Brand Investigation: Primark

by Anna Barry

Penny’s, as it is known in Ireland, first opened its doors in 1969 in its capital city, Dublin. It is known around the world as Primark, and has over 380 stores worldwide. Primark is a fast fashion chain and has a large range of products, including womenswear, menswear, baby and children’s clothing, accessories, footwear, homeware, beauty products, and confectionery. Fast fashion can be described as inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. Primark offers trendy clothing and day-to-day products at cheap and affordable prices. This all sounds great until we ask ourselves: how can Primark afford to make these items for as cheap as they sell them for, in a sustainable and ethical way AND make a profit? That is when the question of how ethical and sustainable Primark is, comes into play. 

Environmental impact

On a good note, Primark is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is a global alliance of retailers, brands, suppliers, advocacy groups, labour unions, and academics, who aim to create “an apparel, footwear, and home textiles industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on people and communities” – The Guardian. Another good step made by Primark was implementing the use of paper bags rather than plastic bags, which was done in 2002. However, how environmentally friendly can any fast-fashion brand be? According to researchers, a pair of jeans requires approximately 7,600 litres of water to make. It can also take around 2,700 litres of water to make just one T-shirt. Already, we can see how damaging selling these items for €20 or less is to our environment. The cheaper the clothes are, the more we can afford to buy, and basically, the more water we use up and the more damage we do to our environment. Primark has recently started to use organic cotton and recycled materials to make their clothes but what exactly does this mean? It is true that cotton is renewable and biodegradable but growing conventional cotton has had a detrimental impact on our environment. It takes approximately 10,000 litres of water to produce just one kilogram of conventional cotton. Many manufacturers use artificial means such as chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides to make cotton grow faster. This causes massive damage to the soil, resulting in fields being unsuitable for growing other crops. Organic cotton, on the other hand, is much better for the environment as it doesn’t require the use of synthetic pesticides or any toxic chemical fertilizers. Its production also sustains the quality of soil and protects the native ecosystems. Recent studies suggest that the energy demand of organic cotton is 62% lower than conventional cotton. Organic cotton also uses approximately 91% less water than regular cotton and in turn produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, the use of organic cotton is a pivotal step for Primark and other fast-fashion brands like H&M. As well, cotton does not contain microplastics. Therefore, cotton does not give off microplastic pollution when washed which is an added reason why to choose cotton items over the likes of polyester, viscose, etc which DO cause microplastic pollution. 

a pair of jeans requires approximately 7,600 litres of water to make. It can also take around 2,700 litres of water to make just one T-shirt

In terms of ‘made by recycled materials’ Primark states on their website that “We have partnered with specialist suppliers to produce our recycled products. First, waste plastic is recovered, flaked into pellets, and melted down. The plastic is then spun into yarn and used to create our products. In 2020, our products made using recycled materials more than doubled to 40 million items”. It is a great idea to try to use up our already existing plastics but this still promotes the idea that recycling is the answer, when cutting down on our overall consumption is the real answer. Primark has introduced a lot of great changes, but they still mass-produce items of often low quality and sell them at cheap prices. We must also consider transportation and packaging methods before giving them a gold star. Overall, the best way to be sustainable is to use what we already have but we are human and that’s not always easy. Primark has provided some more sustainable ways to buy fast fashion but you have the real power. Companies always listen to the consumer as that’s where the money is. So if you are buying in Primark, shop smartly and support the sustainable cotton items and other more sustainable alternatives.

Animal Welfare

Primark does NOT use fur, angora, down feather, or exotic animal skin or hair in its products. However, it DOES use leather and wool without stating its sources. They also do NOT provide evidence that they trace their animal products to the first stage of production. This withholds information about the condition and wellbeing of the animals used.  In terms of cosmetics, Primark state that animal testing is NOT permitted on Primark products, but it does retail cosmetics from other brands that do test on animals. 

Primark has also been called out for showing no evidence of workers being paid a living wage

Labour conditions

On the Primark website, it states that “Primark does not own any factories and requires all its suppliers’ factories to meet its Code of Conduct, which is based on the standards of the International Labour Organisation, a United Nations body”. Primark uses the likes of GY Sen to supply their clothes and this is where some of the major ethical questions for Primark lie. In good terms, the promotion of organic cotton protects a lot of workers from the toxins present in conventional cotton and Primark is a signatory to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Cotton Pledge and a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and has adopted their Code of Conduct. Primark has also set up “Primark Cares” which is an initiative to support the people who make their clothes and vet the factories being used. However, as Primark does not own these factories it means there is no real responsibility for them to ensure ethical practices are taking place. Over the years, we have all heard about ‘sweatshops’ making the clothes we see in Primark and other fast fashion brands. As recently as 2021, Primark hit the papers again with ‘Primark supplier accused of locking workers in a factory in Myanmar protests’- The Guardian. This supplier being GY Sen. In 2019, a report was issued by CIR who interviewed 73 Sri Lankan employees from six named supplier factories to Primark. It stated that no supplier met the retailer’s code of conduct and that some were involved in breaches of local law. Primark has also been called out for showing no evidence of workers being paid a living wage. Altogether, this is just not good enough. We expect when buying the Primark cares products that the workers behind the item are getting a living wage, but it seems that Primark isn’t being as transparent as we would like. 

Overall Primark is no worse than any other fast-fashion brand and they are making a big effort to be more sustainable. However, until people change their shopping habits and cut the amount of clothing they are consuming down, the situation will not improve. 

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