Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Primark Chronicles: How do you solve a problem like Primark? Part 1.

“You’ve been thinking quite a lot haven’t you”, Dylan commented as we sat with Jonny and Chessers over cards and poker chips. We kept losing our place in the game as our conversation grabbed all the attention, as it always should amongst friends as good as these, and I had already noticed that many of my contributions began with “I was thinking about this the other day...”. Primark. A great place to think? It was my first time in quite a while doing a job that frequently saw you undertaking tasks which required little thought...taking little santas out of their (over)packaging and displaying them in the Primark Christmas Shop’s there’s-always-room-for-a-box-more style. The blog entries that follow are some of things that crossed my mind during these glitter filled moments. I should also comment that it wasn’t a bad job really and I’m a big fan of many of the people I worked with during those two months and was sorry that I didn’t have time to get to know a number of them better. Although that shouldn’t lead anyone to think that I would like to be working there still!

Many of my “activist” friends were surprised by my working for the devil in this way. My friend Ryan threatened me with violence and Aaron shared his disapproval in no uncertain (but humorous) terms (Though I later had the distinct pleasure of spotting him in menswear buying socks. He defended himself saying he was merely doing an experiment to see if clothes made in sweatshops actually smelled of sweat...). I met another friend, Ruth, for lunch on my first day. We sat in a small Belfast coffee shop and hilariously, as I talked to her about my decision to become a Primark sales bitch, Shane Claiborne, dressed as always in his homemade ensemble, floated past the window. I immediately stopped speaking and drank in the irony. Was God sending me a message in Simple Way form?? (Shane was in town to give a talk that night and yes I went to it, with Ruth and some other friends, in my Primark uniform, having just finished work. His book The Irresistible Revolution is fantastic and a must read.)

For those who asked about what I was doing, what follows is probably close to what I would answer with. Is Primark unethical? It’s pretty much the worst on the high street. So it was labelled by Ethical Consumer Magazine a few years ago at least. But it is getting better. They have now signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) which, although some would suggest is just a means of paying lip service to positive progress regarding their producers, has at least seen them make commitments to improve conditions in the far flung (India, Bangladesh, China – all the Christmas stuff came from China) parts of the world their products are manufactured and shipped from. Primark has set out a plan of action with annual goals and independent auditors checking on their progress. A line of organic cotton products – towels and sheets and underwear etc – can now be found and at Christmas a line of cards were sold with 30p from each sale going to UNICEF (Amusingly, these cards, which would have usually fitted in the £1 price bracket, were sold for...yup, £1.30). It should also be noted that Ethical Consumer Magazine states that in fact none of the main high street stores can be shopped in with a clear conscience...for that we need specialist shops (Fairtrade In-Spires!) or internet sources (Vegetarian Shoes! There’s NOTHING you can’t do with hemp!). A War on Want report about Primark in Bangladesh urges caution when we talk about ethics, progress and Primark but I saw enough to make me feel like I could cross the threshold and don the shiny golden name badge...

That I even had this debate with myself before taking the job has amused some. I remember my friend Rob’s amusement when I put Starbucks through similar paces as I pondered taking a job with them about a year and a half ago. (He has since worked for them, confident that he can do so with a clear conscience having seen the fruits of my on-line labour!) A lot of it comes down to choice. We had an interesting exchange during my time with CARE when an intern challenged us all to buy only fair-trade and boycott Tescos and shops of its ilk. Another (exceptional) intern politely stated that she would be doing nothing of the sort because, while it all sounded lovely in theory, she simply couldn’t afford to do so. My friend Travis (See previous blog entry to fully understand my only slightly homoerotic love for Trav), added that it is in fact impossible to live an entirely “ethical” life and live where we lived, work where we worked. “How is our electricity being created? By “ethical” means? Do we have a say in that?” he asked. His point is important – we may feel good about ourselves for taking the bus but what might the “ethics” be of the petrol it is running on (From stolen Nigerian crude?) The rubber? The metal? And so on. Travis’s comment was not a defeatist one but one that asked for grace. We must not be too hard on ourselves when we fail the ethics test, or on others. Claiborne’s Simple Way is HARD! (Christian types should get this...those who believe that they are literally sin-full but are called to live a holy life...)

This point of choice became more crucial for me as I worked at Primark. I had had the choice of working for the Department of Education for a month and a half marking exams, or for Primark for just over two, where I would also earn considerably more money each week. With a year in Africa to pay for ahead of me and a desire to get working as soon as possible after a month or two of fruitless job hunting, I chose Primark. Others I worked with may not have had even that limited choice. A fellow Christmas temp, Richard, was the same age as me but had a house to pay for, a son to support and a partner to help through college. The ethics of Primark are the last of his worries when taking a job...getting a job is the chief concern. And as I worked there and noted the proportion of the customers which were made up of Belfast’s working class, immigrant and homeless populations I better understood another truth about ethical consumption. It is financially out of reach for many. Just as my CARE intern friend had noted – enjoying a clear conscience can be an expensive business. Perhaps fair trade is destined to be merely a phenomenon of the middle class? So Primark’s low prices, which many would argue are achieved by standing on the poor, are the saving grace of single mothers and Romanian big issue sellers? The poor stealing from the poor ? The rich stealing from the poor to give to the poor (after taking a finder’s fee)? DO they have a choice? How do you solve a problem like Primark?

(See Part 2 for more ramblings...)

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