Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Primark Chronicles: How do you solve a problem like Primark? Part 2

As I ate my Sub of the Day (I won’t eat at Subway again for a long long time...and ethics have nothing to do with it...) and thumbed through my Independent (The only non-tabloid paper I ever saw in the Primark canteen was under my arm. My friend Mark once commented, “Who’s reading THIS?” with something close to shocked disgust in his voice. His face was classic when I told him it was mine.) I came across an article by a woman who had forced herself to go a year without buying clothes. I felt suitably self-righteous reading the piece as buying clothes is a rare event in my life – the vast vast majority of my wardrobe has been given to me by ex-girlfriends and family members, attained for free or been in my regular rotation since I was at school (I am often amused by the thought of bumping in to some old school friend while wearing my green fila fleece at which point they may well comment – “Mark, you bought that damn thing on our school tour to 1999!” We won’t mention my favourite t-shirt. Which I got for free. Age 8). What was interesting about the article is that it suggested that people regularly buy clothes and only wear them once. Not because they don’t like them or because they are particularly out of date but because...well...they’ve already been seen in them. And because shops like Primark can sell you another outfit so cheaply. This is the other side of the “Low prices are good for the poor types” coin. A woman I talked to over some Christmas shopping told me that her sister never washed her kids’ socks. She just bought new ones!!

I don’t have anything particularly new to offer on the subject of changing places like Primark. If we understand Primark as the product of capitalism and capitalism as being driven by supply and demand the answer is simple really – change the demand. Demand something else. Jim Wallis comments on how it appears impossible to change politicians who, driven by a need to get elected and re-elected, lick their finger and stick it in the air to see which way the wind is blowing and then promptly head in that direction. For Wallis then we need to change the direction of the wind. The same is true in retail and business generally. The reason Primark now stocks organic cotton and raises a couple of pennies for UNICEF and has signed up to the ETI is because the ethical consumption movement of the last few years has shown that there is a market for improved ethics. We need therefore to encourage them in this. By campaigning sure. By writing to CEOs sure. By buying stuff in their shop which has been ethically produced??? I think so, yes. This is perhaps the real strength behind Bono’s Red idea – companies like GAP and Apple and so on can perhaps see first hand that they don’t have to forget entirely about making money if they take a step in an ethical direction?

But can the western poor afford an ethical and so pricier Primark? First of all, the guy who heads up the ETI argues that in fact Primark could afford to ensure fair treatment for their producers and still sell their products at their current low prices IF they took less of a mark-up (Although this wouldn’t be very capitalist of them). This reminds me of the awesome bit in the Flight of the Conchords song, Think About It:

They’re turning kids into slaves just to make cheaper sneakers.

But what’s the real cost?

‘Cause the sneakers don’t seem that much cheaper.

Why are we still paying so much for sneakers

When you get them made by little slave kids?

What are your overheads?

Secondly, and this leads me back to my Clements accuser, Shane Claiborne, what exactly do we NEED? I said before that the western (for want of a better word...and I wish one would quickly come to mind as I am growing more and more to dislike the W word) poor had little choice but to shop at cheap places like Primark. But by what standards? I just want to ask the question rather than suggest an answer. Certainly the example of Claiborne and The Simple Way has something to say about things like making your own clothes and about stupid standards which suggest you need two of this or five of that when perhaps one would suffice. I know too little about real poverty to write too much on the subject but I do know that the “poor” can be just as caught up in the world’s consumption culture as their richer neighbours – everyone wants nice things. That’s why people in South African townships live in shacks with a bigger tv and a better sound system than I have. Shacks with satellite dishes. People on the Shankill getting themselves in debt with paramilitary loansharks to buy their kid a new Chelsea top and a Nintindo Wii for Christmas.

I’m glad I worked at Primark. I didn’t change it from the inside. I had minimal conversations with people about the ETI while working there (I did have plenty with friends outside as I told what my brother called, with a roll of the eyes, “Another Primark story”.) We were, in fact, given additional training on the ETI while I worked at the shop because it had become clear to management that their employees hadn’t a clue what to say to customers if anyone asked. The training, as was always the case at Primark whether you’re talking ETI or how to lift a box correctly, amounted to a piece of A4 read at you somewhat hurriedly by a supervisor. My friend Stacey still called it the “Ethnic thingy”. No customers ever asked anyway. But I think I learned a great deal. About a lot of things.

If we’re honest with ourselves we’re all a bunch of sell outs anyway. In need of a little grace.


sabine said...

Hi Drenner

I really liked your article. I am currently writing my thesis on ethical trading using Primark as an example. What do you think of ETI? I feel they are just scratching the tip of an huge mountain of sh** but on the other hand I guess someone has to do SOMETHING. However, I also feel it gives these unethical companies some sort of legitimacy (and they are paying for this- ETI membership is not cheap). Anyone with infos and thoughts, please get in touch with me. Thanks.

Drenners- can I quote you in my thesis? Can I maybe interview you at a later point? That would be great. Thanks.


drenners said...


Glad you liked what I wrote and yeah, feel free to quote me (if you think I've said something worth that!?). Interview - I am in Sierra Leone until August so that might be difficult. However, if you wanted to email me you could. Put your email on a comment on this blog and I will email you without putting the comment on-line. Thanks for the positive response :)

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