Letting Primark Engage the Debate

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by: Matt Rhodes

I watched the Panorama documentary on the BBC last night about Primark. For those not in the UK, Ireland or Spain, Primark specialises in fast and cheap fashion. They make cheaply priced versions of high-street and cat walk fashion and aim to get it to their stores within weeks of the original outfit first being seen. They claim their cheap prices are due to cost effective production, fast stock turnaround, the fact that they do no marketing and the volumes that they sell. The BBC tonight claimed otherwise.

The documentary followed Primark’s supply chain back to it’s origins, in India. Here, rather than being ethically produced as the company claims, some of Primark’s suppliers are outsourcing production to forced and child labour.

The veracity of the BBC’s claims don’t matter. Programmes like this can be damaging for a brand. The story was leaked to the press beforehand, and tomorrow I’d expect that most newspapers in the country cover the story for people to read on their way into work.

In this kind of scenario, it’s critical how a brand responds. The way Primark were allowed by the BBC to respond, was typical for this kind of TV investigation. They didn’t get right of reply, couldn’t appear on camera to discuss the issues, answer questions or give their perspective. Rather parts of their response to the allegations were shown at the end of the show, although I gather from Geoff Lancaster, Primark’s Head of External Affairs that they were not given any meaningful right of reply to the show. This is disappointing.

This approach to engendering a debate is very traditional. The brand is not really allowed to engage with the programme, with the issues it raises or with the people that watch it. They just get to tell us what they’ve done. After tonight’s show I, like many people, logged on to forums on the BBC site and across the web. The programme had raised lots of really interesting and complex issues. Was Primark really to blame, how did we react to their response to the programme, had we ever really thought before how clothes that are this cheap were made, should we boycott Primark or campaign for them to change their practices.

In none of these discussions was Primark’s point of view presented. The programme prompted a fascinating discussion. I think there is a real debate to be had. We need to understand how our clothes are made and the processes and checks that the brands make. If, as Primark claimed, it is true that only 0.04% of their produce was potentially outsourced to child or forced labour I’d love to hear more.

I have lots of questions for the brand and would love to hear their perspective. Sadly they weren’t given the opportunity to hear mine or tell me theirs. This is a real shame. Information is critical and when you are wanting to influence and change people’s minds you really need to be the one contributing to and even controlling the information they hear. An honest and open conversation would make a real difference.

At the end of tonight’s show, a range of Primark customers were talked to and shown the footage of the factories and production of the garments. Asked how they would respond they all rejected a boycott. Saying this would  achieve nothing. Rather they wanted to engage with the brand and discuss the issues with them, influencing them to be more ethical.

Customers have changed; they want to engage. Programmes like this often don’t allow brands to truly start to engage. It would be great if they did, and if the brands continued this engagement afterwards.

Original Post: http://blog.freshnetworks.com/2008/06/letting-primark-engage-the-debate/