All opinions are the author’s own.
On 24th June 2014, Rebecca Jones posted a photograph on Twitter, addressed to the low cost clothing retailer, Primark. Her navy blue top, sprinkled with a neat grid of white polka dots, and worn with jeans, although simple and stylish, would not be out of place on a typical high street. What isn’t so typical, however – not even within the thousands of identical garments sold nationally by the retailer – is the label nestling amongst its folds. In addition to standard issue washing and care instructions in red and white printed text, is a handmade addition. Its idiosyncratic stitches and scrawled black capitals state plainly: ‘“Degrading” sweatshop conditions.’
Primark’s ethical disposition has never been entirely untarnished, and a major section of its website is dedicated to bolstering this, with photographs, videos, and attempts to address the moral question, explicitly quoted: ‘How can Primark offer the lowest prices?’. This initiative is especially important in light of last year’s tragedy at Rana Plaza, the garment factory that collapsed, killing over 1,130 workers.
Whilst the brand offers amongst the lowest in-store garment prices, it was by no means the only retailer to have used the factory, and therefore not alone in its association with unfavourable working conditions. These too, are representative of a much more widespread problem, and the heavily publicized disaster served to bring to public consciousness an issue that can be otherwise all too easy to repress. When faced with an accessible abundance of goods, in retail outlets thousands of miles away from the factories in which they are made, this sensation of consumer dissociation is exacerbated.
Other consumers also discovered handmade reminders of these ethical issues hidden in their garments. A similar example appeared in a floral dress bought by Rebecca Gallagher in the same Swansea store, whereas the third known example emerged in the form of a note, written in Chinese and concealed in the pocket of a pair of trousers, bought by Karen Wisinska in Belfast. The affected garments were all purchased a year or more ago. Although investigations have concluded that the incidents were likely staged, and added after arriving in store, this does not defeat their role in sharply raising awareness of the very real issue of fast fashion, and its implications.
Ready-to-wear clothing’s rise to dominance sped up after the First World War, when the industry began to evolve into its modern state. In the last thirty years, there has been a huge growth in availability, range and, indeed, excess of clothing, much of which – Primark’s wares included – is so cheap that it can be discarded at the end of the fashion season. Is this a demonstration of ready-to-wear reaching a tipping point? Is fast, throwaway fashion sustainable, environmentally and ethically alike? Can it truly exist without adversely affecting humanity – both in terms of unscrupulous treatment of producers, and corroding consumers’ sense of value?
Recently, a tide of organized and public protest against these issues has gained momentum, and increasingly, brands new and old explicitly promote consciousness. Italian label Progetto Quid, for example, transforms surplus stock into ‘limited eco chic collections’, employing ‘exclusively disadvantaged women’, and combats any residual notions that responsible clothing must be staid, with its trend-led design. Nevertheless, will this be enough to entice the average shopper away from the low cost and easy availability that they are accustomed to? Only time will tell whether ethics matter enough over convenience, and whether accountability and accessibility can converge. Perhaps the Primark ‘labels’ can become a catalyst for change that has long been required.