Do you know the fashion chain “Primark”? Well, I don’t like that shop. There is one in my hometown and it’s super popular. The stuff they sell usually falls apart after you wore and washed it a few times, but it’s very cheap, so people don’t care and simply buy new clothes. I don’t share that mentality, and besides the store stinks. But I never thought about the origin of these cheap clothes until lately a University seminar sparked my interest in human rights in the fashion industry. Since I did some research, I have a bad conscience – although I don’t buy things at Primark.
Let me tell you a story that you probably all know. On April 24, 2013, a textile factory named “Rana Plaza” in Bangladesh collapsed. More than 1.100 people died. Some of them – 580 is the official number – worked on clothes for Primark. One year later, in March 2014, the company paid 9 million dollar as compensation for these victims or their relatives. 580 injured or dead people, that’s bad publicity. At least Primark paid – both money and attention – while other responsible companies didn’t even participate yet in the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, established by the International Labour Organization. And these other fashion chains originally had a much better reputation than Primark! I was quite surprised to hear brand names like “Mango” oder “Benetton” in connection with Rana Plaza. The ridiculous prices of Primark make it easy to believe in exploited workers. It’s different with shops where articles cost five times a much. But the truth is: They all produce in these poor countries. The H&M shirt? Made in Bangladesh.
Okay, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this shirt was produced under inhuman conditions. For Bangladesh, textile products are the main export articles and therefore a very important branch of industry. If the workers are paid an acceptable wage and human rights are respected, there is basically nothing wrong about producing clothes there. (Although the knowledge about the greedy motives of western companies to produce there of course leaves a bitter taste.) But reality is different and that means it isn’t ok. Not at all.
It’s funny: Primark tries to justify its procedure by making it more transparent. But when I read their website “Primark Ethical Trading” (which has an extra section for Bangladesh) it didn’t calm me down! Primark explains that all workers who produce clothes for their company are paid the minimum wage in their country. Well, I googled that: Before Rana Plaza collapsed, this minimum wage in Bangladesh was 3.000 Taka (28 Euro) a month – that’s 90 Euro-Cents a day. That’s “extreme poverty” according to the UN definition (1,25$ per day). After the factory collapsed the government of Bangladesh rose it to 5.300 Taka after all.
Additionally, I learned from Primark that all workers in one factory are paid the same wage although they produce for different labels. That means, a Jeans for 150 Euro and the Primark trousers may have the same factory as origin. The conclusion I had to draw made me very angry and sad: It doesn’t matter if you buy your clothes in a stinky cheap shop like Primark or in an expensive one. The same workers assembled the clothes for a ridiculously small amount of money. Only the quality of the materials etc. differs.
So what’s the solution?, you think. What is Alice about so say with this text? The truth is: I am not sure. I have a bad conscience and think I should do something, but what could that be? There is of course the boycott-solution: If nobody buys clothes in this shop anymore, the company will have to change its behaviour. Maybe that would work with one shop, but with all of them? Are we all to run around naked? Another solution which I think is a very good one, is to support alternatives and buy only Fairtrade clothes. Sadly it is quite confusing to search for them, because there are many different Fairtrade labels, campaigns and organizations that set different standards (e.g. the Fairtrade or GOTS label on the international level, the BEST label for Germany, the Fair Wear Foundation or the Clean Clothes Campaign). But anyways, there are also quite many shops that specialize in Fairtrade products. Sadly the prices are mostly too high for a student like me. Additionally, such individual commitment is nothing without organized action on the political level. It’s all about pressure on the fashion companies.
I feel better now that I wrote this. I promise I won’t turn into a person who tries do convert all the consumers around me. But I will never buy clothes as carelessly as before.