Primark: the retailer we all know (but don’t necessarily love). For many of us, the store holds a strange sense of nostalgia. Being let out on a Saturday afternoon aged 13, armed with £5 and a bus ticket in our purses, we would return home arms laden with earrings, scarves, and bags – all guaranteed to break within a week. This feeling of nostalgia, however, is tainted as with age comes knowledge. Learning of the controversy surrounding Primark (namely, it being a haven of unethical and unsustainable practices) my trips there became fewer and further between, eventually culminating in an outright refusal to shop there.
So why are people still shopping there?
Despite the universally known facts about Primark and its shady practices, sales have continued to rise, its reputation being overlooked by consumers seeking a bargain. Since Brexit, the retailer has actually seen a 22% rise in sales, a result of the low pound attracting tourists to the UK. This suggests that despite the increase in transparency, an alarming number of people are still choosing to dismiss the unethical and unsustainable practices that have been associated with one of the UK’s most successful retailers.
What has come as a surprise then is the sudden announcement of Primark’s new commitment to sustainable fashion through its ‘sustainable cotton’ range.
Jumping on the sustainable fashion bandwagon
The previous stats show that this could not have been a result of a tidal wave of people campaigning for and seeking sustainable fashion in Primark. Despite many exposes in recent years Primark, as one of the largest cheap fast fashion brands, is still going strong.
There was no need for them to undertake such a project for reasons financial, which seems to suggest another motive for Primark’s new direction.
Like so many of their high street comrades who have been called out for Greenwashing, Primark are promoting themselves as taking steps towards an improved fashion economy. However, like so many other fast fashion chains, they are doing this while refusing to change or acknowledge fundamental parts of their business that suggest otherwise.
In light of this, it seems that Primark is actually just using sustainability and sustainable fashion as a marketing tool.
But surely this is a good thing? Right?
No, it isn’t. The problem is that businesses like Primark are marketing products in misleading ways and capitalising on an ever increasing (generally millennial) interest in saving the planet. This is actually counterproductive as it works to debase the sustainable fashion industry and all the goodness it encompasses.
Sustainably sourced clothes at unsustainable prices
The new ‘sustainably sourced’ cotton women’s pyjamas are priced at £6. According to Primark, the cotton used is sourced from female farmers in India participating in Primark’s new sustainable cotton programme, one which trains the women to use more sustainable farming methods.
In theory this is a step in a positive direction, and one that could work in the long term. However, it poses questions about how Primark still manage to sell their garments so cheaply with so many suggested overheads. Surely the implementation of sustainable cotton production processes should hike up costs, meaning quite naturally the products would cost more?
Emily, director of sustainable fashion brand Zola Amour expressed her frustration in her interview with the Revival Collective: brands who actually produce 100% organic cotton and sustainably sourced garments know how expensive they are to make. If you add up the costs, selling organic cotton pyjamas at £6 whilst still making a profit is impossible. Ethical and sustainable conscious clothes can’t be made cheaply enough to be sold at those prices without something being compromised.
So what’s the issue?
The big issue with fast-fashion brands ‘greenwashing’ is that it has the effect of making sustainable brands look vastly expensive and unattainable in comparison. It was shown in a 2015 Nielson poll that 66% of global consumers are actually willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products. However, if consumers are faced with buying a product advertised as ‘sustainably sourced’ for the fraction of the price it is likely that if unresearched and uninformed they will do so. With names such as H&M, Primark, and Zara holding such an authority and sway over the high street, it is perhaps easy for consumers to quite literally buy into their falsity, and whilst doing so unwittingly damage the sustainable fashion community.
Attempts to create a more viable and fairer system have seemingly been hijacked and readopted by the very system it opposes. Greenwashing as a phenomenon, scarily proves that there is no outside to capitalism: the cause we are trying to defend is being sold right back to us.
The only way to combat this is demand 100% transparency, do your research and be warier when buying into claims of ethics and sustainability.
What should we do when faced with a sustainable claim?
Bear in mind the overall reputation of the company doing so and really consider the price of the item.
Retailers like Primark still mass produce clothing on a large and continuous scale. They do so in contradiction to one of the key tenets of the sustainable fashion movement- that of slow fashion and longevity. This is why, though they may now have an ‘organic cotton’ range, it is one select range of many that is still being mass produced.
While it is positive that companies are taking note of the increasing momentum the sustainable fashion movement is gaining, schemes such as Primark organic pyjamas just aren’t going to make a real ideological or practical difference unless they make a true pledge to change the way they structure their whole business.
We’d love to hear what you think! Comment below or tweet us @revival_collect