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?