As announced last week, Irish fashion chain store Primark has accessed the Bündnis für nachhaltige Textilien (German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles), a multi-stakeholder initiative that reunites textile and clothing companies, retailers, trade unions and civil society to profit of synergies in order to introduce environmental and economic improvements throughout the fashion supply chain. The Textilbündnis was brought to life by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ on its German initials).

Paul Lister, responsible for Primark’s ethical trade team and CSR at Associated British Foods plc –Primark’s holding group– stated that it represented a logical step for the brand, after collaborating with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) for more than five years in Bangladesh, one of the countries where Primark manufactures its products.

Michael Pfister, managing director of sportswear brand MDC
Michael Pfister, managing director of sportswear brand MDC
But in spite of the good words, the decision felt like a bucket of cold water to other Textilbündnis’ members like sportswear brand MDC, who made the decision to leave the initiative it joined in 2014. “Companies like Primark, Lidl, Kik, Aldi and Tchibo are responsible for the abuses against which the Textilbündnis wanted to set itself,” said MDC’s managing director Michael Pfister. The fact that these companies joined the organization was classified as ‘greenwashing’ by the brand on a note sent to the press.

According to Primark, 2,000 audits are carried out every year to check that workers are being treated properly. Besides, an in-house team of over 60 individuals work across Primark’s supply chain to ensure that ethical and sustainable standards are met.

Nevertheless, the heavy low-prices policy that the Irish retailer follows has always been linked to laxity on supply chain working- and environmental standards from various industry insiders and NGOs. The alarm bells rang nearly two years ago, when a shopper found a label with the message ‘forced to work exhausting hours’ on a Primark top. The brand judged the labor exploitation labels as ‘fakes’.

Bharat Oza, director at UK-based property and textiles business Westfield Ltd, also transmitted his discontent to Textilbündnis for the acceptance of Primark as an alliance member, while raising awareness of the company’s legal issues with the Irish retail chain. In a former lawsuit to which Sportswear International got access, Westfield Ltd. accused Primark of copyright infringement after illegal appropriation of one of its designs –the Teddy Bear Angel– by Primark, as one of Westfield’s designers spotted a design with a striking similarity by end of October 2004.

Primark's pajama using Westfield's Teddy Bear Angel design
Primark's pajama using Westfield's Teddy Bear Angel design
After the first legal proceedings, the retailer made two admissions of 8,000 and 50,000 sets of pajamas with the mentioned design for ultimate sale in stores in Ireland and the UK. The following statement has been extracted from this lawsuit and sheds light on the presumed illegal approaches by the Irish retailer: “Primark’s publicly reported admissions and offers of settlement that give Westfield the basis to assert that Primark has engaged in a systematic pattern and practice of infringement and misappropriation, often targeted at small designers, college students, university students, small startup companies, and retailers, such as Westfield, who lack the resources to challenge Primark in court.”

The criminal case was stayed by the Manchester Crown Court in June 2011, because of a legal technicality of the difficulties of finding. “It involved further legal fees of €100,000; we would have needed to employ a full-time detective to do this work and I need to run my own business. Besides the extra time it requires with lawyers, statements, depositions and the like,” Oza says. Still, he can go back into court if further evidence or new copyright theft cases are found.

Meanwhile, the fashion chain continues its unstoppable expansion path: last September, Primark opened its first-ever store in the US while the first store in Italy is expected to open in spring 2016. Currently, the retailer operates 299 stores in ten countries –UK, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, France and the US–. In Germany, the brand runs nineteen shops.