Today I visited Primark for the first time, to find out what all the fuss is about. Every time I’m in the city centre I see lots and lots of people tottering around with two Primark bags along with whatever other stuff they have bought on their shopping spree. Why do they want all this stuff? How can they possibly afford it? More to the point for us in Transition, how can the planet sustain this shopping habit?
I found out pretty quickly why people want this stuff: because it is unbelievably cheap. For under a fiver you can get a fleece hoodie-style top; jeans at £6 – or £13 if you are feeling extravagant; windproof fleece-lined jackets at £10; wool blend chunky knit cardigans at £12.72; faux suede high heeled shoes at £9.
But look closer. This is the clothing equivalent of intensive farming. Marks for price: 10/10, so long as you don’t worry about counting the cost of producing things so cheaply. Marks for style: 6/10; I heard customers saying that they had seen this or that product picked out by style magazines. Marks for quality: 2/10, if I am being generous. These are not real clothes – they are simply fossil fuels reshaped to look like clothes. I read the label on the wool blend chunky knit cardie: how much wool? Just eleven per cent. The rest of the yarn was nylon and acrylic. Most of the things I inspected were 100% polyester. There is no indicator on the labels where these things are made and how they can be made so cheaply – there have been allegations in the media about child labour (feel free to sue me, Primark). Whatever the truth, the material and labour costs must be tiny.
Next door, at Wallis, things are marginally better. Prices are more sensible, although still unfeasibly cheap - £38 for a chunky knit cardie made from ‘luxury yarn’ (55% acrylic, 30% nylon, a mere 15% mohair) and at least the label is honest enough to tell me it’s made in China.
I’m horrified by what I see. My own clothes are expensive, but before you write me off in disgust, those clothes are made with integrity. They are made of natural fibres and produced in workshops that pay a fair price; I buy very few clothes and they last a long long time.
I’m reminded of something I read in Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful about how we are spending our capital (fossil fuels) as if it were interest (renewables). We’ve lost the understanding that most things are very expensive and have to be treated with respect.
If (when) China imposes realistic prices to offset all the carbon emissions created to feed our Primark habit, clothes and other products will become very expensive again. We’ll treat them with respect because we have saved up to buy them and we’ll keep them in active service for a long time. In short, we’ll go back to quality.
My closing pic, before handing over to who knows who as the next guest blogger, is at Riverside, taken from the new St Julian bridge (that’s a story for another day!). It’s the widest point in the river, where the Baltic barges direct from Russia could turn round. The warehouses, now converted into hotels and flats, held the most fabulous cargo from around the world – from China, from Istanbul, from Russia – in exchange for the equally fabulous products we made here in Norwich. How times have changed!
PS: What's on your shopping list for Christmas presents this year?
Pix: Primark in Norwich city centre today
Riverside in Norwich, today