The Fashion Crimes of Primark(?)

Studying abroad in London, there was a fairly ironclad rule among the girls: if you needed to go shopping, you went to Primark. Primark was like the British version of Forever 21: a huge store on Oxford Street full of clothes that were edgy, cute, and cheap. Dirt cheap. (I once got a bikini for a weekend getaway to Barcelona there for £6 – about $10.) If a friend showed up to class in a new shirt, chances were good she bought it at Primark. “Going shopping” became almost synonymous with “going to Primark.” We all knew that the reason they were able to sell their merchandise so cheap: sweatshop labor. (Primark labels were found at the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh that collapsed in April 2013.) But most of us didn’t care. We wanted to shop, and with an exchange rate of around $1.60 to the pound, there was nowhere else we could go; everywhere else was too expensive. (I remember trying to find a green dress to wear to a traffic light party at the shopping plaza near my dorm, but everything I found was at least £40 (~$64).)

Over the summer, there was controversy over whether or not Primark actually engages in the use of sweatshop labor. Two shoppers at a Primark in Swansea, England, found labels sown into the clothes they bought with statements about the supposed labor conditions under which the clothes were made. Primark, of course, claimed they were a hoax. Instead, the company claims the labels were attached in the U.K., pointing to the fact the the two garments in question were made in different factories, yet the labels were highly similar, and that a exhibition of a similar kind were held in the same Swansea store in 2013. (Anyone interested in reading more can either check out this article in the Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2673090/Primark-insists-labels-sewn-clothes-claims-sweatshop-conditions-exhausting-hours-hoaxes.html) or google Primark sweatshops.)

Given the evidence, Primark’s argument that it’s a hoax is plausible (but even if it is a hoax, that doesn’t change the fact that they do use sweatshop labor, as the Rana Plaza incident proves). As Miriam Ching Louie notes, “when large corporations have shrugged off responsibility, [workers’] centers have launched anti-corporate campaigns to force them to the bargaining table” (222). This label hoax seems like an attempt to shame Primark into changing its business practices. But is there an incentive? Louie notes that the primary challenge labor and anti-corporate movements face is “organizing workers and grassroots people ‘glocally’ (globally and locally) to force their oppressors to change their ways” (233). And if grassroots effort is what’s needed, then change is never coming to Primark. Primark made £4.273 billion (~$6.839 billion) in fiscal year 2012/2013. Despite Rana Plaza, Primark is still immensely popular in the U.K. (and they have plans to storm the U.S. fashion markets; they aim to open a Boston store by the end of 2015). So can anything actually change Primark?

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2 thoughts on “The Fashion Crimes of Primark(?)

  1. I think the issue with stores like Primark (or Prirmani as we called it in our flat, is the high demand for cheap goods necessitates the need for cheap labor. Customers get accustom to paying the cheaper prices, therefore normalizing it in the economy, and increasing the demand for cheap labor. This disposable consumerism has led quantity being more important than quality. I do not have the economics background to accurately theorize this point, but from my consumer vantage point it’s something like this: in the past, exporting labor to other places wasn’t financially feasible, so this labor exploitation took place at home (see: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory). As labor laws came into effect and employees gained rights. As labor exploitation became harder in America, transnational labor circuits increased. Unfortunately, the modern era has only made labor exploitation cheaper, quicker, and yet more distant.
    When we walk into Primark, Walmart, or Forever 21 to get cheap clothing, we do not see the path it has taken to get to us. Instead we see a sign with an amazingly low price, and if we look closely at the clothing, a small “made in ______” label. This exploitation continues because we are able to distance ourselves from it, it’s not until Nike/Victoria’s Secret/The Gap/Whomever, succumbs to scandal that it is brought to the publics attention. So yes, the company is at fault for using these labors, but consumer’s demand for cheap goods is certainly not helping the issue. Creating a convoluted industry of oppression that cannot easily be untangled.

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    1. Organizing against huge corporations like this is also complicated by the fact that people with lower incomes are most likely the largest group making up Primark’s clientele. People who can afford expensive clothes, or higher priced retailers like Topshop or even H&M probably choose those stores first. Primark has a great selection for its price but the quality is definitely not the best, and let’s be honest – has anyone ever been inside a Primark without fearing getting trampled (once I was actually harassed by a man who would not stop following me around the store and it took me forever to wade through the crowds of people to find an employee to help me… but that is besides the point)? Presumably Primark’s owners do not have morals, so in order for them to stop using sweatshop labor, they will have to suffer a loss of profit from a boycott or other similar means. If this was Topshop, and customers were upset about owning clothes produced in sweatshops, they could go somewhere else to get the same expensive, trendy garments. But what about the people who shop at Primark because it is the only place they can afford? Where would they go? As was already mentioned, grassroots organizing of this sort is almost destined to fail because there are not many options for poor people who want to shop for decent clothes. It is easy to say “no one should shop at retailers that use sweatshop labor!” in an attempt to call out rich Westerners for being ignorant to their privilege and the way they profit off of less fortunate workers. However, this is problematic in that it demonizes the poor too; after all, they do not have as many options.

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