Op-ed on Primark for Weekend Knack by Jasmien

That Primark is going to become more sustainable does not remedy the fact that their clothes are produced and consumed like hot cakes.

September 9, 2021, Weekend Knack, Jasmien Wynants

Those who know me, know that I have a positive attitude. A friend recently told me ‘you always find the silver lining’. In all honesty, that is not really a voluntary choice. What we see happening in the world regarding the climate issue and the lack of timely action by society worries me. Every day I ponder the future. And the more I read, the more I know and the more restless I become as a result.

I have been studying sustainability within the fashion industry for several years. Whenever the words “Primark” and “sustainability” appear in the same title in a newspaper, I find that only one association flashes through my mind: “greenwashing”. Actually, I don’t want to click through at all. But I do anyway. Primark is now going to make sure that the clothes you buy can last longer. In the future, you will be able to wash a sweater more than five times; we’re going for no less than thirty washes ladies and gentlemen. Wait, let that sink in for a second: five – washes.

That Primark is going to become more sustainable does not remedy the fact that their clothes are produced and consumed like hot cakes.

Okay, silver lining, staying positive, we’re going to thirty washes anyway and that’s a good thing. The quality goes up, which means that the clothes might be recycled at the ‘end of their life’ (because you can’t recycle low quality textiles). And then it comes. Good news, because you are also not going to have to pay extra for the sweater that you can now wear for more than one season anyway. In other words, the cheapest sweater on the website remains six euros, the most expensive twenty-two. At first glance, this seems like a positive development. A second proof that Lidl is right with the new ‘Zaam’ campaign: “because sustainable does not have to be expensive”. An idea I want to be able to fully support: that sustainability is for everyone, not just for those who can afford it. And I believe it can be done, but not without government interference. Working with and in Flemish fashion companies, I know all too well that choosing the sustainable variant of the fabric, will undoubtedly cost you more than the less sustainable variant. And the same goes for the social side of things, or as journalist Lucy Siegle puts it: ‘Fast Fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere is paying’.

Clothing at six euros, which is as much as a 'Whopper' at Burger King or a 'Pumpkin Spice Latte' at Starbucks. So how can we expect people to see clothing as a utility and not a consumable?

Okay, silver lining, stay positive, maybe Primark has found the golden formula to be able to offer a sweater for six euros… that can last for thirty washes… and where no one was exploited… and where the environmental impact was minimized in the production process. Unfortunately, a sustainable approach consists of more than the promise to increase quality, pay fair wages by 2030 and introduce more sustainable materials. Sustainability is also thinking about the value we place on clothing.

Six euros, that’s as much as a “Whopper” at Burger King or a “Pumpkin Spice Latte” at Starbucks. How can we expect people to see clothing as a use good and not a consumable good; if we place the same value on something that is consumed within 15 minutes than on something that should last for years? Are we going to think twice whether we really like something, will wear it enough and cherish it before throwing it in our shopping basket if it costs six euros? Or do we go for three different colors because we are not 100 percent sure? After all, those three sweaters only cost one Super Supreme at the Pizza Hut.

And that’s exactly the problem: we produce and consume clothes like hot cakes. When we talk about this at the bar (yes, we talk about this at the bar, you should try it too), the question always is: “but there is still so much poverty, we must not lose sight of the group of people with less financial resources”. I completely agree, and without being able to give a direct answer to this complex question, I would venture to say that Primark’s annual seven billion euro profit does not come out of the pockets of overnight visitors to Brussels South. There is a slightly greater chance that this money comes from those who leave the store each month (or week) with four or five bags.

And what about those who gave me (and all of us) hope by organizing climate marches and demanding a better future from the generations who ruined it for them. The youth. They are going to do things differently. They are the courage and hope when the top of the mountain still seems very far away. And then another clever headline caught my attention: “Why is the younger generation buying ultra-fast fashion?” Yes, you read that right: ultra-fast fashion. Earlier this year, the platform ‘Shein’ overtook Amazon on Apple Store to become the number one shopping app in the United States. The Chinese retailer (which ships to 220 countries), is one of the most visited fashion websites in the world. Through data analysis of online trends, the retailer capitalizes on exactly what is popular at the time in order to (copy,) produce and offer it immediately. Whereas fast-fashion companies like Zara used to make headlines because they launched hundreds of new styles a week, Shein now breaks this record with as many as 2,000 new styles a day. So-called “hauls” – videos distributed on social media channels like TikTok – show “unboxing videos” that proudly demonstrate how to order a lot of clothing at rock-bottom prices.

So can these small, conscious companies guarantee that everything is 100 per cent good for people and the environment? No, they can't, but neither can the multinationals, so don't be fooled by that

Okay, silver lining, stay positive, there is a very large group of people – especially among the young – who do not want to contribute to this crazy system on purpose and who do want to do better. I believe Rutger Bregman when he says that ‘most people are okay’. These are the people who ask me at the bar: ‘But what can I do? And how do I know what to buy? Every company today says something about sustainability, even Primark has a whole report, so how do I know what’s right?’ And there I am again with my bland answers that don’t give you a checklist on a silver platter to pierce the lies. If only it were that simple. But I try my best to say something anyway and end the conversation on a positive note. Start by thinking twice before you buy something: do you really need it or are you so in love with it that you are sure you will take care of it and not get tired of it too soon? Try not to get caught up in the system of “more and more” at ever lower prices if you are able to pay for something of quality at a smaller company. Maybe you can support the local economy by consciously buying something Belgian or choose a company or designer that has done research into sustainability and circularity from the start.

I was brought up with the idea that you should 'never forget to use your common sense', and I believe (somewhat naively) that most of us have.

So can these small companies guarantee that everything is a 100 percent good for people and the environment? No, they can’t, but neither can the multinationals, so don’t let that fool you. I was brought up with the idea that you should ‘never forget to use your common sense’, and I believe (somewhat naively) that most of us have common sense. Just try to do some research when you want to buy something new without blindly walking into the biggest shopping street or ordering the same jacket in five sizes from an online shopping platform. In this way you avoid that the four brand new coats you sent back are simply burned or end up in the landfill (yes that happens). Platforms like I Buy Belgian, Close The Loop or COSH can already give you some direction.

In addition, try to dig a little deeper once in a while. There is not always time to read up on every topic (food, transport, energy, clothing, etc.), but start with a conversation in a bar or a documentary (such as The True Cost) and read past the title of an article.

Finally, ask questions to the store staff or brands via an email or chat system. Working with Belgian fashion companies on this topic over the past few years, I dare say hand on my heart that behind many brands there are also real people who are virtuous. It is usually not easy and it is a long road, but the will to sincerely do better was never as great and present as it is now. And there always will be the silver lining.