Is Primark Fast Fashion? Image by Primark #isprimarkastfashion #isprimarkethical #primarksustainability #whyisprimarksocheap #isprimarksustainable #sustainablejungle
Image by Primark

Is Primark Fast Fashion?

Molly Willows


Fashion titan Primark recently made sweeping commitments to take care of people and the planet as a “sustainable” brand, while it continues mass global expansion as an in-store-only retailer.

With a $9.5 billion dollar annual revenue and NO online sales, the Irish-born retailer remains a total unicorn of brick-and-mortar fashion.

But is Primark fast fashion?

The brand is pushing to seem more ethical and environmentally friendly while operating under a business model that makes it hard to sing praises about Primark ethics and sustainability.

Because let’s be clear: there is no way to be sustainable under the model of fast fashion.

But with all the ambitious “commitments” Primark has unveiled to give clothes a longer life, protect life on the planet, and improve people’s lives, we’re curious: nowadays, is Primark a good brand?

Let’s don our detective’s gloves and undress the truth behind the label.

Undressing Why Primark is A Fast Fashion Brand

Is Primark Fast Fashion? Image by Paul Siewert #isprimarkastfashion #isprimarkethical #primarksustainability #whyisprimarksocheap #isprimarksustainable #sustainablejungle
Image by Paul Siewert

Despite selling zero products online, Primark remains the biggest clothing retailer by value in the UK, only briefly losing the topslot to Marks & Spencer in 2020 during the pandemic’s worldwide shuttering. 

Featuring 400+ stores in fifteen-plus countries, Primark manages to remain one of the world’s most popular destinations for bargain basement prices, massive inventory, regular clearance at pocket change prices, and unrelenting fashion turnover.

Why is Primark so cheap? 

With countless below-the-belt scandals, underpaid and dangerous labor, a labyrinth of hard-to-trace supply chains, scores of fashion overstock, cheap textiles, and disposable quality garments all happening amidst greenwashed growth, Primark clothing is the very epitome of dangerously affordable fast fashion. 

Established back in 1969 on Dublin’s iconic Mary St, the then-named ‘Penneys’ instantly became an Irish fan favorite for on-trend clothing at ridiculously cheap prices. 

What Ryanair became to bargain aviation, Primark became to the fashion world: a success story spreading the gospel of “the race to the bottom” across the globe.

In 1973, it moved to England under the moniker “Primark” since US retailer JC Penney already owned the name. In 2006, the brand expanded across Europe, and eventually to the USA in 2015.

While Good on You gives the brand a “Not Good Enough” and Remake/World gives them a paltry 20/150 points, Primark criticisms are quickly “skirted” by its loyal followers and executive team alike, who seem genuinely duped to believe Primark is the solution to the problem of the unjust fashion system.

Current CEO of parent company AB Foods, George Weston, hit back at detractors telling the BBC that shopping High Street for Primark is better for the planet than buying online:

“Far from being a problem, we are a solution. [We have] one of the world’s best supply chains. We don’t air freight the goods, we ship them, which has far lower emissions,” he added, along with “[delivery vans] puffing their way up and down a street are more damaging than people collecting products in-store, which is more environmentally sustainable”.

It’s true that since 2020, Primark has released annual sustainability reports, but it’s hard to believe a brand is stitching up ethical holes when repeatedly busted for the same issues.

In 2020, the same year they (again) exploited Bangladeshi workers by refusing to pay, they announced a UK in-store recycling scheme with Yellow Octopus who, when approached by the media, said they were unauthorized to disclose information due to a commercial agreement with Primark.

So, is Primark legit in their commitment to sustainability?

We’ll let you decide… after we strut our way down High Street’s hall of Primark horrors.


Primark Controversies

Is Primark Fast Fashion? Image by kzenon #isprimarkastfashion #isprimarkethical #primarksustainability #whyisprimarksocheap #isprimarksustainable #sustainablejungle
Image by kzenon

No stranger to controversy, Primark sweatshops were some of the very first shocking busts that revealed the hidden and ugly cost of fast fashion. 

But that hasn’t stopped the brand from massive success worldwide, even with ongoing scandals mounting. 

Primark Child Labor & Sweatshop Labor

Like their UK counterpart H&M, Primark are no stranger to forced labor.

One of their first child labor scandals emerged in 2008, when Primark sacked three of its Indian factories for employing children under the age of 15.

BBC’s Panorama found poor refugee children toiling away in factories for as little as 60p a day.

And (no) thanks to the corrupt fashion system, where most brands don’t own their own factories, Primark was able to blame the whole debacle on the independent factories themselves as if they had no idea they were enabling slave wages for underage kids.

Protests erupted at stores across the UK, and the brand canceled all orders with the guilty factories. 

Primark’s statement still defended its pocket change prices, claiming they had nothing to do with wages: 

“We are able to offer good value and good quality because of low markups and big volumes. We use simple designs, our overhead costs are extremely low and we don’t run expensive advertising campaigns.” 

While the scandal forced well-paid executives to acknowledge the need to erase labor abuse and become accountable to supply chain management, the brand has still had many more labor scandals since.

Just a year later in 2009, Primark was slammed for using illegal immigrant labor in Manchester and paying only £3 per hour.

Rana Plaza Disaster

In terms of where Primark clothes are made, it’s any one of a vast web of factories spanning developing countries like China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Turkey, where labor and environmental laws tend to be lax and impoverished workers are more easily exploited. 

One such place where Primark made some of its clothes was the tragic Bangladesh factory Rana Plaza, which collapsed in 2013.

It was the deadliest garment factory disaster in history, killing over 1,100 unprotected and underpaid garment workers and leaving 2,500 more workers seriously injured and/or permanently disabled. 

Fortunately, Primark was among the first retailers to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, plus it was one of the first to make sure factory victims and families affected by the disaster received emergency financial support and food aid immediately. 

Primark also paid $14 million in aid and compensation and conducted over 2,000 factory audits in the following two years. 

But with over $20 billion dollars worth of apparel business flowing through Bangladesh yearly, and CEO George Weston earning a reported £3.8 million annually, it’s appalling that the minimum wage has yet to double, which experts say would only add 10–12 cents to the cost of making a basic T-shirt.

Stolen Wages & the #PayUp Campaign

Primark (along with other fast fashion giants like Urban Outfitters) helped make the largest workers’ wage theft in fashion history.

When the pandemic stopped sales globally in 2020, brands canceled orders with their factory suppliers, which left them and their garment workers in a catastrophic financial lurch with unpaid wages ready-to-ship, already sewn apparel. 

Primark withheld payment on over $273 million worth of orders in Bangladesh, the most of any withheld payments reported in the nation. 

To date, Primark has fortunately agreed to #PayUp, with the hashtag now a popular online advocacy campaign alongside an online tracker by the Workers Rights Consortium to follow who has not paid up. 

That said, Primark never shared HOW they ensured the money would reach the workers, while claiming the program had been successfully implemented. 

When a brand like Primark rakes in over £700 million in profits and garment workers make about $113 per month, even if these workers HAVE been paid, the discrepancy in numbers is all you need to know when it comes to Primark ethics. 

Design Theft

It’s common for fast fashion brands to rip off indie designers, but what about when one huge brand rips off another huge brand?

In 2018, Primark was sued by skater shoe king Vans for producing “knock-offs”, but the results of the lawsuit were never published. 

Don’t think Primark has spared the little guys, though.

The brand is also guilty of ripping off numerous indie designers who lack resources like Vans to chase the rights to their stolen copies.

Manchester-based July Child Jewellery was ripped off by Primark in 2022, and while July Child was reportedly speaking directly with reps from Primark, the resolution is yet to be confirmed. 

Forced Labor SOS Notes 

From 2014 to 2015, a series of “cry for help” notes were discovered stitched in Primark garments from alleged forced labor and torture survivors in their Chinese supply chains.

“I was shocked to find this note and card inside the trousers from Primark and even more shocked to discover that it appears to have been made under slave labor conditions in a Chinese prison,” the buyer told Amnesty International.

Primark denied sourcing apparel made using forced labor in a formal statement.

An inconclusive investigation followed, along with more cases that surfaced of shoppers finding desperate pleas sewn into labels on dresses purchased from a same Primark store in Swansea, England. 

One said “Forced to work exhausting hours,” and another said, “Degrading sweatshop conditions.”

CNN unsuccessfully tried to contact the Xiang Nan prison in China where the initial note allegedly came from, and to this day Primark denies it as an elaborate hoax.

Myanmar Workers Locked Up

In 2021, almost 1000 garment workers in Myanmar were locked inside a Primark supplier factory by their superiors, to stop them from participating in pro-democracy, anti-coup protests.

Primark released a statement saying it would pause operations at the factory, and later bowed out of Myanmar supply chains entirely due to gross human rights violations and political unrest.

Human Bone Found In Primark Sock

This horrific incident happened in 2019 in a UK Primark store, with an inconclusive police investigation. It was determined that the bone was a part of a phalanx, a bone in the finger, and did not appear to be a result of recent trauma.

Primark was certain it was yet another “elaborate hoax”, and to this day it remains a mystery. 

The company said:

“It is highly probable that the object was placed in the socks by an individual for unknown reasons. Primark has been the subject of isolated incidents in the past, which have subsequently been found to have been hoaxes. Following our own and the police investigation, we consider the matter closed.”

Sued For Greenwashing

In October 2023, Primark was sued in the Netherlands (where it has twenty locations) for making misleading sustainability claims, according to advertising standards watchdog Reclame Code Commissie. 

Slogans included “Reducing CO2 emissions by 50% so the earth can breathe,” and “Organic, recycled, sustainable and affordable cotton.”

The commission said it implies this is what Primark is already doing, when nearly invisible fine print says it’s an aim for a future date. 

Primark also said it “makes clothing circular” when the fine print explains recyclable clothes won’t start until 2027. 

Primark’s claim to start halving emissions was also not backed up by an actual action plan. 

Primark is appealing the lawsuit, which has yet to conclude. A Primark spokesperson stated, “Our aims are realistic and feasible and are being clearly communicated by means of an annual report.”

Furthermore, a 2021 investigation by the Changing Market Foundation found that 59% of all claims by European fashion brands are misleading, and Primark ranked at the top of brands lacking transparency over green claims. 

Wornwell Launch & Controversy

It really doesn’t get more topsy-turvy than this.

The brand that sells brand new £2 t-shirts now has a secondhand chain called Wornwell that sells £100+ pricey old “premium handpicked vintage” from the likes of low to mid-tier (at best) brands like Carhartt, Barbour, Champion, Converse, Dr Martens, and Levis.

Many of these used clothes can be found at charity shops or online vintage stores for a fraction of the price, and Primark seems to have created a new source of profit more than a sustainable fashion solution.


Primark Ethics Are A Work In Progress

Is Primark Fast Fashion? Image by odua images #isprimarkastfashion #isprimarkethical #primarksustainability #whyisprimarksocheap #isprimarksustainable #sustainablejungle
Image by odua images

With decades of ethical busts under their belt, Primark is now trying to clean up its image.

Their corporate site features resources like a supplier code of conduct, full factory list, environmental and social statements, a modern slavery statement, responsible sourcing policy, and a wood policy. 

They’ve also published two annual reports so far to share ethical targets and progress, but is Primark ethical?

Labor Issues & Supply Chains

Primark now has a Primark Cares division to signify its commitment to a better track record for planet and people, and tracks human rights with their Supplier Code of Conduct and Supply Chain Human Rights Policy.

They publish all Tier 1 factories and perform regular unannounced audits with SA8000, but there are four remaining tiers that need to be tracked. 

Primark also recently rolled out a traceability and compliance platform, TrusTrace, to gather data from their entire supply chain of every product sold. 

They’re also members of Ethical Trading Initiative and a signatory to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Cotton Pledge

In 2022, Primark commissioned research with the Anker Research Institute to provide new or updated Global Living Wage Coalition estimates for four of Primark’s sourcing markets – Bangladesh, Cambodia, Turkey and Vietnam.

While Primark has taken some positive steps towards improving its practice when it comes to workers, they still do not pay a living wage. Additionally, parent brand Associated British Foods has operations in 11 oppressive regimes and does not provide factory names. 

Animal Welfare

Primark belongs to the Leather Working Group, which promotes more sustainable practices in the leather industry. But the good news ends there. 

While they do not use fur, angora, down feather, or exotic animal skin in products, they do use leather and wool without stating anything about ethical sourcing practices and suppliers, and they lack evidence that they trace animal products to the initial stage of production. 

While animal testing isn’t permitted on Primark products, they sell cosmetics from other brands that provide no assurances.

Furthermore, parent company Associated British Foods raises and slaughters pigs, makes and sells foie gras (highly cruel to ducks), and sells eggs that are not cage-free.


Primark Sustainability Is Suspect

Is Primark Fast Fashion? Image by Primark #isprimarkastfashion #isprimarkethical #primarksustainability #whyisprimarksocheap #isprimarksustainable #sustainablejungle
Image by Primark

Primark has made recent sweeping commitments towards sustainability with an Environmental Policy, publishing an annual sustainability report to communicate goals and progress for the past two years.

But while Fashion Checker gives a thumbs up for its public commitment to doing better, it gets a thumbs down for no proper action plan.

Remake/World gives Primark a 20 out of 150 possible points for sustainability. 

Environmental Issues

As a member of Sustainable Apparel Coalition and participating in the Greenpeace Detox campaign to eliminate toxic chemicals from products, Primark appears to care. 

Unveiled in 2021, Primark Cares is “set to change the way clothes are made and sourced”, with new processes to halve carbon emissions across its entire value chain by 2030 and minimize fashion waste. 

Primark says 100% of its clothing will be recycled or more sustainable materials by 2030, plus it has a circular product range—which launched in April 2023 as a pilot program with principles of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Primark appears to understand its key areas of environmental impact, such as chemical management, sustainable cotton, energy efficiency, transport and GHG emissions.

However, the brand offers no dated environmental reduction targets to address the problems. 

Ultimately, the biggest environmental issue with Primark is the business model itself, which depends on rapid, mass overproduction of cheap garments that end up in landfills and cause environmental problems globally. 

With no evidence they’re actually meeting targets or minimizing textile waste—for example, through its new clothing recycling program—we simply have no idea if Primark really is reducing its environmental impact. 

Materials

Primark committed to making 100% of its clothes under its Primark Cares label by 2030.

Today, the value fashion retailer says 55% of all its clothes now contain recycled or more sustainably sourced materials, but they have no bare minimum so these clothes could feature a dismal fraction of sustainable fibers. Then there’s the microplastics issues associated with recycled synthetics. 

In 2023, they launched a circular product capsule collection, which sold over three million units of circular clothing (though this is still a scant total percentage of their whole line). Primark pledges that “recyclable by design” clothes will launch by 2027. 

The chain has also pledged to make its clothes more durable, so they last longer, as part of its vow to “make more sustainable fashion affordable for all.”

With their Primark Sustainable Cotton Programme (PSCP), they ensured 46% of cotton clothing sold contains either organic, recycled or Primark Sustainable Cotton Programme cotton, up from 40% the previous year. The PSCP is run in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, with a pilot launched in Turkey in 2023.

They also feature Textile Takeback boxes across all UK, ROI, Germany and Austria stores, or 65% of all stores globally; that said, the results of this initiative are unknown. 

They’ve started repair workshops and recycling boxes across the UK and Europe to encourage customers to recycle or wear clothes longer, but have yet to scale the programs. 

Then there are the issues with the materials themselves.

‘Sustainable’ cotton is still grown with pesticides, leather is said to have partially caused the 41,000 fires that ravaged the Amazon in 2019, and most synthetic materials are derived from the oil industry, which are resource-intensive to source and make, and later release deadly microplastics harming aquatic life, food chains, and humankind. 

In terms of deadstock or how it manages or disposes of it to reduce waste, Primark chooses not to disclose any information. 

Manufacturing Impact & Carbon Footprint 

By 2027, Primark intends to work with suppliers to halve carbon emissions throughout its supply chain while eliminating single-use plastics and non-clothing waste from all operations. 

But how can you halve your total carbon emissions when you do not require suppliers to set GHG emissions reduction targets? 

According to their 2023 highlights, 70% of stores are now powered by renewable energy and a quarter of their stores feature energy-efficient lighting, along with 84% of waste being sent for recycling, recovery or other beneficial use.

To date, they say they’ve achieved ISO 50001 certification across stores, offices and distribution centers in a number of established markets, and have used paper bags instead of plastic bags since 2002.

Alongside CottonConnect, the brand is pursuing regenerative agriculture to teach farmers about new regenerative practices and to reduce their eco impact.

But these findings of their carbon footprint are in conflict. 

For example, while the company supports suppliers to reduce chemical use and invest in cleaner power, their scope 3 emissions have actually risen by 10% in the last three years.

Furthermore, Primark has not disclosed its GHG emissions or energy demand, so we have little clue where we’re even starting from. 

To meet its lofty climate goals, Primark needs to advocate for a total renewable energy transition, end fossil fuel derived materials, provide evidence of financial support to suppliers to transition to renewable energy and reduced chemicals, and commit to zero emission shipping. 


Did you know we Have a Newsletter?

We cover the latest in sustainable living, fashion, zero waste, beauty, travel, finance and more…

Final Thoughts On Is Primark Sustainable?

Primark is one of the best examples of a fast fashion brand to avoid. They epitomize the catastrophic effect of rampant consumerism fuelling human rights violations and environmental degradation.

While we never like to make anyone feel guilty for their choices (or what they can afford!) shopping at Primark supports a system that prioritizes profit over literally everything else. 

Primark’s business model can never be ethical or sustainable, since it requires the use and abuse of humans and the Earth to turn a profit, with ivory tower execs earning millions while workers earn literal ‘Penneys.’

So while Primark might be making positive efforts in some regards, it’s simply not enough until the model itself is radically transformed.

Have that Primark primadonna colleague who’s obsessed with lunch-break clearance rack hunting? 

Please, share this article with them as proof positive that sustainable fashion is the better way.

Pin these:
Is Primark Fast Fashion? Image by Primark #isprimarkastfashion #isprimarkethical #primarksustainability #whyisprimarksocheap #isprimarksustainable #sustainablejungle
Is Primark Fast Fashion? Image by kzenon #isprimarkastfashion #isprimarkethical #primarksustainability #whyisprimarksocheap #isprimarksustainable #sustainablejungle

Leave a comment