Primark was founded in Ireland in 1969, under the name Penney’s. It has stores in the UK, USA, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, France and Italy.
It’s also one of the most criticised brands on the high street, due to low prices and huge amounts of stock.
At first one might think Primark isn’t doing too badly. They’re a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, committed to eliminate toxic chemicals from their products as part of the Greenpeace Detox campaign and are members/supporters of several other initiatives. They partner with charities Newlife and Delivering Good to donate unsold items to those in need, they’ve been using paper bags instead of plastic since 2002, and their ‘Primark Cares Initiative’ includes sustainability commitments such as using sustainable cotton, reducing single-use plastic, and using more recycled materials.
But, of course, it’s not so simple. Here’s what you need to know.
Primark is part of the United Nations’ Fashion Charter (UNFCCC), with a 2021 commitment to reduce emissions 50% by 2030. However, claims of how it will achieve this efficiency are vague. They refer to energy efficiency and more renewable energy, but there are no specific timelines or targets given to the public.
This is important because, according to a 2016 report, Primark’s emissions increased by 15% in the three years prior as it expanded its network of stores, leading to more transport of products. 57% of Primark’s emissions come from the transportation of goods. Their most recently available environmental report does give numbers to emissions reduced during transportation, but doesn’t disclose overall emissions or what overall percentage has been reduced, while their website refers only to changes implemented in ‘some of our established markets’. It’s impossible to know whether emissions have been cut by 50% or 0.5%. Regardless, as long as it pursues growth and global expansion, which includes more production and more transportation, it seems these numbers can only increase.
The purchase and use of clothing is said to contribute approximately 3 percent of the global production of C02 emissions, over 850 million tonnes a year according to the Carbon Trust. And Primark’s fast-fashion system makes it one of the larger contributors to the problem.
Primark signed up to Greenpeace’s Global Detox Campaign in 2014, committing to phase out certain harmful chemicals by 2020, and also joined the initiative Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC). This group created a list of substances to avoid, audit protocol tools, and guidance on wastewater. Primark also supports the Partnership for Cleaner Textile industry (PaCT), a programme that helps factories in Bangladesh adopt cleaner production methods.
2020 has now been and gone. Greenpeace views the campaign as an overall success, as all committed brands have achieved progress on chemical management. However, this doesn’t mean Primark is now a non-toxic brand. Their 2020 environmental report states there’s ‘more that we can do’. According to the report:
chemicals are most likely to be used during the wet-processing stages of the raw material manufacturing process, which includes the dyeing, printing, bleaching and washing of materials; amongst other steps. These processes are mainly carried out upstream in our supply chain by factories with whom we do not have a direct relationship
It becomes difficult to know how successful this overall approach is, when supply chains are sprawling, subcontracting is a common occurrence, and brands don’t know everyone involved in the creation of garments.
Additionally, while it seems more progress has been made now, this report from 2017 raises further questions.
Please note, Greenpeace no longer recognized Primark as a Detox Leader,” says FitzGerald. “The most recent report released in July 2016, ranks Primark in ‘Evolution Mode’, with Greenpeace stating that although the brand performs well on the elimination of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) and transparency, it fails to take individual responsibility for the main tools it needs to meet its Detox 2020 plan.” The report notes that Primark chooses to rely on the ZDHC’s “flawed methodology”, which means the retailer is not selecting new target chemicals for eradication, or ensuring when it does test for their elimination, it is as close to possible to ‘zero.’
Aside from huge amounts of (fossil fuel derived) polyester required for their clothes, cotton is Primark’s main natural material, predominantly sourced from farmers in the Global South such as India, China and Pakistan. In these regions, Primark partnered with agriculture experts, CottonConnect, and the Self-Employed Women’s Association to launch a Sustainable Cotton pilot Programme in 2013.
The pilot focused on environmental factors such reducing water, chemical and pesticide use. After a successful three year trial, Primark then announced the expansion of its Sustainable Cotton Programme to 160,000 farmers across India, Pakistan and China, to be trained in more ecologically friendly practices by the end of 2022.
However, Primark’s sustainable cotton is not organic. After the first three years, chemical fertiliser use was reduced by an average of 24.7% and chemical pesticides by 50.3%. Considering that cotton accounts for a huge amount of toxic chemical use that can cause significant health issues and pollution of waterways, reduction is not a good enough strategy. They have made liberal use of the word regenerative on their website, piloting new programmes teaching farmers methods to improve soil health. However, their website states this will be the ‘first ever non-organic regenerative programme’ for farmers, despite the fact that organic farming is a key component of regenerative agriculture, which suggests greenwashing.
So why doesn’t Primark just go organic? Organic farming produces lower yields; Primark doesn’t only use cotton from its sustainable programme because it doesn’t produce enough cotton for their needs, and they have no target date to source 100% of their cotton from this programme.
Additionally, Primark received the worst score on Ethical Consumer for its cotton supply chain. This is because, though they committed to not knowingly sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan or Xinjiang, there doesn’t seem to be any secure policy in place to guarantee cotton isn’t sourced from these regions. This raises further concerns about traceability and transparency in supply chains.
Primark launched an in-store recycling scheme across UK shops in 2020. They also work with the charities Newlife in Europe and KIDS Fashion Delivers in the US, donating excess stock to these organisations which can be given to those in need.
However, many think this work alone isn’t enough. Firstly, there is the issue of quality. Some charities have raised concerns around donating secondhand or even unworn stock from Primark due to the poor quality of the clothes, which is attributed to clothes being made quickly out of synthetic fibres and polyester/cotton blends. When it comes to actual stock that is sold, only 25% of stock is made from recycled or ‘more sustainably sourced’ materials. Considering how vague this wording is, it’s hard to gauge how sustainable these materials actually are.
Most importantly, none of these schemes deal with the fact that a huge amount of Primark’s clothing ends up in landfill after being discarded by customers. Whether this is due to poor quality or the fast fashion model that pushes constant consumption over durability (probably a combination of both) WRAP estimates that around £140 million worth of used clothing is sent to landfills in the UK each year.
Any fashion brand that bases its business model on volume – producing and selling as much as they can – can put out as many recycling bins as possible and still will not only have zero impact but a negative impact on the environment because of the quality of the clothes they sell… Any brand that plops recycle bins in its store entrances is trying to snow customers, to get them to feel better about all the overconsumption, so they’ll buy more. Simple as that.
Primark lists approximately 95% of its factories but doesn’t list the whole supply chain. It also doesn’t list policies and safeguards to protect workers. Factories are audited at least once a year, but it’s unclear if the first and second stages of production are also audited. They received a relatively low score of 31-40% on the Fashion Transparency Index, which was deemed not good enough by Good On You.
Primark also doesn’t publicly share its audit reports, leaving many to question what it’s doing to protect the rights of anyone in the supply chain.
It is impossible to verify if these inspections are really taking place; what is monitored; what problems are found and what corrective actions come out of these audits.
We see this in a consistent murky history when it comes to the rights of garment workers.
Primark was one of the brands that sourced its clothes from Rana Plaza. After the disaster, it signed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. They’ve also been part of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) since 2006. They use a code of conduct in all sourcing hubs, based on internationally recognised labour standards from the International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions and the ETI’s Base Code.
However, there’s a difference between having a code of conduct and ensuring it’s upheld, as Primark doesn’t own its own factories. While factories are said to be vetted and audited yearly, they are audited at the final stage of production, with no indication of what happens at the first and second stages, and illegal subcontracting is notoriously easy to hide in fashion’s complex supply chains. Plus, just because factory owners sign codes of conduct, this doesn’t mean they’ll actually follow them.
In 2019 the Christian Initiative Romero (CIR) issued a report stating that it had interviewed 73 Sri Lankan employees from six named supplier factories to Primark. It stated that none of these met the retailer’s code of conduct, and some were involved in breaches of local law.
Also, while Primark stated that the company defines a child as being under the age of 16, they have policies that allow people as young as 14 to work in their supply chains. Their code of conduct says they don’t employ anyone under the age of 15, except in Global South countries where there’s a minimum working age of 14. This means that in countries such as India, Pakistan and Tanzania, where Primark has supplier factories, children can be hired at 14 to manufacture Primark clothes.
There have also been regular accusations that Primark sources from unethical suppliers:
- 2008: UK charity War on Want exposed continued poor working conditions in Primark factories in a BBC documentary
- 2009: Primark was accused of using illegal immigrant labour in Manchester, paying £3 per hour
- 2014: an SOS message and prison ID was found in a pair of Primark trousers
- 2015: an SOS message was found in Primark socks, from an alleged torture victim. Primark declared these instances (and others) as a hoax.
- 2018: a human bone was found in a Primark sock. Police ruled it not linked to crime in the UK, but stated it could have been placed in the sock at its country of origin.
- 2021: up to 1000 garment workers in Myanmar were locked inside their Primark supplier factory by supervisors, to prevent them from joining anti-coup protests
Primark also didn’t score highly in the first ‘Corporate Human Rights Benchmark’, a public ranking of corporate human rights performance. It scored in the 20-29% range, as it has written policies, but failed to take sufficient action to ensure workers weren’t abused.
Primark is a founding member of Action, Collaboration, Transformation (ACT), a collection of retailers, manufacturers and the trade union IndustriALL who aim to improve wages through industry collective bargaining power. It seems that, while Primark says it’s developing a strategy to improve wages, it doesn’t appear to have targets or plans in place for how this will be achieved. ACT first started work in Cambodia in 2015, when a delegation that included representatives from Primark, H&M and Inditex met with suppliers, garment unions, the Labour Ministry and the Ministry of Commerce and the garment manufacturers association of Cambodia. Since then there have been no further updates, and the process is said to be ongoing.
Primark also didn’t fare well in Labour Behind the Label’s 2019 Tailored Wages UK report, which stated Primark showed no evidence of workers being paid a living wage. In contrast, in 2018 Primark executives George Weston and John Bason were paid £3.8m and £2.7m respectively, and they received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies.
When it comes to actual stores, a 2017 online survey from FNV, the Dutch Federation of Trade Unions, found that 75% of current and former Primark employees felt their workload was too high. 66% also reported problems with calling in sick and 54% raised concerns with privacy, stating that store managers used camera images to spy on them. Workers in the US and UK shared similar concerns of feeling overworked, underpaid and struggling with overbearing management, while French employees complained of unpaid sick leave, constant monitoring and unexplained gaps between wages.
Covid 19 wage theft
Many campaigners also aren’t happy with Primark’s behaviour during the pandemic, with research by the Clean Clothes Campaign finding evidence of wage theft in its supply chains. They found that Primark failed to ensure workers were properly paid during the pandemic, with devastating consequences for garment workers in Indonesia, Cambodia and Bangladesh.
garment workers are owed between 2.42 and 4.38 billion GBP in unpaid wages from the first three months of the Covid-19 pandemic alone. During a global pandemic, the knee-jerk reaction from major international brands was to set in place a series of processes to protect their profits, whilst pushing the costs onto those who can least afford it, garment workers at the bottom of their supply chains. Brands cancelled orders, delayed payments and enforced discounts on suppliers
Primark was one of the big brands who initially cancelled all existing orders as lockdowns were enforced across Europe. After intense pressure from campaigners, Primark announced a wage fund to cover the wage component of cancelled orders. This fell short of demands from labour rights groups. Primark offered no insight into how the wage fund had been calculated, or how it would be administered to ensure that workers were paid. It only covered seven countries, leaving out major production countries including Turkey and China.
…Workers in Primark’s supply chain have been protesting in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia over unpaid wages, reduction in pay and mass dismissal. In Bangladesh, one of Primark’s suppliers which usually employs 6000 people, currently only has 500 people working whilst the rest are on unpaid ‘holiday’. In Myanmar, another Primark supplier closed its factory in May, resulting in 2000 workers losing their jobs and receiving only partial compensation.
In comparison, Primark’s owner, Associated British Foods, reported a £914m profit before tax for 2020.
Ultimately, no incremental improvements or attempts to change from the inside can be enough when Primark’s model requires huge amounts of throw away clothing, manufactured from synthetic materials and potentially toxic chemicals in unmonitored supply chains, all sold at incredibly low prices. Cheap prices encourage impulse buying, constant consumption and less consideration, which ultimately ends up with more wasted and sent to landfill. Even if Primark aren’t the only brand doing this, when it comes to the high street they’re one of the largest fashion retailers when it comes to volume of stock.
The fast-fashion model can never be ethical, because it requires exploitation of people and planet to turn a profit, with garment workers exploited and underpaid for top bosses to take home millions.
While it seems that Primark may be trying in some areas, it can’t be enough unless the model is radically transformed. Until then, Primark can never be said to be ethical or sustainable.