Today I have heard the news that Primark has created the role of Ethical Trading Director and appointed Katherine Kirk, previously from Gap, who were themselves the centre of a sweatshop scandal, to the role.

It would seem, on the surface, that Primark are seriously dedicated to ensuring that their products are ethically produced. They have been a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative for some time and have always been quick to respond when allegations of  bad practice have  appeared in the press. This new position, and other measures they have announced seem to indicate that they continue to press this agenda.

But is ethical fashion really possible at such a low price?

This is something I wonder about a lot. My decision to give up full time employment to start my own business means that I have very little disposable income to spend on fashion. I spend a lot of my time hunting charity shops, boot fairs and eBay for clothing, and the majority of my wardrobe is either very old, vintage or second hand. But there are times when you have to buy things new, and if you’re short on funds Primark is a very attractive option and it seems I’m not the only one, as their sales appear to keep increasing.

Surely the nature of low priced fashion is that the lower the prices a company pay to it’s suppliers, the lower the amount of money that company will be willing to spend on ensuring that it’s staff have decent pay and conditions?

Do the low prices we are willing to pay for our clothing impact directly on the living conditions of those in the third world?

This is a difficult question.

There are those that argue that the conditions in sweat shops actually offer an improvement in pay and conditions over what was previously available to workers in developing nations, which was generally subsistence farming or other back breaking work.

A Unicef report in 1997 found that the Child Labor Deterrence Act in the US had led to up to 50,000 children being dismissed from jobs in garment production. This may sound like a good thing, but it’s not like these children went off to school, instead it seems they found work in jobs such as “stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution.” and were essentially worse off than they were before the act.

It could be said to be unfair to judge developing nations by our own standards, but surely if we intend to trade with these nations we should accept the responsibility for the conditions that are imposed on the workers. Taking advantage of low prices in a developing nation without taking an interest in furthering that nations development surely amounts to little more than exploitation?

I am aware that I’ve probably posed more questions than I’ve answered here, but this is a thorny issue, and not one that little old me is likely to solve in a blog post.

My gut feeling is that as consumers we have a responsibility to be as aware as possible of where the products we buy come from and how they are made, but that refusing to trade with developing nations could make conditions even worse for those that we think we are protecting.

So write letters and emails to your favourite stores asking them about their ethical policies, support them by buying products from organic or fair trade ranges that they produce and make it your reponsibility, when shopping online, to explore the website and look for details of their ethical and environmental policies.

The very fact that Primarks prices are low brings ethical issues to the forefront of their business and they are therefore forced to confront them publicly, where as more expensive stores often get away without mentioning the issue at all.

So, I think, that for the time being, I will continue to occasionally shop at Primark, as I am not convinced that the affordable alternatives would offer a significant improvement in terms of ethical trading.

Primark are still being investigated by the Ethical Trading Initiative. I hope they don’t prove me wrong…..

Further reading

What are they saying? Ethical & Eco Fashion Round Up

Slinky Silk – Ethical & Cruelty free silk production

Ethical Design Spotlight – Tammam

Fashion with a Conscience

Photos Courtesy of My Life Story and Victuallers2 via Flickr