Economy

Paying The Price For Primark's Discount Craze

On the scene as Germany's 13th Primark branch was stormed by shoppers at its opening. Hard questions asked after the Bangladesh worker tragedy are lost in the furor of "Primania."

Germany's 13th Primark branch on Berlin's Alexanderplatz
Germany's 13th Primark branch on Berlin's Alexanderplatz
Thorsten Schmitz

BERLIN — It is 9 a.m. on a very sunny morning at Alexanderplatz and Jessica and her friend are standing in front of the entrance to the newest Primark branch. The two teenagers will wind up waiting patiently in line for the next three hours before the doors open at noon.

They have been looking forward to this moment for weeks with near feverish excitement. But wait, shouldn’t they be in school? "For Primark, we cut class."

Jessica has 100 euros in her pocket, but a niggling bad conscience: "Yes, of course, the clothes for Primark are definitely made by children, but I can't afford to pay 30 euros for a T-shirt."

At shops of the growing Irish-based multinational discount brand, a T-shirt costs 2.50 euros. Often, they don't keep their fit past the first wash, but it's worth it for Jessica. "When you pay just two euros for a T-shirt, you just throw it out if it doesn’t fit anymore."

Inside, Primark company director Breege O’Donoghue is awaiting Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny — who will be meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel later that day — to attend the opening ceremony.

O’Donoghue, 70, attends every new shop opening. When we note that with her age and her executive salary, she is hardly the typical Primark target audience, the response is ready: "Everything I wear is Primark and only cost me 42 euros." The golden bracelet as well? "Of course not," she answers.

Primark’s recipe for success, O’Donoghue declares, is "affordability." But isn't that also due to the fact that some of their products are made in countries where the monthly wage is 70 euros? Her mouth tightens at this observation. "We conduct ethical trade," she responds, and cuts short the impromptu Q&A.

"Primania"

The frenzy that a new Primark store opening inspires has a name: Primania. On the company's website, customers are able to upload pictures of themselves in Primark clothes, boasting of the latest bargains they've found.

The greed for discounts often suspends the stirrings of conscience. The numbers, however, speak for themselves: If you google the words "Primark" and "working conditions," 150,000 search results are displayed. If you google "Primark" and "shopping" on the other hand, 5.5 million pages show up. Amongst these, a large number of YouTube videos of girls who happily unpack their Primark bags and present their shopping booty. No company could wish for a more effective way of advertising — it is free of charge and capitalizes how eager young girls are to exhibit themselves on social media.

Some of these videos have received more than one million hits and YouTube places advertisements in these. This has turned into a form of people’s economy: The customers film themselves in Primark bikinis and blouses and receive money from YouTube as they place advertisements on their videos. With the salary received by YouTube, another Primark shopping trip is easily financed. It is a virtuous circle, except for those who do not even have 8 euros to buy a pair of Primark jeans: the workers sewing them.

Last year, a nine-story building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 and injuring 2,438. On the second floor, 580 employees of the Primark supplier New Wave Bottoms were sewing pants and shirts — most of them did not survive the collapse.

Primark, by its own account, paid $12 million in compensation to the victims and their surviving dependants and families. Primark did not state, however, whether the wages of its supplier’s employees in Bangladesh have been raised.

Hubertus Thiermeyer, the head of the federal trade union of service industries in Bavaria, says customers have a responsibility to understand the basic nature of the global economy. "Those who pay two euros for a T-shirt must know that someone else is paying the price for such a low rate," he says.

Primark is part of the major British corporation Associated British Foods, which owns the British tea company Twinings, as well as the Swiss malted drink Ovomaltine — among others. Primark’s turnover from its 276 shops in nine European countries continues to boom, and it now plans to expand into the U.S. market.

Can you trust the labels?

At the end of a normal working day, Primark stores will look more like a battlefield than a clothing shop. Hordes of girls, women as well as young men are forced to try items on in the middle of the shop floor, as the lines in front of the fitting rooms are seemingly endless. The clothes not purchased are left on the floor.

Just a few days ago, two Primark dresses were discovered that had clothes labels sewn into them, reportedly by workers trapped in awful conditions. They included statements like "forced to work to exhaustion."

The company investigated the matter and came to the conclusion that these were a fake: Just months beforehand, in the Welsh city of Swansea where both dresses were purchased, an art installation featuring such labels was exhibited and visitors to the art installation were encouraged to sew labels like these into clothes.

Meanwhile, a third such "case" has been discovered, in which a customer in Belfast found a label bearing a cry for help in Chinese in a pair of cropped pants. The local newspaper South Wales Evening Post reported recently that an art student produced similar labels for a project in conjunction with a Chinese University. The student in question had not responded to enquiries and deleted her Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The air is stifling in Berlin’s second Primark branch at Alexanderplatz, three hours after the store opening. At the entrance, two young girls are handing out flyers bearing the words "We don’t wear exploitation." A 52-year-old man approaches them and says, "I really hope that more shops like this will open up in Berlin." The girls are perplexed. "But are you not aware of Primark’s working conditions? Would you sew clothes in a factory for 14 hours a day, six days a week without health insurance?"

The man makes it brief: "Yes, I would. Because I cannot feed myself with your ideologies. I collect recyclable bottles to boost my meagre pension."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ