possible new world can be carved from the ruins of the old.

  6. “It’s not just clothes. In the developed world, we outsource an awful, terrible number of things to the developing world.”

    And why is this a bad thing? Seriously, we’re talking about buying things off poorer people – giving them money which makes them richer and improves their standard of living. And the same transaction also makes us richer. And that’s a bad thing? Really?

    There’s a lot of bad things said about globalisation, about how it “exploits” developing nations etc. About low pay and poor working conditions. Some proportion of that is true; a (much) larger proportion isn’t (see the rubbish that has been written recently about the Foxconn factories that Apple use). Why are cheap clothes (or food, or electrical goods, or cars, or whatever) a problem?

    Also, note that many expensive clothing manufacturers use similar labour. They don’t pay the workers more, they just put a higher margin on! (or use better fabrics – Primark materials are awful IMO)

    “To put it simply, if everybody on the planet enjoyed a Western standard of living, our planet would not be capable of supporting that. ”

    Really? I agree our current lifestyle isn’t sustainable as it is, what with the over-reliance on oil etc. But I don’t think it’s quite as apocalyptic as you make out. If oil becomes extremely expensive, renewables become more attractive. There’s an immense amount of potential in things like small-scale electricity generation, which generates electricity for the owner, and the surplus is then sold to the grid (I’ve heard about a few examples of this in South Wales which already work really well). Or larger-scale schemes like the Severn Barrage or off-shore tidal impoundments. As oil becomes expensive, I imagine we will swap over to things like this because they won’t be prohibitively expensive any more because the cheap form of energy won’t be available. If that happens, I don’t see why more people can’t enjoy an even better standard of living.

  7. Clare

    Let’s take my capital-lettered “I HATE PRIMARK” rant as read, shall we, and I want to quickly move on to something slightly tangential:

    It should be no more shocking that my Christian friends boast about Primarni than that my non-Christian friends do. I have always argued that atheists are as nice and have as much of a developed conscience as Christians – why would I argue otherwise?

    I should hope not, considering our parents, and the fact that you yourself used to be a pretty committed atheist!

    I don’t think anyone’s faith (whether that’s a belief in god or a belief in no-god) should affect how much of a conscience we perceive them to have. Yes, a lot of Churches have fair trade stalls and stuff, and run humanitarian missions.

    Personally, I’m afraid that whilst I approve of the humanitarian side of these things, I object to the missionary side. Frankly, I don’t quite see why it matters that someone believes differently from you (you, here, being a generic you, applying to Christians, Atheists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews etc, and even Buddhists, if they ever get particularly bothered by the whole thing…) because at the end of the day, it’s their own soul (if you believe that people have them) and their own mind (if you believe that people don’t have souls). What goes on in there should be their own business.

    But naturally this does not apply to practises which are directly harmful to other humans (i.e. Female Genital Mutilation, which I’m not entirely sure is totally religiously motivated. I think that it is practised by some Christian communities as well as some Islamic ones, but I’d have to check my facts). So yeah. Not entirely sure where I stand on that, but this is, as usual a plea to the world at large to leave everyone else’s minds alone!

    Back from that side note, sorry… Yes, FairTrade=doubleplusgood – it’s just a shame it seems so much more expensive/difficult to source. Admittedly, however, that is beginning to change.

    One solution to the guilt-complex induced by buying sweatshop stuff is just to not buy many clothes. I bought my first new clothes since March the other day. I only bought a very few things. Admittedly, they were probably made by blind, unpaid and fingerless children, so the guilt is still there, but if you buy rarely, you probably therefore have a little more money to spend, which means you can afford (ideally) to buy things that have a lower humanitarian cost…

    Perhaps. I live in hope.

    Cxxx

  8. @Dickie – I think you can draw a big fat line between buying things of poorer people, and taking things off desperate people. In my industry, for example, a large amount of routine programming tasks these days are outsourced to LEDCs. This is probably okay in comparison to going to a place, finding the poorest of the poor and effectively enslaving them in your clothing factories.

    @Andy – It’s good that your scared. Fears about soaring energy prices are the only things that make people change. The high cost of petrol and diesel has already pushed people out of their inefficient cars and onto public transport. My friends who drive, these days, consider every journey in terms of whether it would be easier by train.

    In IT, the soaring cost of electricity has literally transformed the way we think about energy consumption. These days the standard practise is moving towards having a few powerful machines used at full capacity rather than hundreds of mediocre machines barely being used at all. We’re getting towards printers and servers that power themselves down when idling. We’re using chips like the Atom and the Ion, which are designed to use absolutely tiny amounts of power and are perfect for light duty desktop machines. The components themselves, under EU law, are becoming gradually safer to dispose of and recycle. This is just one example of how the world is changing to deal with the upcoming difficulties over energy.

    @Clare – Of course atheists are as capable of moral judgement as Christians. But to certain people Christianity forms a useful synonym for ‘alright person with a strong moral code’. I run an Open Mic night, and sometime last year we were expounding the friendly and open nature of it over a few pints. At one point our old president said “You see, it’s always been run by Christians – I think that makes us more welcoming!”. Well half the committee was atheist, and I don’t think my agnosticism has lead to a particular decline in openness since I took the ropes a few months back.

  9. Is M&S really bad? I’d always held them up as one of the few (semi-)ethical companies still around. Sigh. I have a t-shirt and a skirt from Primark, both of which cost £4 (organic Primark, don’tcha know). I love them both, the shirt in particular, and they’re not that badly made, but am still pretty ashamed of the fact.

    I like to think that by starting to make my own clothes, I’m becoming more aware of the process involved, and definitely much more discerning about what I buy and what I don’t. No, I can’t guarentee that all of the fabric I buy comes from a responsible source, however. As Andy says, it’s not just clothes.

    My parents, my Mum especially, have always been sticklers for living within your means. This meant that when Mum took a 13-yr career break to raise children, she only every (and not that often either) bought clothes from charity shops. I agree they’re variable and I agree that you’re not guarenteed to find anything to fit (!!) but I’ve got some really, really nice charity shop clothes in my drawers.

    Dickie – you talk about people having ‘better’ lifestyles, but better in terms of what? The number of Things they own? Personally, I long for a better lifestyle where better means that communities are more active in their support for each other, and people aren’t just driven by their greed for money.

  10. @Dickie

    I have no problems with globalisation per se. More economic integration is a good thing, in general. There’s nothing wrong with, as Dominic says, outsourcing programming, or call centres.

    What I have a problem with is that we outsource things we would not countenance if they were happening here, like sweatshop labour, or waste dumping in unsuitable places. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

    One of the reasons I like Fairtrade is that it just guarantees that people in the developing world can get a fair price for their goods. It’s all too easy in our globalised world for giant companies like Nestle or Starbucks with their phenomenal buying power to drive down the price of commodities to levels which make farming a subsistence activity, leaving no surplus for education or self-improvement.

    @Dominic

    Really we should switch over to Linux computers running ARM chips, rather than x86 like Atom. ARM gets you a much better performance/watt ratio. It’s a terrible shame that the Microsoft Windows / Intel combination took off, the world would be a better place if there was a (British) Acorn computer on every desk…

    I do hope that renewables, small-scale and combined heat and power take off, but my general fear is that those kinds of things may not be able to generate the amounts of energy necessary to plug the gap as the oil runs out. Even a small shortfall is going to cause a painful contraction of the economy.

  11. Oh – and vis-a-vis the religion thing. I 100% agree that atheism and morality are not mutually exclusive, but for those with faith, I do think that the religious communities have a duty to promote ethical living within their congregations.

    Speaking from personal experience, a religious faith can also act as an enthusiasm booster and as a source of strength. To quote William Penn (one of the early Quakers), “True religion does not draw men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavours to mend it.”

  12. @andy The whole ARM/X86 debate is a long and complicated one that probably deserves a blog post all of its own. At its simplest, the problem comes down to the fact that RISC processors are not good in memory intensive applications, such as the CAD/CAM software used in a lot of manufacturing. Granted, there are all sorts of consumer applications that could benefit from ARM. Google’s chrome OS runs on ARM – and rightly it should. It seems a little stupid that we still have vastly overpowered machines that spend 90% of their time running the browser and perhaps a music player. You wont see me trading in my energy guzzling x64 PC that I do all of my degree work on for an ARM machine any time soon. You might tempt me with an ARM replacement for my netbook though.

  13. @Dominic:
    “This is probably okay in comparison to going to a place, finding the poorest of the poor and effectively enslaving them in your clothing factories.”

    Of course. But I’m not sticking up for enslaving people, because obviously that’s not right. I’m simply saying that I don’t think every example of using foreign labour is enslavement just because they are paid what we consider to be not much money.

    @Lucy:
    “you talk about people having ‘better’ lifestyles, but better in terms of what”

    Well yes, partly better in terms of having access to “things”, because they do constitute part of “a better lifestyle”. Having access to things like the internet, transport, nicer food, nicer housing and stuff like that clearly does give us a better lifestyle. But also in terms of having more free time, in terms of having access to better healthcare, and also in terms of being able to afford to give your kids better education. It’s worth noting by the way that sweatshops are essentially a transitory phenomena, thanks to this.

    @Andy: “What I have a problem with is that we outsource things we would not countenance if they were happening here, like sweatshop labour, or waste dumping in unsuitable places”

    It depends what you mean by sweatshop labour. If you mean co-ercing people to work, then yes, obviously I agree. Again, how often does it happen?

    Btw when people talk about fair trade, what do we mean by a “fair price”? Surely a fair price is the price that people are willing to pay, and that people are willing to sell at?

    Re: energy, I don’t know whether renewables would generate everything we need, but it don’t think it’d be far off. The only problem is NIMBYism – it’s amazing how many people want renewable energy, until you tell them it’ll be near to them… It would, of course, be useful if people started using energy more efficiently, but perhaps that would happen more if/when energy is more expensive.

    The point I’m trying to make is that in many cases, there is a massive amount of competition for jobs in what we call “sweat shops”. They are better than the alternative, and benefit both sides. They’re not dangerous places, they’re simply hard work. So if people want to work there – and of course increased competition pushes up wages and working conditions – whats the problem? To say “oh well we wouldn’t do that” is a poor argument. There are lots of jobs in this country that you couldn’t pay me to do; does that mean that we should ban those? Of course not.

    I agree that forced labour is bad, and it’s right to rail against Primark on that front because they do have a record of using coerced labour, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that all cheap labour is bad. To do so is to deny people in poorer countries a key way to work themselves out of poverty, to improve their economy to the point that they don’t need sweatshops any more. And that just seems unfair.

  14. Clare

    @Lucy – my/our (Jen and my) mum used to only ever buy us clothes from charity shops. There was also an occasional charity shop stall thing that came to a community centre down our road that I always found particularly exciting. To be honest, it’s all that children need, and actually beyond that probably all that we need – once one lot of clothes totally wears out just replace them with similar necessary items and go! The only problem is that people become trapped (she says, having just bought a dress she probably didn’t ‘need’) in a belief whereby we ‘need’ certain clothes and other products – fashion. and then we end up wasting clothes and resources and spending far too much that doesn’t go to the makers and then it all goes to pot…

    Urgh. Ugly world.

    Cxxx

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