Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Primark: The Devil In The Detail

There's a general air of opinion amongst we ethical fashion types that fast fashion can do no right. Companies like Zara, New Look and especially the best-known UK name in the sector, Primark, are guilty of everything from the pushing of micro-trends to poor quality but super-cheap clothing, factors that keep people buying and a steady stream of non-recyclable clothing heading for landfill. Employee expoitation and dangerous working conditions are all par for the course. So far, so obvious.
The real story is, of course, rather less simplistic.
Did you know, for example, that Primark were one of the first companies to offer compensation to the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse–and that they contributed an amount above and beyond their legal obligation? Furthermore, the company have become the latest signatory to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a non-profit organisation that monitors the Higgs Index of a brand.
Higgs Index? Well, this is a self-assessment tool developed by the SAC that allows companies to calculate the sustainability performance of their supply chain and identifies areas that need to be improved. It assesses both the environmental and social impacts of products.
In a statement, Primark said:
"By measuring sustainability performance, the industry can address inefficiencies, resolve damaging practices, and achieve the environmental and social transparency that consumers are starting to demand. By joining forces in a Coalition, we can address the urgent, systemic challenges that are impossible to change alone."
Parse that statement, and a couple of interesting points emerge. Firstly, they note that changes to transparency and the elimination of "damaging practices" are things that customers are starting to call for. In other words, advocacy of a more ethical fashion sector is starting to make a difference. Consumer power is a real force in moving away from the old toxic models.
Secondly, Primark is very clear that they can't do it alone. Which is why joining the SAC is such a smart move. It has a membership that includes big brand names like Adidas and H&M, agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency as well as non-profits, academic institutions, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. No-one wants to be the first to jump into a new supply chain structure. But by teaming up with a group that can provide a good theoretical and legal framework for such a move, when it happens it's more likely to be a success.
Look, I'm not saying we should all suddenly rush out to Primark to show our support. But it's important to realise that sometimes the bad guys aren't quite as evil as we like to think, and that painting any issue in black and white ignores the subtle hues that are much closer to the truth.

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