15 Jun

How Ethical Is Primark?

Irish fast fashion chain Primark are known and loved around the world for their range of on-trend clothing, footwear, accessories and homewares for men, women and children at astonishingly low prices.

But do their super cheap price tags belie larger costs to the environment, workers and animals? We deployed our ethical investigators to answer the question – how ethical is Primark?

Environmental Impact: Not Good Enough

Primark are a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and have a number of good initiatives in place that aim to offset their environmental impact. Primark have been using paper bags instead of plastic bags since 2002, and they have also introduced initiatives to reduce waste and packaging. They are also taking steps to use 100% post consumer waste materials in their packaging. In the US, Primark have partnered with the charity Delivering Good (formerly K.I.D.S./Fashion Delivers), in which stores donate unsold items to those in need. Since 2010, European Primark stores have donated their unsold clothing and buying samples to the charity Newlife, which provides support for disabled and terminally ill children and their families. The brand has also committed to reducing the amount of chemicals deemed hazardous by the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals Group’s (ZDHC) Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL) in their products – a commitment they also made for 2020 as part of the Greenpeace Detox campaign.

Primark have started to look at their climate impact by measuring and reporting on the greenhouse gas emissions generated both from their own operations and some of their supply chain. However, they have minimal published greenhouse gas emissions reduction initiatives beyond energy efficiency in stores and have not set a reduction target. This is surprising given that their parent company, Associated British Foods, has set a target one for one of its subsidiaries, British Sugar.

Primark’s initiatives are commendable, and are certainly a step in the right direction, but they just aren’t enough to minimise the brand’s huge carbon footprint as a fast fashion chain. In order to improve their score in this area, Primark need to start using eco-friendly materials in their products, set specific reduction targets in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and wastewater, and implement adequate policies and initiatives for resource management and disposal.

Labour Rights: It’s a Start

Primark have taken some positive steps towards improving their ethical practice when it comes to workers, but there is still much room for improvement. The brand is a signatory to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Cotton Pledge, which commits to boycotting Uzbekistan cotton. Primark are also a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and have adopted their Code of Conduct. However,  the code does not ensure payment of a  living wage.

On their ‘Ethics’ page, Primark state that before a factory is approved by the brand, it is vetted to internationally-recognised standards set out in their Code of Conduct. However, although factories at the final stage of production are audited at least once a year to monitor their compliance to the Code of Conduct, it is unclear if the brand does the same for their first and second stages of production.

Though the brand has taken some positive steps, the fact that Primark, like so many other fast fashion brands, do not own their own factories and outsource manufacturing to their suppliers means that despite all their talk of ethical practice and auditing, they do not control their supply chain and can therefore effectively shrug off any responsibility for factory workers and any labour issues that may be occuring.

Primark can improve their score in this area by being more transparent when it comes to their suppliers and auditing practices, as well as paying their workers a living wage and improving health and safety in their factories. With the #GoTransparent campaign specifically targeting the brand along with five other major players in fast fashion, Primark won’t have a choice but to comply if they wish to uphold their good name.

Animal Welfare: It’s a Start

Primark are a member of the Leather Working Group, which promotes sustainable practices in the leather industry, and do not use fur, angora, down feather or exotic animal skin or hair in their products. However, they do use leather and wool without stating their sources. This is problematic for both our furry friends and factory workers as their wellbeing cannot be guaranteed. Primark could improve their score in this area by stating where their leather and wool are sourced from so consumers can make an informed decision.

Overall Rating: It's A Start

Rated: It's A Start

Overall, we rate Primark as ‘It’s A Start’ based on our own research. Primark have implemented a number of initiatives to reduce waste and increase energy efficiency in their stores and factories, have signed the Bangladesh Accord and Cotton Pledge, and have adopted the ETI Code of Conduct, which are all commendable steps - but the brand still has a long way to go.

Ultimately, the fact that Primark’s business model is based on creating huge amounts of short-lived, poorly-made fast fashion products inherently contradicts the values of ethical fashion and spells nothing but bad news for the environment, workers and animals.

So instead of buying cheap, poorly-made clothes that are costly to the environment and garment workers, why not give Primark a miss and invest your hard-earned dollars in one of these well-made, ethical brands rated ‘Good’ or ‘Great’ on the free Good On You app?

Editor's note: Feature image via Primark. Additional images via brands mentioned.

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