Primark shoppers aren’t the problem

A topic that often gets raised in discussions about fast fashion goes something along the lines of… “not everyone can afford to shop sustainably. What if someone can only afford Primark and H&M, what are they meant to do?”

(This very question came up just last week during a sustainable fashion ‘lunch and learn’ that I chaired for the staff of Ecover)

Common responses include… “well, the most sustainable clothes are the ones that you already own.” Or, “there are so many good secondhand options on Depop or eBay, or your local charity shop.”

All well and good. I’m all for it! However, you might be a frantic single parent with no time to trawl the internet for used bargains, and a kid that has grown out of their trousers for nursery.

The bigger issue though, is WHO is responsible for addressing the problems of fast fashion (which has become synonymous with waste, climate change, exploitation of workers, and billionaire owners that do very nicely off the back of it).

Image: Fashion Revolution campaign November 2020

It is a question of power. The responsibility for addressing the issues of the fashion industry should not fall to a family on a low income shopping in Primark. The burden should fall on those with the broadest shoulders.

The notion that if we all just did our bit, shopped ethically, flew less, recycled our plastic bottles, the world would be just fine is misleading. I totally believe that, collectively, we should all be trying to reduce our impact. Especially affluent people with plenty of spare cash for high carbon stag weekends over the years, or vast piles of unworn clothes in their wardrobe.

BUT, keeping the debate at the level of individual ‘behaviour change’ is problematic at best, and dangerous at worst.

Dangerous, because it keeps the focus onto blaming individuals’ lax behaviour for contributing to mega issues like climate change, and takes attention away from the institutions that have the power to change the system. Be that the fashion system, the energy system, or the food system. Global corporations depend on relentless growth and expansion to survive. They rely on punishingly cheap labour and the free ‘resources’ that nature offers (water, land, oceans, minerals, oil).

Image: Fashion Revolution 2020

It is impossible lead a ‘ sustainable lifestyle’ in a system that is designed to consume more and more and more. We can’t ethically shop our way out of this one! But we can do our bit to change the system. Which means not only trying to consume FAR less and slow things down (Amazon Prime, I’m looking at you), and supporting (often smaller) businesses that are trying to do better.

But we ALSO need to get accustomed to asking, when a problem like climate change or fast fashion or air pollution is raised, who has the most power to change this?* Where does the largest responsibility lie? Who is profiting from the current system (now and historically)?

And the answer is rarely the low income Primark shopper.

*Thank you to Kalkidan Legesse and Aja Barber who frequently highlight this point, and say it more eloquently than I do.

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Sarah Tulej

Northerner living in Rotterdam via East London. 🎉 Intersectional environmentalist, photo snapper, charity shopper 🌱