Associated British Foods
Primark is a subsidiary of Associated British Foods, a company specializing in mainly international food and ingredients producing sugar, beverages, oils and baking goods. The company has a branch in retail as well, in which Primark is its only brand. Primark is one of the largest clothing retailers in Europe, with 373 stores and 78,000 employees. The Irish brand has become known for its fast fashion, bringing the latest fashion trends from the catwalk to the shelves in sometimes as little as six weeks. The combination with extremely low prices has been a huge success, which led to accumulation of lines of people everywhere Primark opened stores. But while fast fashion and low prices are two of the main selling points of the brand, they are also the embodiment of what is wrong with the fashion industry. The extremely high pressure from big brands like Primark leads to forced overtime and bad labor conditions in factories in the Global South. The low pricing structure holds no place for more sustainable materials, living wages and sustainable transportation, which bring costs up but are absolutely necessary for a more sustainable fashion industry. These ‘extra’ costs are simply not possible in a €5,- shirt. When you buy cheap clothes, the hidden costs are being paid elsewhere in the world. The brand produces a lot in high-risk countries where labor is cheap. To tackle labor rights violations while still producing in these countries, there are several things a company can do. Some are relatively easy to implement, others can be very labor intensive and cost a lot of money. Other brands are proving that it’s possible to produce fashion fairly and the organizations to help are omnipresent. It just depends on how far the company is willing to go. While Primark has somewhat become the symbol of fast fashion and consumerism, it’s not that it’s completely oblivious to the fact that it has to change. Luckily, the company is working together with some organizations that can help. Primark has a Code of Conduct in place that is based on the standards set by the International Labor Organization. It’s code is therefore relatively elaborate and covers basic workers’ rights like the right of collective bargaining, safe and hygienic working conditions and payment of a decent wage. The company is also a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which conducts some independent audits, but Primark conducts most of them itself. The results of these audits are shared by Primark and show that 29% of factories fall under grade 3, which states ‘Ethical compliance not met, with significant and numerous issues’ and 68% falls under: ‘Evidence of some good systems in place, however not achieved full ethical compliance’. Both of these percentages indicate that at least a part of basic workers’ rights are not being lived up to in the factories. The partnerships with ETI, Better Work and other organisations are steps in the right direction, but serious improvement is yet to be made. Unfortunately labor rights violations are not our only concern. The carbon emissions Primark generates at the mother company, Associated British Foods, are absolutely gigantus and are not measured for Primark specifically. For a company the size of Primark, there has to be more elaborate information about its carbon footprint and how it’s working to decrease it. As it stands, we have no information about emissions that are generated in its supply chain and there’s no credible climate action being undertaken at the moment. There are bright notes though. Even though the percentage is as little as 5%, the company has set up its own program for more sustainable cotton called the Primark Sustainable Cotton Programme (PSCP). With this program, Primark’s tracing the cotton back to the farm and learning about the process, reducing and improving the chain where possible. It’s also working on its ecological impact by partnering up with ZDHC to eliminate harmful chemicals in its production process. The company as a whole is making steps towards more renewable energy and waste and water reduction, but again we have no data about Primark specifically. Last but not least, there’s animal welfare. The leather and feathers Primark uses for its products are uncertified. The wool may not originate from mulesing practises and most very high-risk animal materials like fur, duck or goose down are banned. Its cosmetics are not tested on animals. All in all, Primark is stepping into the 21st century and shows signs that it’s willing to improve. Its business model is based on cheap and fast to such an extent that we are very weary of true change from the Irish retailer and we have some serious ethical doubts when it comes to purchasing from Primark. Because there’s no online shop yet, it’s very easy to opt for an alternative brand.