I do admit to the occasional foray into two High Street shops, both beginning with the capital P. OK, let me be up-front about this, *deep breath*. Yes, I do shop at Peacocks and Primark. And why is that? Because these shops are cheap. And also the only jeans I can find to fit my thin, long legs are from Primark. And I have looked everywhere else and no, I don’t like a capri or cropped jean, because being tall(ish) there is nothing worse than a pair of jeans that is pretending to be cropped, when in fact it is too short for my legs. As far as I am concerned, jeans have to fit tight to my legs and go right down to my ankles and wrinkle slightly from the excess length, and the Primark ones do exactly that and are just a perfect fit.
But when I look at the price, £11 for a black pair, and a recent buy, a bright pink pair at £8, I stop and think, should I?
It’s a year now since the collapse of the 8-storey Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh where, the reporter Lucy Siegle (who has written several in-depth investigative pieces on this tragedy*) tells us more than a 1000 garment workers died and 800 children were orphaned. And Primark used that factory.
It’s beyond a disgrace that garment workers have to work in dreadful dangerous conditions for very little pay. But was there ever a golden age, when clothing was made ethically with the workers pay and rights’ totally protected? I can’t be sure about that. Several generations of my Scottish ancestors on my father’s side were cotton hand-loom weavers. And when the industry went into decline these weavers lived in abject poverty unable to pay the rent and buy the most basic food-stuff and goods**. My great-grandfather left the cotton weaving business, joined the army, moved to England and founded the middle-class family that we are now. His brother, meanwhile, remained in Scotland and died of TB in his early twenties working as a cotton fluffer in the mills that had taken over from the old cottage industry.
Yes, before we even get to those ghastly death-trap factories, we should ask the questions: where was the cotton cloth, used in that summer dress, grown; how was it treated; how was it picked? You hope not by child labour. And then where and how was that cotton woven and made into cloth?
But there is some hope. Since the tragedy three separate schemes have been set up; the Accord (between European brands); the Alliance (US brands) and an agreement between the UN and Bangladesh. All are designed to bring Bangladeshi factories under regulation and inspection to agreed standards
Even so, should one boycott Primark? Actually, no. Easy to say this from my comfortable desk here in the south of England, but the work, done mainly by women, is needed. And Primark has paid out the most compensation – £8 million so far, way above any other High Street retailer. Indeed Lucy Siegle has set out in detail how ethical our High Street stores are, and Primark is not one of the bad guys. It got a team out to Dhaka immediately after the collapse and works with unions and agencies to provide compensation and aid.
In fact, sometimes I think there’s an element of snobbery around the idea of shopping at Primark.
There have been discussions in the media, particularly in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy, on how we really shouldn’t shop for cheap fashion. That, somehow, we’re at fault for falling into the trap of wanting too much. And I just feel there is a faint whiff of condescension in those discussions towards the people who shop in shops like Primark. And that we are to blame for driving the fashion industry to these lengths of getting clothes made in flimsy factories. Err, no, the fashion industry could continue to make clothes in the UK, and in some instances still does. The Grey Fox blog, for instance, has a list of British suppliers of menswear made in Britain, although I wonder what the prices are like, probably not in my price range!
I’d also say (to journalists & commenters) just pause and check your privilege, because the next time you go to the cheaper end of the High Street, if you look at the customers, we aren’t wealthy people, we shoppers in those stores. We go there for a reason – it’s cheap. I feel very strongly that the customer should not be vilified for the vagaries and whims of an industry that chases profit and the fast buck. Because, that is capitalism, that is the way of the world. At least we can say that the Rana Plaza tragedy brought controls and some hope that structural surveys will be carried out on garment factories. We must support such initiatives. And, indeed, others like Fashion Revolution Day this Thursday (April 24th) where some providers of fashion and Fair Trade groups are holding events and asking key questions about how fashion can become fair rather than fast. Perhaps, we too could ask questions about the source and provenance of our clothes.
But, in the meantime, shopping in charity shops is definitely an ethical choice. Yes, the clothes have been worn before, but we are rescuing, reclaiming and recycling clothes that would probably go to landfill or worse, the incinerator. So, in the UK, shopping in these charity shops is not only a pleasure it is also a principled way to buy clothes. But I’ll still be getting my jeans from Primark!
That’s all for now
With love, Penny
The Frugal Fashion Shopper
*We Are What We Wear: Unraveling fast fashion and the collapse of Rana Plaza by Lucy Siegle & Jason Burke is published by Guardian Shorts (ebook, £1.99/$2.99)
**Murray, N. (1978) The Scottish Hand Loom Weavers 1790-1850: A Social History. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd