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Popular chain department store Primark may be trendy and affordable, but can workers and the planet afford the way they do business? How ethical is Primark? This article is based on the Primark rating published in January 2022.
The problem with Primark
Irish fast fashion chain Primark is known and loved around the world for its range of on-trend clothing, footwear, accessories, and homewares for men, women, and children at astonishingly low prices.
But does its super cheap price tags belie larger costs to the environment, workers, and animals? We investigated for you to answer the question—how ethical is Primark?
First, the good news. Primark is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. It has been using paper bags instead of plastic bags since 2002, and has also introduced initiatives to reduce waste and packaging. In the US, Primark has partnered with the charity Delivering Good, 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 also committed to eliminate hazardous chemicals in its products—a commitment it made for 2020 as part of the Greenpeace Detox campaign—but there is no evidence it is on track to meet its target.
Primark has started to look at its climate impact by measuring and reporting on the greenhouse gas emissions generated both from its own operations and some of its supply chain. However, it has minimal published greenhouse gas emissions reduction initiatives beyond energy efficiency in stores and has not set a reduction target. This is surprising given that its parent company, Associated British Foods, has set a target one for one of its subsidiaries, British Sugar.
Primark’s environmental initiatives are 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, which is why it receives a score of “Not Good Enough” for the planet. In order to improve its score in this area, Primark needs to start using eco-friendly materials in its products, set specific reduction targets in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and wastewater, and implement adequate policies and initiatives for resource management and disposal.
Primark has taken some positive steps towards improving its 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 is also a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and has adopted their Code of Conduct. However, the code does not ensure payment of a living wage.
On its “Primark Cares” page, Primark states that before a factory is approved by the brand, it is vetted to internationally-recognised standards set out in its 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 the 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, does not own its own factories and outsources manufacturing to its suppliers means that despite all that talk of ethical practice and auditing, it does not control its supply chain and can therefore effectively shrug off any responsibility for factory workers and any labour issues that may be occurring. On top of that, it received a score of 31-40% in the Fashion Transparency Index, and it discloses inadequate policies or safeguards to protect suppliers and workers in its supply chain from the impacts of COVID-19. For these reasons, we have given Primark a score of “Not Good Enough” for people, too.
Primark can improve its score in this area by being more transparent when it comes to its suppliers and auditing practices, as well as paying its workers a living wage and improving health and safety in 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 it wishes to uphold its good name.
Primark is a member of the Leather Working Group, which promotes sustainable practices in the leather industry, and does not use fur, angora, down feather, or exotic animal skin or hair in its products. However, it does use leather and wool without stating its sources, and there is no evidence it traces any animal product to the first stage of production. This is problematic for both our furry friends and factory workers as their wellbeing cannot be guaranteed. Primark could improve its score in this area by stating where its leather and wool are sourced from so consumers can make an informed decision. Until then, it receives “Not Good Enough” here, too.
Overall rating: Not good enough
Overall, we rate Primark as “Not Good Enough” based on our own research. Primark has implemented a number of initiatives to reduce waste and increase energy efficiency in its stores and factories, has signed the Bangladesh Accord and Cotton Pledge, and has adopted the ETI Code of Conduct, which are all commendable steps—but the brand still has a long way to go. Note that Good On You ratings consider hundreds of issues, and it is not possible to list every relevant issue in a summary of the brand’s performance. For more information, see our How We Rate page and our FAQs.
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”?
See below for some “Good” and “Great” alternatives to Primark. If affordability is a concern for you, why not check out our article that answers the question “is ethical clothing really expensive?“. For those of you living week to week who can’t afford to pay more up front—we get it! Everyone is on their own journey, and there is nothing wrong with shopping from more affordable mainstream brands that are at least making a start, like Marks & Spencer or H&M.