Primark’s paradoxes with sustainability

Fast fashion is one of the major developments of the 21st century, with clothes prices falling and disposable income rising; a trip down the high street doesn’t need to cost the Earth, or does it?  

Sadly the world of fashion has quickly become a major contributor to the global environmental crisis. The textile industry alone is the second most polluting industry, after oil, and in 2015 it created 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions: more than the aviation and maritime shipping industries combined. So whilst its all well and good walking to work with your keep cup and reusable shopping bag, it does not help if you do so whilst wearing a different Topshop coat and new River Island trousers every other week. 

Grabbing a bargain feels great, but not whenever more shocking reports are shown on how these low priced clothes are made and the impact they have on the environment. This is causing attitudes to change in regards to fast fashion. People are now questioning the moral and ethical price they are willing to pay to keep up with the latest trends. 

When you think “fast fashion” all the major high street brands will come to mind, but the phrase is perhaps epitomised most of all by Primark. The Spanish fashion brand pride themselves on “amazing fashion at amazing prices”; but amazing environmental impacts, not so much.

In 2013 Primark became synonymous with the tragic Rana Plaza incident: where a factory collapsed due to the hazardous state of the building, claiming the lives of over 1,100 workers and permanently injuring over 2000 more. The disaster also revealed the horrendous working conditions faced by those who work in the overseas factories producing clothes for our high street; including low wages, no health care benefits, unsanitary and mentally damaging working environments and excessively long working days. 

However, attitudes are changing and brands are being forced to step into line. In 2018, a Weber and Shandwick public opinion poll revealed that 83% of millennials would boycott a brand for ethical, moral, or environmental reasons. This was a huge wake-up call for some of the major offenders such as Primark.

With sustainable fashion companies on the rise, the industry’s leaders have been pressured both governmentally and by consumers to raise their environmental game and take responsibility for their extremely influential actions. From what we can see so far, it is having a positive effect with nearly 200 high street brands have signed up to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition so far. 

Primark claims to be committed to the defence of the environment, stating that they “make a real effort to reduce our impact on the planet wherever we can.” It is true that they have been using paper bags rather than plastic for far longer than many of their competitors, and in 2013 Primark teamed up with Cotton Connect and the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) to create the Primark Sustainable Cotton Programme. This scheme trains farmers in sustainable cotton farming techniques to produce organic cotton. Last month Primark revealed that there are plans in place for them to train a further 160,000 farmers across India and Bangladesh in efforts to exclusively use 100% organic cotton in their products within the next few years.

However with industry in an excessive waste crisis, caused mainly by overconsumption, are Primark’s efforts to become more sustainable just a cover to disguise the real problem of them actively encouraging consumers to continually purchase new items. 

It cannot be denied that efforts from Primark and others in the industry to reduce their carbon footprint, greenhouse gas emissions, and water waste are all admirable; but the root of the problem lies with the simple fact that the industry is producing far more products than necessary, which is resulting in vast and inexcusable amounts of waste and pollution. 

In the last 15 years, the number of times a person will wear an item of clothing has dropped by 36%, and over half of people will throw clothes away after wearing them less than 7 times. Furthermore over half of the clothes on the high street will be thrown away within a year. These shockingly wasteful statistics help explain how the textile industry has become the second most damaging in the world to our planet.

Reduce, reuse, recycle in a well-known phrase around every household, but what about applying it to your wardrobe? Over 95% of the clothes thrown away each year are in a perfectly usable condition and could have been rehomed or recycled.

Social media has helped contribute to the rapid rise in popularity of second-hand resale websites and apps such as Depop, eBay and Gumtree are perfect solutions to extend the life cycle of our clothes. Other schemes such as TK Maxx’s “Give up clothes for Good” in association with Cancer Research, which allows customers to donate their unwanted clothes to charity, both raises money for a good cause and prevents perfectly wearable clothes from ending up in a landfill.

Despite its pitfalls in promoting fast fashion through ever-present advertising and the ‘swipe effect’ which encourages thoughtless buying, social media has also been a great help in exposing environmental offenders.

Earlier this year, the Guardian helped a nationwide boycott of the #IWANNABEASPICEGIRL t-shirts, which retailed at £19.40 despite being produced in a factory where wages average 35p an hour and shifts are a mandatory 16 hours per day. Marks and Spencer amongst other retailers temporarily ceased trading of the product and launched an investigation into the production of the t-shirts. This campaign is yet another example of how the public are waking up to the dark consequences of fast fashion and demanding change.

The changes being made are evidently a positive step in the right direction. However, a more critical eye needs to be given to the changes that companies are proposing, and push them to continually become more sustainable. Primark has pledged to make changes to their cotton production, but they still have no initiative for reducing greenhouse gases and continue to create an excessively large carbon footprint. 

While the fashion industry has set the ball rolling in terms of becoming more sustainable, it is vital that we continue to be proactive in reducing our consumption of fast fashion products, and find more ethical and sustainable solutions to satisfy our need to shop wherever possible.  


Image: Monsanto Company via YouTube

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